You’re walking through the forest when you find it. A small pond that you know is not just a small pond. It’s too round, too perfect, too near the other ones. This is a pond with a hole in it, like a washbasin full of water with a drain at the bottom–a sinkhole, where a subterranean water-filled tunnel came too near the surface and the roof collapsed. You had already found others nearby. You knew there had to be more.
You scan the portal to this other world of yours. It’s dark in there, really dark, dark in a way that other people don’t understand, black and unearthly. You dive in, kick to the bottom, find the opening, squeeze through. And then your helmet-mounted flashlight illuminates the walls of this cave for the first time. The first time ever.
Clinging to the rocky floor, you struggle against the current, hauling yourself along the tortuous passages, listening only to the gurgle of rushing water and the Darth Vader hiss of the regulator as you suck gas from your tanks. As alone as it’s possible to be. The tunnel is too small to carry the tanks on your back like a normal diver, so you wear them on your hips; four tanks, each with its own regulator. When it gets really tight you detach the tanks and push them through the constriction first, squeezing through later, always paying out a thin line of nylon to show the way back. One wrong turn here means you won’t ever see the sun again. Such a thin line.
The current is strong and the water is cold and dark as Coca-Cola. You’ve been swimming for nearly a kilometre, through tunnels that braid like veins under the earth’s hide. And you think: Nobody has ever been here before. Nobody. And you love that feeling. You need it.
Will you discover yet another sinkhole? Or will you have to go back? When a third of your air is gone, the decision will be made for you. Go back. That’s the rule; a third to go in, a third for the way back, a third for safety. You don’t have to think about checking your air–you just do it because you’ve programmed it in. It’s instinct now. You’re in control. Focused, singularly attuned to what you are doing, the way you always are, the way you are when you sit at home in front of the computer working on some paper, or entering some data, or replying to some e-mail and your wife Dana comes into the room and talks to you but you don’t hear anything. You’ve always been like this.
Soon, light. The cave has been going up, the passage getting silty–you knew what was coming and then, yes, you’re on the bottom of a river, and not just any river, but the mighty Ottawa. It does connect, you think. Fighting the current, you crawl across the bottom towards the shore, pop your head up out of the water. You take off your mask and spit out your regulator, draw a deep breath and look around to see just where the heck you are.
And just like that you’re back in the world again.
Toronto, mid-February on a grey, cold sleety day. Dr. David Sawatzky, Canada’s foremost cave diver, greets me with a crushing handshake and leads me through the antiseptic hallways of the Defense and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine (DCIEM), a laboratory operated by the Department of National Defense where he has worked as a teacher and leading researcher on diving medicine for the past 10 years. Forty-seven years old, Sawatzky is trim, broad-shouldered with Popeye forearms, large weathered hands and piercing blue eyes. He wears his hair buzzed short, military style, though Major Sawatzky retired from the forces a few years back.
Sawatzky consults for the military now, keeping a small office here, with a computer, of course, and bookshelves lined with medical papers and binders detailing things like just how many nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream it takes before a person is fatally bent. Along one wall lies a doctor’s gurney, with the standard crinkly paper covering and a stethoscope hanging off a blood-pressure metre. These are for the guinea pigs–DCIEM is the only military lab in Canada where researchers use humans in experiments. “Good pay if you’re a student, I guess,” he smiles. Or sometimes just good fun–Sawatzky has volunteered himself when even money-hungry students demur from the tough assignments, such as sitting in a steel tub of ice-cold water until your core temperature drops, then letting someone cut out a plug of leg muscle so they can study it under a microscope.
By the door to the office hangs a map of Sawatzky’s most recent project, the Ottawa River Caves. Standing in front of it, he traces the passages with his thick fingers, recalling his explorations into the earth’s plumbing system. “Here the current is way too strong to swim against. It rips through here.
“Here we laid some line in ’96 and when we came back the next year it was buried under a rock. I measured it. It was 18-inches high, 20-feet wide and a hundred-feet long. The next year there was another collapse–five times that much rock. That kind of thing only happens every few thousand years.
