Text by Jennifer Bowen, Curt Bowen and Randall Purdy

Photography by all team members


An Explorer’s Hankering

People have pondered the origin of the raging blue water of the Roaring River for a millennium. Mike Young, underwater cave explorer, is one of those inquisitive people. Proving tenacity sometimes pays off. Mike sought to gain access to the Roaring River spring-system for over 20 years, eventually being granted access after being turned down multiple times by the State. In 2020, the state acknowledged the necessity of conducting base-line studies of the Spring and approached Mike, hoping he would be interested and capable of overseeing the project.

The Search For Clear Passage

Clinging to the walls, my fingertips dig into the rocks, holding me in place. I feel the fierce tug of the water’s rage threatening to sweep me away as the intense current rips past me. The words, "Don't let go," linger in my thoughts. With the water's immense force threatening to rip away my life support equipment, I bite down firmly on my mouthpiece. Maintaining my grip on the rocks, I notice the glow from my dive computer. It catches my attention. In an instant, my mind processes the data from my computer and calculates the breakdown of the elevated readings. Depth: 227ft. PPO2 (partial pressure of oxygen): 1.5, 1.6, 1.5. I blow gas out of my nose to prompt the ADV to kick in and add the correct amount of diluent into my KISS Sidewinder and resolve the issue.

Diver squeezes through the extreme high water flow restriction at a depth of 225 feet.

The Restriction

As the water continues to draw down on my gear, it slows my forward pace. White knuckled, I twist and turn through the extreme restriction, pulling myself along. Grinding my way over rocks and through the narrow stone passage, with my knees digging into the cave, I make progress. Just ten feet in front of me, I can see an opening. As I reach the end of the restriction, exhaustion weighs on me. The tremendous flow that gripped my body has now diminished. As I catch my breath, I feel a surge of relief. My senses are in overdrive. I can hear the amplified sound of heavy breathing through my loop and I suddenly notice the climate conditions of the cold 54 degree water. Facing a blinding black void in front of me, I enter the room, cautiously I push 15ft further into what seems to be a massive chamber. Wielding my powerful 8,000 lumen underwater dive-light, attempting to illuminate anything in this immense room. Swinging left, then right, again, swinging left, then right, and then beneath me, the darkness remains unyielding. Feeling a little bewildered, I cannot detect any encompassing walls. It is completely void. A rush of awe surges through my blood. I remain motionless, reveling in the thrill of uncovering this expansive chamber untouched by any human before me.


Cave explorer Mike Young discovers the giant abyss past the high flow restriction


The Tie-off

My curiosity piques, urging me to explore further. I swim upwards in search of a barrier, hoping to gauge the room’s vastness. With eyes wide open, a faint brownish gray protrusion comes into view as my reel turns out line. “Now to tie-off and get out” runs through my head, triggering a rapid succession of thoughts. Searching with intent, I scan the black abyss for an anchor-point along with what I believe to be the smoothly carved ceiling of the room, only to find it lacking any suitable rocks. Not ready to give up, I push further into the chamber, keeping my eyes fixed on the ceiling. Bingo! Only a few feet away, at a depth of around 220ft, I find a large, round rock jutting out from the protrusion. There is nothing else in sight besides this rock above my head. Sensing the grandeur of the cave, one can’t help but feel overwhelmingly small, like a tiny speck lost in the universe’s vastness.

I wrap my white exploration cave-line around the rock with the usual two wraps, and then think, “It’s a long way back. I better make it really secure, and wrap it around two more times,” then complete my tie-off. Before I could cut my line and clip off my reel, the whole thing broke off the protrusion. It was an enormous lump of clay that came barreling down, line and all. I couldn’t let go. It was my only line out and it was pulling me down rapidly. Frantically, I shake and tug at my line, hoping to break free of the hurling, plummeting, lump. I don’t know how deep the falling mass is dragging me down into the abyss, but somehow, I see a little rock sticking out from a now visible wall and grab hold of it, catching myself with my left hand. I continue shaking the lump of clay with my reel still in my right hand until the line yanks free. I look at my computer and read, 275ft. Knowing my MOD (maximum operating depth) was only mixed for a depth of 250ft, without delay, I swim upwards to locate a new spot to secure my line. This time, with a good tie off, I cut the line and clip the reel back onto my hip. “Time to escape this no-man’s-land” and navigate the narrow tube-like passage back to the surface. I follow my safety-line as I enter the restriction. Now, with the current as my ally, I can feel the cold water at my back, propelling me forward with ease as I allow it to transport me back through the passage, eager to reunite with my dive buddy Randall Purdy to share the news of our newfound discoveries. Just as I’m feeling accomplished, the current abruptly jams me against a wall right before I could pass through the restriction. While I try to wiggle free, I snag my neck seal on the rocks, tearing it open, giving me 2 hours of cold, wet decompression.


