KISS Rebreathers survey more of Roaring River Cave in April

Wednesday, April 27, 2022
Diver Neil Brownlow, of Fort Smith, Arkansas, returns to the surface after an underwater survey mission in Roaring River Spring Sunday, April 10. Sheila Harris/Special to the Cassville Democrat

Habitats adjusted after month of being in position, more mapping done

KISS Rebreathers divers continued the surveying of Roaring River Cave in the first weekend of April with a somewhat smaller crew.

The group this month included photographer Randall Purdy, of Kearney, Neb.; Neil Brownlow and Tony Bryant, from Fort Smith, Ark.; and Gayle Orner and Bob Dankert, from Madison, Wis.

Bob Dankert, of Madison, Wisconsin, a member of the KISS Rebreathers dive team, prepares for an April 9 dive into Roaring River Spring. Sheila Harris/Special to the Cassville Democrat

It was Dankert’s first visit to southwest Missouri and Roaring River State Park.

“I’d like to bring my wife and 5-year-old son with me next time,” he said.

The team’s only female diver, Gayle Orner, was satisfied with the weekend’s survey work, although, she says, the team’s official cartographer, Jon Lillestolen, of Blacksburg, Va., can accomplish much more in a shorter amount of time than what she and Dankert did. Lillestolen was not able to make it to Roaring River for this month’s scheduled visit.

Nor, due to a prior appointment, was head diver and KISS CEO Mike Young present on this trip.

Part of the April weekend dive included the attempted repositioning of the legs on the underwater habitats which had been installed on the divers’ March visit.

“Randall is so tall that the platforms below the habitats were too short for him to stand on,” said Bryant, the team’s surface manager.

Bryant was referencing Purdy, the team’s underwater photographer, stands at 6-6.

“For being so tall, Randall’s a really graceful swimmer and diver,” Bryant said.

Bryant, who’s been diving for about six years, says he hasn’t had time to become as graceful in the water as the other divers, who have all had many more years of diving experience than he has had.

Orner has been diving since 1982, when she was a student at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Orner, a trout fisherperson, says she feels right at home with the trout in Roaring River.

“I spent 10 years conducting research on trout at Oregon State, both as a graduate student, then as a full-time research scientist,” Orner said. 

Orner says the research experiments primarily consisted of cancer studies with trout using different substances as catalysts.

“Trout are surprisingly similar to humans in their responses,” she said.

Orner now serves on the Support and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, a position which confers humane oversight of the animals on which research is performed.

“Most people don’t know there is such a thing,” she said.

After moving to Wisconsin from Oregon in 2012, Orner became a certified cave diver in 2013, where she discovered that many fellow divers in groups she participated in used rebreathers instead of traditional open-circuit SCUBA equipment.

Rebreathing equipment scrubs the CO2 from the exhaled breath of divers and allows them to reuse the oxygen, Orner explained.

“While my friends stayed in the water and kept warm using their rebreathers, I had to jump in and out of the flooded mines where we dived so I could change my air tanks,” she said.

Not long afterward, Orner purchased a Sidewinder rebreather from KISS Rebreathers, then later met its designer and manufacturer, Mike Young, at a trade show.

“It was cool to meet the person who had actually created the diving equipment I was using,” she said.

When Young called Orner and invited her to participate in the Roaring River dive, her initial reaction was no.

“I’d heard about crazy, extreme cave divers,” she said. “I didn’t think I wanted to be one of them. But Mike told me about it and showed me pictures of the beautiful area with paved roads and sidewalks leading right up to the spring entrance, and I changed my mind. I’m glad I did. Now I’m one of the crazies.”

In spite of being labeled “crazy,” safety is the primary consideration for the divers, Bryant said. The detailed plans they have in place before going below the surface of the water give evidence of it.

“Some people ask us why we want to dive into the spring, with just a bunch of slippery rocks down there,” photographer Randall Purdy said.

It’s not for the giggles that some passers-by to the spring sometimes suppose it might be.

“Speaking for myself and probably the other divers, it’s the technical challenge that we enjoy,” Purdy said. “We each want to do everything perfectly (which doesn’t always happen, he admits), and when we can achieve something big together, like the 472-foot depth we dived to last fall, it’s rewarding.

“It’s funny, though. When we get out of the water after a dive – no matter what we accomplished – we always talk about the things we could have done better. There’s always a new challenge waiting.”

The Roaring River Dive represents only the second of Purdy’s dives with the KISS Rebreathers. He’s a native of the Kearney area, where he’s an electrical engineer and owns a dive shop and photography business.

He says the national record-breaking dive into Roaring River Spring was a result of everybody being in the right place, at the right time, with the right set of skills.

The KISS Rebreathers team will continue their exploration of Roaring River Spring May 19-22.

“We won’t be able to dive below the restriction at 225 feet until after the water flow subsides later in the year,” Purdy said.

Roaring River Park Superintendent Joel Topham reminds readers that the KISS Rebreathers dive team consists of experienced, certified cave-divers. The team is diving with prior permission received from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Missouri State Parks officials.

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