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There’s a new world waiting to be discovered – underground

Crawling on hands and knees, I could see that the damp passageway ahead narrowed into what cavers call a "squeeze," a constriction that requires, depending on geometry of body and rock, anything from a bit of wriggling to forced exhalation, compression of the rib cage and, at times, even the shedding of clothes (a so-called "naked squeeze").

I had anticipated this moment since beginning my research into the world of Canadian caving and often wondered how I'd react. I'm not claustrophobic, but it wasn't hard to imagine the unsettling sensation of the entire mountainside pressing down from above, the frantic need to draw a deep breath, the panic that takes hold as one discovers he can't move forward or back.

Dropping to my belly, I slithered toward an opening that appeared no bigger than a cereal box. Forced to turn my helmet sideways as the ceiling dropped, I blindly felt my way, one arm extended in front, fingertips scratching at sand, gravel and rock. Unable to bend my legs, feeling like I was inside a straw, I pushed with my toes, settling into a rhythmic pattern: Exhale, claw forward, inhale and feel the rock on all sides. Repeat. The air was cool, the stone moist on my cheeks, and I felt surprisingly good despite the panic lurking in the shadows.

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And suddenly I was through. My headlight swung forward, revealing a rising passageway and beyond that a cathedral-like room decorated with the classic wonders of the subterranean world: stalactites and flowstone and soda straws.

I spent two hours underground that day. While the cave was by no means a challenging one – Rat's Nest Cave, in the flanks of Grotto Mountain near Canmore, Alta., is the site of easily accessible, commercial tours – it was unexpectedly enjoyable. I'd devoured plenty of caving books in the months prior, but none had helped me understand why anyone would want to hang out in a dark, damp, cramped hole.

On that first journey underground, I discovered a stillness, a visceral slowing of pace, an attention to sound – drips, breathing, clinking rocks – and a sensation that led to the inner calm one expects after a yoga class.

But, more significantly, I glimpsed the opportunity the sport offers for serious, honest-to-goodness geographical exploration. That is something exceedingly rare in our our modern, GPS'd and Google-Earth'd world, and in Canada (elsewhere, too), caves arguably represent the last great terrestrial frontier.

Caves have offered shelter to humans for millennia, but speleology – the study and exploration of underground passages as both a sporting and scientific endeavour – is a relatively new field. Frenchman Édouard-Alfred Martel (who is known as the father of modern speleology) pioneered the cross-disciplinary pursuit of all things cave-related in the early 1900s, combining chemistry, biology, geology, physics, meteorology and cartography with the physical rigours and challenges of caving. "Potholing" burst onto the scene as a popular activity throughout Britain and France after the First World War, and from these hotbeds the activity has gradually spread around the globe.

In Canada, there has been sporadic interest in caves, most notably McMaster University's Karst Research Group, which relentlessly probed and documented every cave it could find (focusing largely on the Southern Rockies) from 1965 to 1980. But despite these herculean efforts, Canadian caving has remained in the shadows.

In British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, fewer than 1,000 members are registered in clubs, with no more than 100 regular participants. In contrast, the Canadian Ski Council estimates there are more than three million active alpine skiers in Canada.

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Given the size of our country, its vast deposits of carbonate and limestone rock (the birthplace of all caves) and the small number of people out actively searching for caves, it is safe to say no one has any clear idea of the number of caves in Canada, or where they are. Clubs and governments are attempting to collect and organize years of survey data, but the process is in its infancy. Of known caves, only a small percentage has been exhaustively surveyed, meaning lots of promising leads have never been explored.

Why has Canadian caving remained in the shadows for so long? To begin, there is the reflexive revulsion many feel at the thought of crawling through damp, cold, dark spaces, far underground. Then there is the difficulty of access. Unlike caves in Britain, which are rarely far from a road, most of Canada's caves require multihour scrambles into the alpine. Exploration is also a slow methodical effort. "Caving is the antithesis to the instant gratification upon which our modern age is built," says Chas Young, a veteran caver and operator of Canmore Caverns. "It simply takes time, which is something in short supply these days."

Canada's longest cave is internationally renowned Castleguard Cave, which stretches under Alberta's Columbia Icefield. Recently discovered Heavy Breather, in the Flathead wilderness of southeastern B.C., bottoms out at 535 metres, deeper than anything previously known in Canada or the United States. This winter, as I researched the story on caves, Nick Viera (a young, scruffy and highly talented Canadian caver) managed to penetrate Raspberry Rising, a burbling turquoise spring on the slopes of Mount Tupper in British Columbia's Rogers Pass. After diving though a flooded sump (yes, with an underwater squeeze) and climbing a 25-metre vertical rock (while being pummelled by a waterfall), Viera entered the type of world that cavers' dreams are made of: large passages winding through polished marble, banded in white and blue, and decorated with travertine formations on a staggering scale.

Over just five visits, Viera and a handful of friends managed to survey 2,043 metres of new passageway. With no end in sight, it may be just the tip of the iceberg, offering a hint of the wonders that lay hidden, awaiting discovery, somewhere beneath Canada's surface.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Bruce Kirkby's feature on Canadian caving appears in the July/August issue of Canadian Geographic.

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