Diver returning out of the restriction at 225 feet with stage cylinder


Further Exploration and Survey

Following Mike’s initial restriction dive, the team embarked on several dives to further explore and survey the passage. With each subsequent dive, the team’s excitement grew. They discovered that the room’s length expanded by an additional 200ft, and the new expansion revealed a far wall that dropped downwards, exceeding a depth of 350ft. The dives led them to a remarkable finding - the big room gave way to a long narrow upward fissure, splitting the middle of the room, exposing a dry, rocky, enclosed air dome, reaching an air bell at a water depth of 0ft. Much to their disappointment, they were unable to uncover any dry cave passage within the chamber.


Survey diver Jon Lillestolen tediously takes notes of survey measurements and sketches to create an accurate map of the Roaring River Spring cave system.


Roaring River Springs Park

Nestled just eight miles south of Cassville, Missouri, Roaring River State Park has been a beloved recreation area since its opening in 1928, extending over 4,294 acres. Over four hundred million gallons of water rush down the river each day, stemming from a prominent crack in the cliff walls. The history of the Roaring River Springs dates back to the distant era of the ice age. The spring water was crucial for the indigenous community as they used it to cultivate their crops, provide water for their animals, and fulfill their day-to-day needs. In the 1800s, the New World harnessed the force of the springs’ power to wield an enormous wooden watermill, to grind corn and wheat with impressive efficiency. By the turn of the century, the Roaring River emerged as a sought-after haven for the upper class, who flocked to its tranquil surroundings, seeking a restful retreat. One such affluent visitor from St. Louis, named Dr. Thomas Sayman, solicited the state’s Fish and Game commission to purchase the property. When this plan failed because of insufficient state funds, he took matters into his own hands. Making a bold move, he bought 2,400 acres of land surrounding the Roaring River Spring and then sold it to the state for a nominal fee of one dollar. Today, the spring is used to fill a steady and endless supply of fresh water for one of Missouri’s largest trout hatcheries. Every day, the hatchery releases hundreds of farm raised trout into the riverbed, creating a thrilling spectacle for visitors, sports anglers, and families alike.

In 1928, Dr. Thomas Sayman and his wife Luella donated 2,400 acres of land surrounding Roaring River Spring to the Missouri State Park system.

Staging The Dive Plan

To manage our dive progress, we’ve planned several checkpoints or predetermined locations where we will stop, check our equipment, see how we were feeling, and give the “OK” to proceed. We will stop at the first checkpoint at the beginning of the restriction, at a depth of 225ft. Once safely through the restriction and into the room, we will stop at the second checkpoint, at a depth of 230ft. The third checkpoint is set-up at what we call the “inner-tube”. An inner-tube is inflated beneath the protrusion in the room, a short distance past the restriction. The inner-tube or third stop is where we’ve attached the deep-line, which extends down to Mike’s tie-off from a previous dive at 450ft. Also, staged at the inner-tube are the 240ft bailout cylinders used for safety measures and the 350ft cylinders that we will take with us on our deep plunge. At 450ft, we planned our final checkpoint. This is also where we hope to add new-line, explore onward, achieving a new depth and potential discoveries.


Mike Young with his KISS Sidewinder rebreather walking towards the spring entrance


November 13, 2021.

Similar to any other day on the project, we begin with our morning briefing, but today will end with an extraordinary feat: the team gathers together; we discuss the safety measures of the dive-plan, the staging areas, and coordinate all details with the safety team, and just to validate our dive-plan, we meticulously examine, review, inspect, verify, question, and scrutinize over every detail, multiple times.

