Exploring the Deep

Tongue River Cave is located in the Bighorn National Forest west of Dayton, Wyoming, which is about twenty miles north of Sheridan, my hometown. When I was a kid, my family explored it once or twice but didn’t get very far. In our last Range Writers meeting a little over a week ago, we wrote about the cave. Our facilitator gave us maps and a list of rooms inside the cave. We each picked a room and wrote a description and story or poem about it. The rooms had such names as the Sand Room, the Dead Cowboy Room, and the Rain Room. The Dead Cowboy Room struck my fancy. Due to my visual impairment, I couldn’t see on the map where it was located so I used my imagination and vague childhood memories. Here’s what I wrote.

A small chamber with a high ceiling, the Dead Cowboy Room is actually the entrance to Tongue River Cave. A cowboy named Phil actually died there. He worked on a nearby ranch during the late 19th century.

One wintry Saturday night after drinking too much at a tavern in nearby Dayton, he was returning to the ranch on horseback. Something spooked the horse, and the animal took off. Phil couldn’t control him and couldn’t stay in the saddle. By some miraculous twist of fate, he wasn’t seriously injured when he fell, but being inebriated, he still had trouble walking.

To make things worse, snow was falling fast, obscuring his vision. He somehow managed to climb the steep slope to Tongue River Cave. After crawling inside, he passed out. Needless to say, he froze to death and wasn’t found until spring. That’s how the entrance to the cave became known as The Dead Cowboy Room.

Now, here’s a little information I found on Wikipedia. Mapped in 1969 by the National Speleological Society, Tongue River Cave is noted for rare cave formations and animal species. With a depth of 106 feet and containing 1.23 miles of passages, it is composed of two river channels: one active and one abandoned. The active passage is an underground portion of the Little Tongue River that resurges farther east down the canyon, beginning in a sump and ending in a fissure. The abandoned channel is mostly dry and ends in a sand-filled chamber. Both channels intersect approximately half a mile into the cave in a large chamber called the Boulder Room. Exploration efforts have been hampered by low water temperatures and difficulty hauling adequate scuba gear through tight passages.

In recent decades, Tongue River Cave suffered from vandalism and theft as result of unrestricted traffic. Closed in 2010 and deemed beyond preservation, it is now managed by the U.S. Forest Service as a “sacrifice cave.” To learn more, click here.

Have you ever explored a cave? What was it like? How far did you go?

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome and How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver