Return to Bartertown

by Dan Lamping

Recently, 8 cavers descended into Carroll Cave to continue mapping in the Bartertown area of DL7 in Lower Thunder River. The area had not seen much attention since 2011. We’ve long had the goal of getting some new people familiar with that remote arm of the cave for a while as well as the desire to finish some remaining leads in that section of the cave. To help make sense of the area and place names, here’s some context along with some history of our efforts at pushing the frontier of DL7.


In 2008, at the end of a long day mapping, Carroll Cave surveyors discovered a virgin side passage heading west in the far reaches of DL7. The passage was named Moonwalk. It begins as a crouching sized tube that pretty quickly turns into walking passage. It was immediately realized that this side passage, which had an active stream flowing through it, was virgin and was likely the most significant virgin find we had made since initiating the CCC resurvey of the cave in 2002. I recall being the first to take step and leave footprints on its untouched clay floor. That, combined with the recent death of singer Michael Jackson, inspired the name Moonwalk. On a side note, performing artists Rick James and Ronnie James Dio also both have place names in Carroll Cave in passages which were mapped around the times of their death. The Superfreak Cemetery is in UL4 and Rainbow in the Dark is an obscure ridge in DL7 which is a frequent stopping point during mapping trips.

Later it was found that Moonwalk, otherwise known as DL7-L6 was the first of three entrances to a side passage complex, respectively including DL7-L7 and DL7-L8. Together these are known as the L6-L8 Complex. Survey in the L7 passage actually began via a low cross over passage from L6. As these things often occur, the passage in L7 took on the name Bartertown, based on the 1980s post apocalyptic movie Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome. The name seems appropriate given that the film takes place in a dystopian wasteland, which is nearly as miserable as this muddy section of remote cave. Referring to the area as Bartertown led to the theme when assigning place names while working on the cartography to help with trip planning.

Return to Barterown

Joe Sikorski, Ben Miller, Derik Holtmann, Seth Colston, Michael Bradford, Chad McCain, Isaac Smit, and Dan Lamping all entered Carroll Cave on Friday evening, January 22, 2022 and made the roughly two hour trip down to the camp at Jerry’s Cairn. This is the largest group we’ve had to camp down there. We all spread out a bit, and there was plenty of room.

On Saturday morning the group awoke, ate and got ready to head to our work area at a reasonable time. It took us a little less than three hours to get to the L6-L8 Complex area in DL7 from Jerry’s Cairn. Traveling through DL7 is pretty strenuous, particularly in the Hills of Hell section just past the Junction Room where the South Fork of DL7 breaks off. Because of the deep mud and endless steep hills, travel can be pretty slow and arduous. Our objectives were to push leads left over from when we were actively mapping in that section of the cave from 2009 to 2011. We weren’t quite sure how good any of the leads were since we hadn’t done a great job at writing descriptions of them on the field notes or in trip reports. Lesson learned. There was only one, the Pig Killer passage in Bartertown, that we knew was likely to continue going. The rest were a bit of a gamble. We decided to split into teams of two so we could at least get eyes on each of the leads and to get a better idea of whether they were indeed worth pushing. Given how far out we were we wanted to time our departure from the area to make sure that we weren’t potentially leaving a team of two far back in there where they would have to make the long journey back to camp, jus t the two of them at the end of a long day. If we knew all of the passages would go, we could have set a later meet time. But since any of the leads could’ve shut down quickly, we didn’t want to create a scenario cavers were waiting a long period for the last team to finish. As such, we set our meet time for 9 PM.

Ben Miller and Derik Holtmann accessed Bartertown via the L7 entrance. They went through the Doll Head Grind and past Thunder Dome, then at Lost Tribe Junction they went left to Pig Killer, which is near where the crossover passage from L6 meets L7. Pig Killer was left from our last camp trip to back of DL7 in 2011, when we had a large group camp at Push Camp, which is a remote camp at the mouth of DL7-L6 / Moonwalk. Ben, Kayla Sapkota and Aaron Addison had begun this survey on our last day of a multiday trip. They left at walking passage with an active stream. So that’s one lead that had been haunting us to finish. Ben and Derik returned and finished the passage leaving one low lead continuing on, though neither Ben nor Derik seemed enthused that it would be worth returning to since the pass is heading up gradient and was down to 1.5 ft tall in the stream, with no sign of it opening back up.. All together they mapped around 397 ft in Pig Killer.