Big Brother

As the safety team was gearing up, Mike looks at me and says, “Remember Randall, if anything doesn’t feel right, thumb it, we can try again later”. The magnitude of his words got to me. Here we are about to embark on the threshold of history, and Mike fricken’ Young is telling me, don’t get wrapped up in the moment, it’s alright if we have to abort. Reminding me that our safety is paramount over everything else, even if it means abandoning the mission. Now, I should go back and add some clarity to Mike’s statement; Because of the extreme depth of the cave system and the production of our dive-plan, we were not diving with the standard KISS Sidewinders we would normally use during an exploration mission. Instead, we elected to dive a modified version of the Sidewinder. Thus, using scrubber cans that are larger then the standard Sidewinder cans. The outcome of using larger cans will allow us to extend our dive time, helping us reach our deep-dive objective. Additionally, I’ll also be diving with a brand-new camera rig that had never been in the water, having had to upgrade my video equipment, because my old camera system was only depth rated at 100m (328 feet). The new housing can perform at 150m (492 feet). Which is roughly the depth at which we hoped to explore. When using new or modified gear, one would typically take a few bounce dives to be certain of any necessary adjustments. That being said, this epic dive was going to be my first dive with the new camera rig and only my second dive using the modified Sidewinder cans. So, in other words, the bold, brazen, adventurer, Mike Young was watching out for me, knowing I was facing the additional challenges of being encumbered with having to learn two new rig set-ups on the fly.

Mike Young and Randall Purdy start the initial descent into the black abyss

The Dive To Break All Records

The dive went as smoothly as any dive I have ever done. Mike and I reach the restriction and first staging area at 220ft, with no issues. I check in and pass through the high-flow restriction area, more favorably than I thought I would. Waiting for Mike at the very end of the restriction, I unfold my camera rig to get ready for phase two. While doing so, Mike then moves through the high-flow restriction tunnel and signals to me that everything is “Ok”. This is my cue to exit the restriction and swim into the void towards the ceiling, along our previously established primary-line. Upon leaving the high flow restriction, I notice the cave floor changes from a rocky breakdown to clay and dolomite, and within feet of breaching the high-flow restriction, the clay floor immediately slopes away into the abyss.

Record setting dive gopro footage by Mike Young

Proceeding as planned

I continue along the established primary-line to the inner-tube; I retrieve my 350ft bottle and clip it off. This is where I begin filming the pinnacle event. I swim out into the open area, turn my twin 18,000 lumen lights to full power. To my astonishment, the lights illuminate nothing at my sides or below, just the ceiling above me. I turn towards Mike, who’s stationed below me at the end of the restriction, awaiting my signal. I flash the lights, telling him I’m “OK” and we’re ready to roll. Mike receives my signal, breaches the restriction, and follows the established line. He swims to the inner-tube to retrieve his deep 350ft tank. From the camera’s perspective, this is going to be an amazing shot. Visibility is fantastic, and all things are going smoothly as we are about to embark on history. Mike retrieves his deep tank, and we begin the descent, following our primary-line that’s dropping from the inter-tube. The visibility is excellent, allowing me to film the entire descent from about 20ft away from Mike for the perfect shot. As we begin our descent, we observe the walls of the cave withdraw from our sight. Blackness swallows every lumen. The highly powered lights don’t stand a chance against this colossal-black-monster. The light-swallowing-blackness surrounds us, above, below, and all around. Reaching the end of the primary-line around 350ft, we proceed on the white exploration-line. By this time, I’m laser focused on how this new rebreather set-up is functioning. Learning the new quirks on the fly is intense, yet I still keep my eyes and the camera fixed on Mike. We reach the 350ft checkpoint, the camera, rebreather, everything is functioning perfectly. For a moment, I become paranoid, thinking that I’m missing something critical. I’m thinking to myself, “There is no way this dive is going this smoothly”. Mike gives me the “OK” signal. I flash the camera lights back at him to communicate we are good to proceed. At this depth, the cave narrows, with a wall on one side visible and another wall visible on the other side of us. The cave bottom becomes rockier and begins a gradual slope at a 45-degree angle. We follow the white exploration-line down to the line tie-off at 450ft, where Mike had secured it on his previous dive. I try to add a little gas to my dry suit by pressing the inflator button, but nothing happens! My inflation bottle is empty! I remembered being in a similar situation and had to turn the dive. I’m thinking, “No fricken’ way” There’s no way I am going to stop us 22ft short of our target over this issue”. Deciding to continue on, I drop further with Mike, knowing that if I needed to, I can switch to one of my primary cylinders for inflation gas. I don’t want to put 80% helium into my suit unless I absolutely must, so I pull out the inflator hose, and have it ready, but don’t connect it.

