For modern-day explorers like Calgary’s Christian Stenner, caving offers one of the final frontiers of discovery on Earth.
Over the past 10 years, Stenner has been part of Canada’s most important cave-exploring expeditions, including discoveries of new passages in the country’s longest cave, the 21-kilometre Castleguard Cave in Jasper National Park, Alta., and its deepest, the Bisaro Anima cave near Fernie, B.C., which plunges 683 metres on its 5.2-kilometre route.
“To know that you are the first human to ever be in a place is an amazing experience,” Stenner says.
We’d cave hard for 16 hours and then we would sleep for 16 hours. You can sleep a long time in absolute darkness.— Myles Fullmer, owner of Horne Lake Caves
But the subterranean trailblazer (and office worker by day) still vividly recalls the thrill of his first caving experience – the one that launched his “compulsion.”
At Rat’s Nest Cave in the Rockies, near Canmore, Alta., Stenner had joined a tour with Canmore Cave Tours, which has provided guided tours of the four-kilometre cave for 30 years.
“What struck me the most is I’d been mountaineering, rock climbing and those sorts of things. And caving is a sport that shares a lot of similarity with those outdoor pursuits. But it’s in this totally alien environment,” says Stenner. “And that’s really what drew me to it.”
Rat’s Nest Cave features spectacular cave formations, such as creamy flowstone, delicate soda straws, stalactites and stalagmites, but it is not a “show cave.” It’s pitch-dark, with no lights, handrails or stairs – just plenty of places thrdeugh which to climb, crawl, squeeze, slither and, in one passage, drop 18 metres (that’s six storeys) on a rappel.
“You’re actually going through the experience of what it’s like to explore inside a wild cave,” says Stenner. “So, it’s truly an amazing place to experience caving for the first time.”
Canmore Cave Tours provides all gear to explore the cave (including helmet and headlamp, coveralls, kneepads, gloves, harness and safety lanyard), on either a four-and-a-half-hour tour ($135) or a six-hour tour ($175). While no experience is necessary, a “moderate level of fitness” is required, advises the website, which adds that the smallest space “to wiggle and squeeze through” is about “the size of a manhole.”
Rat’s Nest Cave is one of 400 documented caves in the Rocky Mountains, according to Canada Caving (an excellent resource for cave explorers – who, according to the site, “call themselves cavers, rather than spelunkers,” out of respect for the term speleology, the scientific study of caves).
By comparison, Vancouver Island, which boasts the highest concentration of caves in North America, has 1,800 known caves.
Among the most accessible and remarkable are four wild caves at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, north of Qualicum Beach, B.C.
Two of the caves can be explored on self-guided tours. However, to behold the “China Shop,” a chamber surrounded by crystal formations, cavers must join the white-knuckle Max Depth Adventure guided tour of Riverbend Cave ($199).
Proceeding well beyond the family tour route, this five-hour expedition requires cavers to negotiate five rappels, including a staggering descent of a 20-metre underground waterfall, as well as belly-crawl through several tight holes.
“You’ve got to put in the work in order to discover what lies within the caves,” says Myles Fullmer, owner of Horne Lake Caves tour operations.
Like Stenner (Canada’s active caving community is a tight-knit group of about 100 cavers, according to Canada Caver), Fullmer, who started as a guide in 2011, has joined several exploration expeditions of caves in western Canada.
“As you’re going through the caves, you get a kind of fever of having to know what’s around the next corner,” he says. “If it goes up, we’ve got to use a rope and climb up – and then we get in there, and that unlocks even more amazing sights.”
In 2015, Fullmer was part of a team that discovered new territory in Canada’s fourth-longest cave, the eight-kilometre Thanksgiving Cave, near Tahsis, B.C., during a five-day underground adventure.
“It was four degrees Celsius in the cave, so you keep moving to stay warm,” recounts Fullmer. “We’d cave hard for 16 hours and then we would sleep for 16 hours. You can sleep a long time in absolute darkness.
“We lost track of time, ending up almost fully nocturnal when we got out at 5:30 in the morning on the sixth day. Seeing the sun come up was a beautiful sight!”
Many in the caving community agree that any time now, a major cave discovery will occur: Canada’s new longest cave.
John Lay, a long-term guide at Horne Lake Caves, recently returned from a three-day exploration of the country’s second-largest cave, Argo, located further north on Vancouver Island.
He and his team are trying to find a way to join two 17-kilometre caves in the Argo system. Should they do so, the combined length will surpass Castleguard by at least 12 kilometres.
“It’s very time consuming,” says Lay, who has visited the remote site several times in three years. “We keep just making the one cave bigger and bigger.”
In the meantime, Lay has gained considerable knowledge of cave formation, or as he puts it, “an ability to read a cave and understand how water flowed through it.” He’s also become an underground rock-climbing expert, rigging ropes for pursuits of 100 metres or more. “It’s kind of my thing now,” he says. “I specialize in it.”
Of the pending discovery, Lay remarks truthfully, “It’s kind of funny. When we’re down there, every day we say, ‘Today is Connection Day!’ But it’s been three years.”
If you like that, you’ll love this
Most cavers gain experience at events sponsored by caving clubs or groups. But their initiation to the sport likely occurred on a tour of a natural cave. Here are four more cave tours available in Canada.
Laflèche Cavern, Que.
The largest cave in the Canadian Shield is just a 30-minute drive from Ottawa. After clambering up the chimney (caving lingo for a steep, narrow climb) and crawling through low passageways, cave tour participants can marvel at stalactites, stalagmites and hibernating bats.
Corner Brook Cave, Nfld
Tours with Cycle Solutions allow explorers eight-years and older to experience this subterranean world. Squeeze through small passages or simply admire the natural cathedrals of its large passageways. Bring a bathing suit for an underground swim.
Cody Caves, B.C.
In the Selkirk Mountains above Kootenay Lake, Cody Cave Tours offers variously challenging tours of an 800-metre underground world, that includes an underground stream and several types of calcite formations, such as stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws and flowstone.
Upana Caves, B.C.
Operating as a self-guided site, Upana Caves, near Gold River, B.C., offer novice explorers 450 metres of passages, maze-like and convoluted, but never far from daylight. Bring a reliable light; more adventurous, hands-and-knees visitors should wear protective clothing.