“This passage was tight and filled with silt. After a few kicks with my fins, visibility would be reduced to zero. Zero. I’d be swimming along and bump into a three-foot sturgeon, scaring the heck out of both of us. They can boot you in the face, Bamm!”–he says, punching me in the shoulder–”hard, like that.”
While most cave divers don’t take the time to produce maps, Sawatzky feels that swimming through caves is meaningless if he doesn’t carefully survey each passage. So for every five metres of forward progress, he had to stop, swim to the other side of the tunnel, measure the distance, the depth, take a compass reading, and record it all on his slate. Occasionally, he would discover whole new passages and suddenly there was more work to do, more cave to chart, but that never bothered Sawatzky. It would have suited him just fine if it went on forever.
But discovering the entrance to a cave and being able to dive it were sometimes two different things. Since some of the entrances to the cave passages were actually on the bottom of the river, the current filled them will massive piles of debris–rocks and gravel and waterlogged timber who-knows-how-old. On some trips, Sawatzky and his team spent more time cave digging than cave diving. But that never bothered him, either. One of the divers who worked with Sawatzky on the project, Ralph Hoskins, later told me, “It was incredibly difficult, working in the water, pulling out these massive logs. But David loved it. No matter how big a log was, David got it out of there one way or another.” Nothing could stop him. On one digging expedition, Sawatzky slipped and fell with his full weight on his arm, breaking a bone in his elbow. But he wasn’t about to let that get in the way of doing what he set out to do. Pain was just an inconvenience. So he kept hauling out those logs any way he could, leaving the visit to the hospital until later, when he was finished.
After 14 years of diving and exploring the system, Sawatzky’s unrelenting drive finally subdued it. So here is the map, in colour, detailed in meticulous precision. And it is complete. Sawatzky made sure of that, returning to the system even after they had finished, again and again, finding nothing each time except for the reassurance that every cave entrance and every diveable passage had been checked out. Today, at over 10 kilometres long, it’s the largest-known cave system in Ontario.
How many times have people said, “What are you, crazy?” You don’t know. A lot, anyway. You try to make them understand, but they never do. It’s just the way you are. How can you explain that? Even as a kid, you could never sit still. You never even slept in. You were always off in the woods, climbing trees, you loved climbing trees. That feeling of adventure, excitement, challenge. There weren’t too many trees around Bowden, Alberta, that you hadn’t climbed. And canoeing? You’d covered 6,000 kilometres of Albertan waterways before you were 20.
The couple who adopted you, they never really understood, either. Your dad, he just shook his head. He was a conservative man, devoutly Christian. He’d come home from his job at the facility for wayward youths and half the time you weren’t there. Off in the woods. Again. But he never said anything. He thought it was curious, this fire in you, but he let it burn. When you went for road trips with the family, dad would pull over when you saw a tree or a cliff you wanted to climb. Your mom and sister would wait in the car while dad kept an eye on you, shaking his head.
And then you discovered caving. In the newspaper, your dad had seen something about some dry caves near Jasper, told you about it, and soon every moment that could be stolen from something else was spent caving. You had that rope from the outdoor store, no real idea how to use it, and you just went, dragging your friends along. No helmets, just toques to dull the hits. Oh, it was low-tech alright, but so what? You still pushed a lot of new passage like that. That feeling, that experience of seeing some place that nobody had ever seen before, it consumed you. Soon you found new caves and you had to explore them, too. The fire never dimmed, not even in winter. Why would you stop caving just because the snow cover was three-feet deep? You had skis, and it was easier to ski-in anyway.
Then, a few years later, you discovered Vancouver Island. More caves than anywhere else in Canada. Shangri La. There was that day in 1978 when you and your friends discovered the Benson River Gorge Caves. That’s where the fire got even hotter. Walking, running down that narrow passage when suddenly you fell into water up to your neck. Water so clear you never even saw it. It was the end of the cave for you, but it wasn’t the end of the cave–it kept going, disappearing down a water-filled sump. It was so frustrating, being stopped like that. And that’s when you knew. Someday, you’d be a cave diver. Someday, you’d come back to the island, right here, find out what was next, and then what was next after that. The fire burned hot. Not even water could put it out.