Joe Sikorski and Seth Colston went into the Captain Walker Lead. To give some background, this lead was initially encountered in 2009 when Bob Lerch and I first began mapping in Bartertown. Interestingly, we first entered Bartertown, via a low crossover passage from L6 / Moonwalk. When we came to the end of the crawl and dropped down into slightly larger passage and thought we were back in the main DL7 passage. We pushed ahead to a junction (Lost Tribe Junction) and began mapping upstream, thinking we were headed up the main DL7. It immediately got low and tight making us think we were at the end of DL7, which seemed strange. Pushing through several squeezes less than 1 ft tall, we eventually broke out into 12 ft tall passage, which was obviously virgin and going in two directions. We thought we had found a new extension of DL7. We made our way back through the low crawl at the end of the day, which is now called Break a Deal Grind, back to the start of our survey, where we heard Ben Miller and Joe Sikorski heading towards us. When we met them we told them we had pushed through a tight squeeze at the end of DL7 and it broke open, continuing into the unknown. They completely dumbfounded Bob and I when they told us that we were in another side passage, not in DL7. Bob and I felt completely lost and turned-around. In fact, they were the ones who got to the back of DL7 and had found a drainage divide, that led to what would come to known as the Slimy Wookie, a grim low passage that takes one down the Confusion Creek. Confusion Creek is the main water source for DL7 and flows the opposite direction, away from the main DL7 stream, which is really little more than a trickle and actually comes from the L6-L8 Complex.

When Bob and I returned from Push Camp the next day after finding Bartertown, we entered via the L7 entrance, which Ben and Joe had used when they unexpectedly encountered us. We pushed back through the Break-a-Deal Grind to the other side, now called Face the Wheel Find, which is the intersection Bob and I had left at the day before. Going right led to a walking canyon-like passage that hit a good sized joint, maybe 30 ft wide. When we entered the room we saw a bat or two fly up into a hole in the ceiling and noticed a wide, low crawlway up high on the left. This would later be named Captain Walker and is where Joe and Seth went on our most recent trip.

While Bob and I noted the Captain Walker on our initial discovery in 2009, we didn’t explore it. Though for this most recent trip, we knew it went at least a little bit. Sometime around 2015 a group of us returned to Lower Thunder for an ill-fated trip to push upstream Confusion Creek. If there’s any place in the cave that a major breakthrough could occur, it’s here. We camped out of Jerry’s Cairn and carried wetsuits all of the way to the back of DL7. We pushed through the Slimy Wookie and dropped down into Confusion Creek. As we started mapping upstream we found that the water was too high and it quickly sumped. This was not what the conditions were like in 2012 when Joe Sikorski pushed upstream and got into continuing passage. Upstream Confusion Creek, while low and often sumped, has real potential since at this point the passage is heading north beneath Barnet Hollow. Here, the cave passage is roughly 80 ft below the surface of the valley floor. Dye tracing done by Ben Miller and Bob Lerch shows that the water coming from Confusion Creek comes from the other side of Barnet Hollow.

Could enterable cave passage go all of the way under the valley floor and could there be a major extension of the cave on the other side of Barnett Hollow? We know that the main DL7 passage is an overflow route for Confusion Creek. We know that the main DL7 passage floods to the ceiling. Does the passage flood from Thunder River backing at the Lake Room siphon or is it because so much water moves through Confusion Creek and also fills DL7 during heavy rains? We don’t really know, but presume the latter. We know Confusion Creek has good potential, if it can be accessed during really dry weather, but the conditions have to be just right and it’s a long way to go only find out that the passage is sumped. On that ill-fated trip in 2015, with our main objective squandered, but not wanting to leave the cave empty handed Bob Lerch, Ben Miller and Tony Schmitt finished mapping a nearby lead off the main DL7. Joe Sikorski, Spike Crews and I returned to Bartertown to check the low, wide crawl that Bob and I had noted years before (Captain Walker). This time we entered Bartertown via L8 and made our way to the lead coming from the opposite direction which we had when we first found it. Joe climbed up into the lead (Captain Walker) and confirmed that the crawl went at least a little ways. We decided not to begin mapping it that day since we were soaked in wetsuits and made our way back to camp.

Captain Walker sat since then until Joe recently returned with Seth. All together they mapped around 170 ft before the passage shut down. In my mind this lead had the potential to drop down into the Confusion Creek. But it did not and since it ended quickly Joe and Seth finished earlier than the agreed upon 9 PM meet time. That worked out well because Isaac Smith and I also had our leads shut down, even quicker than Joe and Seth. Isaac and I went into North Bartertown via the L8 entrance. From the L8 passage, we went right once we got into Bartertown, whereas, Joe and Seth as well as Chad and Michael had gone left towards Captain Walker and Tomorrow-Morrow Land. There were several potential leads marked on the sketches for the North Bartertown area. The sketches also showed that a snake skeleton had been found and a passage with cold blowing air. This was the only passage in all of the L6-L8 Complex that I hadn’t seen and since I’m doing the cartography for this section, it’s where I most wanted to go, though I really didn’t expect any of the leads to go. Isaac was agreeable to pushing into each of the leads and they all shut down quickly. Cumulatively we could have maybe squeezed out 100 ft of survey by adding 20-30 ft here and there at the ends of the “leads.” But the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze as we would have gotten totally trashed trying to map them and it wouldn’t have added anything to our understanding of the cave. Just a little more survey footage. Mapping every foot in ordr to inflate the length of the cave has never really been a major priority for us. I saw enough to be able to better define on the map what’s going on out there and to remove the “leads” from the map.

Isaac and I finished our objectives first. We went back to the entrance of L7 via L8 which is where we agreed to meet but we still had a couple hours until our 9 PM meet time. We considered eating and then heading up to try meeting with Ben and Derik in Pig Killer but figured that could be a lot of effort if their passage had shut down. We also knew of a couple of passages in the main DL7 on our way back to camp that Joe Sikorski noted needed to be mapped still. So as we prepared to eat Joe and Seth came out of L8 and met up with us. Since the mouth of L7 is actually sort of low and muddy, they went down to the entrance of L6 to eat at Push Camp. After going back and forth with what to do, Isaac and I packed up and connected with Joe and Seth. We agreed that we’d all head down to one of the side passage off DL7 to map and wait down there for the other two teams. The side passage was a couple thousand feet back towards Jerry’s Cairn. We came to it and mapped 107 ft, tying in at DL7-91. The passage is accessed by climbing a large muddy flowstone. Joe named it Flowstone Falls. The back of the passage was a beautiful pool with interesting white calcite features that looked like some sort of strange inverted splatter features reaching up from the flowstone and rimstone floor. I’ve not quite seen anything like it. Once we finished we decided to wait for the rest of the crew. There was another side passage further back towards camp that needed some attention as well, but we didn’t want to get that far separated from the rest of the group. In hindsight, it probably would have been fine to and would have been more productive to knock out the other side passage that Joe knew needed attention.

Our 4th team, Chad and Michael went to the Tomorrow-Morrow Land lead. This is the passage that went left at Face-the-Wheel Find. Ben Miller and Joe Sikorski surveyed it on the day that Bob Lerch and I found the bats and the Captain Walker lead in 2009. We all recalled the Ben and Joe described the passage as being highly decorated and very muddy and that it was very difficult to move through it without causing destruction to formations. But none of us recalled how they described it ending. When I began working on the cartography for the area a few months ago the field notes described the survey ending at a 12 ft pit with a sketchy traverse around the side of it. But on the other side it showed 6 ft tall passage. Ben and Joe didn’t cross the pit as they found it at the end of a full day of survey. On our recent trip, Chad was able to cross the pit and rig a webbing hand line to the other side. Though crossing pit requires climbing on a mud ledge that will inevitably collapse at some point. Their lead ended up being the best one. They mapped 470 ft, including a loop, with the passage still continuing as a canyon. While it would be worthwhile to send a team to this lead, it’s not a place to send a large group of people given the delicate nature of the area and given that the pit crossing is likely only to get worse every time it’s crossed.

This continuation in Tomorrow-Morrow Land, along with a few other places in the L6-L8 Complex means that the area isn’t completely finished. Our hope in all of these passages is that one of them could eventually hit a drainage divide and drop down into Confusion Creek. While that may be an unlikely scenario, I don’t think anyone traveling up DL7 would expect to see that it eventually comes to a drop in the floor with water heading the opposite direction. So, it could happen. At this point, of all the leads left back in the L6-L8 Complex, Tomorrow-Morrow Land is the most promising. But, it’s headed west and to cross under the valley, it really needs to head north. Could it turn? Sure. Could it continue on for ways without connecting to Confusion Creek? Sure. Either way, there are still unanswered questions in Bartertown and upstream Confusion Creek still remains as a possible way on if we can time it with drought conditions similar to what the region experienced in 2012 when Joe Sikorski was first able to push up into it.

After surveying Ben and Derik met up with Chad and Michael around the 9 PM meet time at L7, ate and then made their way out. They encountered us at the side passage in main DL7 (Flowstone Falls) that we had mapped. We had probably been waiting about half an hour between the time we finished mapping the side passage and the time that the other crew met up with us. Once we reconvened, we inadvertently split up with the cavers who were newer to Carroll and DL7, Chad, Issac, Seth and Michael taking the lead and those most experienced moving slower on our trip back to camp. It was great taking new people back there and we hope it inspired some interest in others wanting to find answers to those unknowns in the back of DL7, along with them being familiar with how to get back there and what it takes to explore that remote area of the cave. We all made it back to camp without incident, ate then slept. We woke up Sunday morning, ate, listened to some music, and then packed up, staggering our way out of the cave in the same groups that we exited DL7. On the way out Ben, Joe, Derik and I took some pictures. We were out of the cave by 3:00 PM on Sunday. As usual we used a truck to haul camp packs up the shaft by rigging a pulley to the chains hanging in the silo. After hauling all 8 camp packs up, we changed, had a beer, locked up the cave and made our way home.

All together we mapped around 1,144 ft of new cave. Once the data is entered into Walls, Bob Lerch should be able to update us all with the current surveyed footage. Likely, we’re still under 21 miles. But slowly, we’re getting there. Future objectives include mapping side passages off of the Mountain Room and in the entrance passage in Carroll River and pushing leads far upstream Beyond the Breakdown Barrier in Upper Thunder River.