Video capture at 472 feet as cave explorer Mike Young and Randall Purdy turn the dive and head back towards the surface.  



Making History

Mike and I continue our descent to 472ft, establishing the Roaring River Spring as the deepest explored cave system in the United States. Scanning the passage ahead of us, we can see the cave is leveling out, and it’s going, and it keeps going, and going! “Plan the dive, dive the plan” words to survive by. Mike ties off the new exploration spool and signals to the camera to ascend. I’m happy to begin the ascent, feeling the squeeze buildup in my drysuit. I add a little gas into my wing, enabling the principles of physics to lift me up from the abyss. As we are ascending, I’m stowing the camera when I see Mike’s light franticly moving along the wall. We are at a depth of 450ft. I think to myself, “Here it is, here comes the problem”. I cut my camera lights and clip it off. With my primary dive light, I signal to Mike, I ask him if he’s “OK”. As I’m swimming over to him, I notice there’s a disturbance in the silt, on the wall, beside him. I signal to him again, I ask him if he’s “OK”, “he chuckles and responds ‘We should continue our ascent’”

Making Our Way Back to The Surface

We begin our 3.5 hours of decompression, starting at 280ft. Meeting our first safety diver at the inner-tube, we remove our 350ft cylinders. We continue on to the restriction and, on the way up, meet with several other safety divers. We complete most of our deco in the habitats staged at 40ft and 20ft in the cave, where Mike and I can eat, drink and talk about the dive. There, I ask him what was going on at the 450ft wall. Mike nonchalantly replies, “Oh nothing”. Cheers erupted as we emerge at the surface. Hundreds of people were eagerly awaiting our return, anticipating we would bring news of a successful dive and a newly claimed record for the park.

Relishing The Experience
Later, during lunch with the team, Mike excitedly burst out-loud, “Yes, I wasn’t hallucinating,” as he was reviewing his GoPro footage from our dive at 450ft. From my perspective, it looked like he was disco dancing with the wall, but he was actually filming a white salamander running away from his light. As far as we know, there is no documentation of cave adapted salamanders in this area of southern Missouri. Could it be a new species? Regarding the exceptional film footage I captured by my recently purchased camera, it appeared impressive underwater on the 2 inch view finder, but not so much in focus when projected on the big screen. Oops!

Above: Light painting of the entrance to Roaring River Spring by Curt Bowen.

Roaring River Expedition Maps
Roaring River Expedition Video's
Dive Exploration Team

Mike Young


Cave explorer and KISS Rebreather designer Mike Young. Owner of KISS Rebreathers he is the designer of the KISS Sidewinder CCR unit.


  Randall Purdy

Owner and operator of Heartland Scuba Center in Kearney Nebraska, TDI Technical Dive Instructor Trainer and CCR cave explorer.

Jon Lillestolen

CCR Cave Explorer and Cartographer

  Mike Henry

CCR cave explorer and dive instructor with Heartland Scuba Center in Kearney, Nebraska.

Gayle Orner

KISS Rebreathers Ambassador and avid cave diver.

Tim Bass


  Charles Walker

Owner & Operator of Dark Water Rigging in New Orleans LA providing underwater rigging and camera equipment for motion picture production. Kiss Sidekick CCR cave explorer

Neil Brownlow



Preacher, PSAI Instructor Trainer, technical diving instructor, Wicked good wreck explorer

Fernando Calderón

Marine Biologist specialized in aquatic cave fauna; Scientific diver instructor

Ashley Sutherland


Bob Dankert


Joseph Heinrichs


Greg Ables


Matthew Wg


Surface Support





Moral Support





Media Support





*It should be noted that following the aforementioned record-breaking dive at a depth of 472ft, which took place at Roaring River Springs on November 23, 2021, Explorers Brett Hemphill and Andy Pitkin accomplished a depth of 570ft, setting a new USA record at Texas's Phantom Cave, October, 2023.

Roaring River Historical Photos
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