In Canada fewer than a dozen people dive caves on a regular basis, but there are places in the world where cave diving has become relatively popular, namely Florida, a state honeycombed with huge passages filled with warm water as clear as Evian. Unlike the sumps in Florida, however, wet caves in Canada are brutally cold, much more technically demanding (tighter passages), and visibility is often no more than 10 feet, as opposed to a hundred feet or more in places like Florida. Also, while in Florida you can literally drive to a sinkhole (some of them even have wooden stairs leading into the water), the approaches to Canadian caves are almost always arduous. The entrance to Vancouver Island’s Mystery Cave, for example, lies up a rough trail that gains almost 700 feet of elevation. It’s a minor mountaineering expedition just to get to the start–each diver has to haul more than 200 pounds of equipment, which means ferrying two truly backbreaking loads up steep trails. Once at the entrance, there’s 600 feet of dry cave, then a 250-foot-long dive, then another 3,000 feet of dry passage to get to the next sump, which is where the real adventure begins. Castleguard Cave, in Banff National Park, is not much better. Just to get to the cave entails skiing 20 kilometres up the Saskatchewan glacier on the Columbia Icefields, crossing a meadow, then dropping down 300 feet. The branch that Sawatzky explored then forced him to crawl on hands and knees through tight passage for a kilometre–wearing all his gear, at 7,000 feet of altitude, all to dive in water only one degree above freezing.
Aside from being merely exhausting, Sawatzky’s dives are also extremely hazardous. Oftentimes, he has to swim in water so turbid he can’t see the beam of his flashlight–can’t even tell whether it’s on or not. This, in places where getting lost is easy, and usually fatal. Then there’s depth. For every 50 feet down, the narcotic effect of nitrogen equals a stiff martini on an empty stomach. In the controlled environment of the military’s diving chamber at DCIEM, David was once pressurized to 300 feet on air, almost three times the limit imposed on sport divers. “If that’s anything like what street drugs do, then I understand why people take them. The air at that depth was so thick I could actually hear the blood going through my ears. I could have happily stayed right there listening to it forever, until I died.”
But narcosis is not that comforting on a real dive. In 1997, Sawatzky pushed a passage in Vancouver Island’s Devil’s Spring, a satellite of the Devil’s Bath system, to a depth of 202 feet. In an article he wrote describing the dive, Sawatzky said the narcosis was “frightening.” He’s not one to share his emotions very often; if Sawatzky says it was frightening, it was frightening.
After that experience, he resorted to using trimix, a breathing mixture that replaces some of the nitrogen with helium, thereby reducing the narcotic effect. It’s a very advanced technique (Sawatzky’s a certified instructor) and it worked quite well. But he feels the future lies in rebreather technology.
The navy has used rebreathers for decades, but now recreational and technical divers are joining their ranks. With regular scuba equipment, a diver draws air from the tanks and exhales it through a regulator into the water. With a rebreather, the diver’s exhalations get fed into a compartment that removes the carbon dioxide and sends the rest back to the diver in a closed circuit–no bubbles. Since human lungs absorb only a tiny amount of the oxygen in a single breath, the diver need only carry a small amount. The advantages are that rebreathers increase range and decrease decompression-time dramatically.
As a result, though the cheapest closed-circuit rebreather on the market costs $10,000, they’re becoming more and more popular. But rebreathers are highly sophisticated devices and require total understanding, as well as regular, comprehensive maintenance. “Quite a few people have already died using them,” says Sawatzky. “And more will die in the future. There are more ways to kill yourself on a rebreather than you can imagine.”
So why does he use them if they’re so dangerous? Like everything related to cave diving, Sawatzky has thought this one over carefully. “Risk is different from danger. Risk is a reflection of how many things can go wrong and how serious the consequences will be. Danger is a function of the person doing the activity. Whether it’s diving rebreathers or cave diving itself, for someone who is highly trained it’s not terribly dangerous. For someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing it’s suicidal.” In an article he wrote for Diver magazine, Sawatzky states that people who dive rebreathers “have to be just a bit obsessive and compulsive.” Sawatzky certainly fits the bill. On his new rebreather, he will have already logged enough hours to become an instructor by July.
“He’s a perfectionist,” says Sawatzky’s wife, Dana. As a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, she doesn’t use the term loosely. But it doesn’t take academic training to see that he sets extremely high standards for himself–and for others. Though he’s patient, talking with him can also be intimidating. He chooses his words carefully, with confidence and directness. “You asked me that last time,” he’d say to me when I repeated a question. There is no condescension in his tone, merely a flat statement of fact. “He scares some people,” says Dana. “But he’s a lot more social than he used to be. That said, he’s still too honest and he’s not big on tact. He just says whatever he thinks, and if you don’t like it, too bad.”
Dana learned this about David the first time they met. She was working as a commercial diver at the time (she’s now a Metro Toronto patrol officer in the infamous Jane-and-Finch corridor) and while diving a wreck in Lake Ontario, she got bent. The hospital didn’t know quite what to do with her, so they sent her home. Knowing she was bent, Dana called DCIEM and ended up talking to David. Furious, David called the hospital and gave them a choice: Either treat Dana in the dive chamber or he would do it himself, then report the hospital for incompetence.
“He doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” says his diving partner Ralph Hoskins. “God help you if you do something stupid. He’ll let you know it.”
Like most perfectionists, Sawatzky thrives on setting lofty goals, achieving them, then immediately setting new ones, achieving those, and so on and so on. Halfway isn’t good enough. Three quarters isn’t good enough. It’s a constant struggle for achievement. “When he sets out to learn something,” says Dana, “he learns it. He studies it, gets to know it, practises it. His memory is unbelievable. I’ll ask him a question about something and he’ll take a few seconds, then come up with the answer. Then I’ll find out that the last time he thought about it was in first-year med school.”
Gripped by a military drive, Sawatzky never lets a moment pass without a fight. In addition to working at DCIEM, he studies caving research, maps his explorations, details every dive he ever does in a journal. For relaxation, he reads medical journals. Or he writes for them. Aside from papers related to hyperbaric medicine, he’s also written hundreds of technical diving articles for publications such as the Journal of Subterranean Metaphysics, Underwater Speleology, Canadian Caver, and he also submits a regular column for Diver magazine. He teaches diving to law-enforcement agencies, and for the military, he writes the manuals. He’s on the board of advisors for seven diving-related associations, and belongs to no fewer than eight societies of diving professionals. And then there’s the one weekend a month he assists with emergency surgery at Humber River Regional Hospital. He’s also a qualified flight surgeon, an accredited witness for the Coroner of Ontario in diving-accident investigations, an instructor of advanced cave-rescue techniques. And then there’s the cave diving itself. He spends at least two months a year on expeditions.
“He does everything,” says Dana. “It’s always something. Collecting rocks or coins or stamps. Or work around the house–he can plumb, do carpentry, dry wall, electrical. He’s wound all the time. He’s always got this edge to him. Sometimes I look at him and say relax. But he doesn’t know how. His idea of relaxing is going into the backyard and chopping wood that he’s hauled from some snarled-up sump.” Part of her understands, but the other part seems genuinely mystified. “And he works out in the gym every day, but it’s like nothing is enough for him. His idea of having fun is most people’s idea of torture.”
You’re in Tobermory, Ontario. You, Ric Browning, your long-time caving partner, and the wives. The girls had a little dive vacation planned and Dana said, Come along if you want. But no caving. Open-water stuff only.
Okay, you said. No caving. But then you’re up there and staring at the entrance to Little Stream Cave. Well, you thought, let’s see whether it’ll go. Just a little look-see for another time.
So you and Ric check it out. The sump is at the end of a dry passage. You dive down to the bottom, pry away the rocks and brush out the silt until it’s big enough to get through.
Soon you’re past this first restriction, in a small water-filled room. Visibility is bad thanks to your excavations, but you find a crack where the cave continues. It’s tight. You put your feet in but the passage turns off at a sharp angle. You contort yourself in an attempt to fit through, but the hole’s just too small.
You go back up, tell Ric it doesn’t go. He says he wants to check it out. Fine. Take my tank, you say. It’s only down 300 psi; there’s still enough left for a quick look. So Ric disappears down the sump. You hear the tank clanging against the rock walls, you can see the bubbles from his exhalations. But soon the noises end. The bubbles are gone, too. What’s going on? Ric’s bigger than me–there’s no way he could have made it through if I couldn’t. So you wait. Still, no more bubbles. Ten minutes pass, then twenty, then thirty. What the hell’s he doing? He doesn’t have enough air to be screwing around like this. Something’s not right.
Time to get down there yourself. But Ric has the only tank, so you have to leave, get another one. It takes an agonizingly long time. Finally you scramble back into the cave, warding off bad thoughts.
You burrow into the water-filled room feet-first, but Ric’s not there. The thought of squirming through that crack frightens you, but you try anyway. It’s a mess down here, like swimming in a chocolate milkshake. You struggle, more desperate now. How did he do it? Time is ticking away. But your main light is weak, your second is dead, and the third one is working only intermittently. Shit, shit, shit. Your small tank doesn’t have much air left, either. You can’t go on like this. You go back.
Ric had 45 minutes of air, tops. He’s been down now for two hours. The cave was going deeper–just about no chance Ric would find an air pocket. He didn’t have an exploration line–he must have gotten lost. Damn it, Ric. You weren’t supposed to go in. You shouldn’t have gone in.
Outside the cave, Ric’s wife Sandra is sitting on the boat with Dana, soaking in the sun like nothing’s wrong. Then they see you walk out of the cave, alone. And they know enough about cave diving to know something’s gone horribly wrong.
You swim out to the boat. You want to tell them it’s okay but it’s not okay. What happened? asks Dana. You suck it up and tell her. Ric went in and I couldn’t follow him. He didn’t have much air. Then she asks you what the cave was doing and you say it was going down. So that’s it? she asks. Yeah, you say. That’s it.
Fear washes over Sandra like a wave. She starts shaking. Oh my God. She starts crying. You see the terror in her eyes and then there’s an ache in your stomach that you’ve never felt before. You grab the marine radio and try to call for help, but it’s not working. Why is this happening? It was working before, just this morning. You motor to shore, jump out before the boat slides against the sand, tear up the beach towards some people. Somebody drives you to the police station. But what are they going to do? They’re not cave divers. In an emergency they’ve been instructed to call you.
Soon, the Coast Guard joins the Ontario Provincial Police on the scene. But the rescue is still in your hands, so you focus. It’s what you do best. You organize the operation, asking the help of two cave divers who happen to be there with all the right equipment.
Six hours after Ric first went down, you’re once again at the sump entrance. One of the other cave divers tries to go down first. The rest of you wait, listening to him bang around. But soon he’s back. He couldn’t even make it into the water-filled room.
It could end right here, but you don’t want to give up. Can’t. So you go down again. This time, you try to get past the second restriction facing a different way, so you can bend your body around the corner. Slowly, you scrape your way in, thinking, God, this is tight. You’re wondering whether you’ll be able to make it back out. You could stop right now, go back, say you just couldn’t make it. They wouldn’t question you. You tried, they’ll say. Even if Ric had found an air pocket, he’d be dead by now, drysuit or no drysuit–the water is seven degrees. Ric made a mistake. It’s not your fault.
But that’s your friend down there. If you go back now you’ll have to live the rest of your life not knowing. And you can’t do that.
Soon, your feet kick in open water. You enter a big void, shine the lights around, preparing to bump into Ric’s corpse in the two-inch visibility. But there’s only darkness.
Then, as you swim farther on, you see the roof of the cave rises upwards. There’s an air bell. An air bell. Unbelievable. You swim towards it, surface. The chamber is 10-feet long. You scan around with your light, but there’s nothing.
Then, from behind you: “It’s about fucking time you got here!” You spin around to see Ric completely out of the water, wedged into a nook. He’s alive. You take your mask off, smile a funny smile. Alive. It’s like it’s not real.
When you exit the cave for the last time, you tell people Ric’s right behind you. There’s a pause, like it doesn’t compute, like huh? It takes a while. Everybody thought they were on a body recovery, and then no, Ric’s alive. No cheer went up, no fist pumping. It was all too draining for that. It’s over, that’s all anybody can think. It’s over. One day, on a day much different day from this one, the Governor General will hand you the Star of Courage, one of Canada’s highest medals of bravery.
Later that night, Sandra hugs you, everybody hugs you, patting you on the back, thanking you, crying. But you don’t say much. You’ve got nothing left. You’re just waiting for the day to end. Two days later, though, it sinks in. As you sit at your desk, you start shaking. You remember the helplessness, the fear, the lack of control. And it scares you, deeply.
“Somehow it’s supposed to fit in here,” says David Sawatzky. It’s a Monday night in March and I’m at the Sawatzky’s home in North York. He’s packing for a trip to Florida, where he’ll be able to get some more time on his rebreather, but he can’t seem to fit it in the crate that came with it. With the rebreather’s turtle-like shell on the bottom, we try to tuck in the hoses and breathing tubes, but it just won’t go.
“I’ll figure it out later,” he says, and with that we walk into his equipment room, which is a giant walk-in closet in the basement, filled with a neatly ordered arsenal of diving equipment. Thick pile union suits, wetsuits, drysuits, tanks of every size, piles of rope crocheted into perfect coils, masks, regulators, exploration lines, strange-looking tools. As he ferries pieces of equipment into the rec room, I ask him, cautiously, how long it took Ric to get back into cave diving.
“One week later,” he says dryly. “It was our annual trip to Vancouver Island,” he says, as if that explained everything. But Ric accompanied David on only a few dives. The truth is it took many months for both of them to work out the psychological trauma, and another couple of years before things got back to normal. But Dana elaborated further. “I still don’t think Ric’s completely over it.” Nonetheless Ric still dives on a regular basis.
Though the incident in Tobermory frightened Sawatzky, it never slowed him down. His latest project is the Devil’s Bath System near Port McNeill–the same cave system that includes the Benson River Gorge Caves, where his fire for cave diving was first ignited over 20 years ago.
On Vancouver Island, conditions for cave formation are nearly perfect: limestone bedrock–easily eroded into cave passages–and lots of rain to do the work. But diving here is ultra-demanding, even more so than the Ottawa River Caves. While the water in caves on the Island is much clearer, the passages are far, far deeper. In 1999, while diving the Devil’s Spring, Sawatzky set a record for the deepest-ever cave dive in Canada. Sawatzky and two other divers had been laying exploration lines for the previous five days. Then, on the final dive, Sawatzky reached a fearsome 262 feet.
Of course, for him, that’s still not quite good enough. The passage was going down, and he thinks it may bottom out at over 300 feet before it comes back to the surface who knows where.
“I’m going back to finish it this August with the rebreather,” he says. That’ll be after he dives in Florida, England, Malta and the Caymans, where he’s planning a dive on his rebreather to over 400 feet.
“And once we finish up in the Devil’s Bath,” he says, “there are lots of other systems on Vancouver Island that are too far back in the bush to dive with tanks. But with the rebreather, it’s a different story.”
A different story, and yet the same story. David Sawatzky just doesn’t know how to take a break. “It’s addictive,” he says. “Going where nobody has gone before–that’s what it’s all about. Once you’ve experienced what that’s like, you just can’t give it up.”