Travel Diary 5: Getting Our Hands Dirty in Canmore Caves
We went caving.
Not a sentence I ever thought I’d say (or write) but it turns out there’s a caving tour just outside of Canmore. It’s not cheap, but we’d planned on making it our big-ticket item in the area. Sure, most people who think to Google “caving tours in Alberta” right after watching The Descent over the winter, like Jaws, but for caves instead of the ocean, but hey – I guess I’m nothing but contrary. We didn’t run into any flesh-eating cave goblins, so two thumbs up!
So, here’s a rundown of the experience:
When we got to the “base” early in the morning, we received a safety and history talk from our guide, going over the cave system and where we would be exploring. Apparently, the entirety of Rat’s Nest Cave (great name, doesn’t at all make me squeamish) would take an experienced caver around 4 or 5 days to completely travel, but we were sticking to one smaller section. And by small, one section of the cave we would be visiting called The Grand Gallery, can fit 3 semi trucks end to end and one vertically.
Our guide was great and very patient, answering all our group’s questions and concerns. He did note that this wouldn’t be an experience for people who weren’t at least moderately fit, but we knew that from our research going in so it wasn’t a shock. I was pleased to note that no one was dumb enough to try and bring a toddler along (even though the minimum age is apparently 10 years old for the tour we were taking). We had a group of eight, three duos and one solo climber named Alex who we happily adopted and offered to carpool with to the cave.
We were given some equipment, including a jumpsuit, helmet and headlamp, we did NOT receive special shoes and were responsible for bringing our own. A couple people were wearing good running shoes but most of us were in hiking boots. This is definitely not an experience for a pair of Sketchers!
We drove ourselves to the base of the mountain and took a hike up to the cave entrance; it took about 30 minutes and was absolutely gorgeous, if very steep. We even saw some fossils in the rock!
Once we got to the entrance we entered through the gate (the cave system is a preserved site) and began our adventure! Right at the entrance we looked over the Bone Bed Pit before entering what our guide called “The Dark Zone,” which is pleasantly ominous. Without our headlamps we would have been in total darkness. Even though we hadn’t gone deep already there was no natural light, without lamps our eyes would never adjust the way they normally do in dim settings. After that it was the Bone Room; while the cave system is blocked off from the public now it’s been host and shelter to plenty of living creatures over the centuries. Apparently, some of the bones have been dated to be older than 7000 years – stone tools have also been found and there was a pictograph over the cave entrance (I forgot to mention that earlier).
Each cavern had its own unique rock textures and formations but overall, the experience of caving is slippery, cold, and has some incredible sights. Our guide told us that the Rat’s Nest cave system are “solutional caves.” Now, it’s been a while since I took high school chemistry but in layman’s terms: solutional caves are formed when the rock is chemically dissolved to create empty space. So basically, cracks have formed in the limestone over millennia, allowing water enter the rock and slowly wear it away and create the cave system we can visit now.
We had to stay very aware of our surroundings and where we were putting each foot and hand. There were times we were on hands and knees – it was not a neat and tidy experience, but it was meticulously organized. Our guide was very patient, as I mentioned before, and kept the whole experience relaxed and comfortable while being strict enough to keep anyone from goofing off or ending up in a dangerous situation.
We had to get through a couple tight squeezes (some freakier than others), some natural (some optional and just for fun, yes we did each) including the man-made “Box” that dropped us down further.
Eventually we made it to The Grand Gallery, that’s the biggest cavern on the tour, remember the semi-truck measurements? I can safely say up to that point I was just having a grand old time, but once we got there, I felt…well humbled is the best way to put it. I think some people feel like that when they see man-made monuments but this was just something else. Looking up into darkness, corners where light could not and would never hit. It was as calming as it was staggering. I don’t think there are any words to properly explain just how incredible it was to realize how far under the earth we were, that we’d walked over the cavern not long ago.
The only thing that came close to that feeling was the Grotto at the very end of our journey (well not end, because we still had the climb out, but the deepest point we’d hit). If the Gallery was awe inspiring, the Grotto felt like a fairy-tale. Twin pools of crystal-clear water, more incredible rock formations. More accomplished and practiced cavers can scuba through the water to another section of the cave, but as much as I enjoy a good swim that is a bit further than I think I’d ever feel comfortable going.
Our return to the entrance was a lot of scrambling up steep rock, crawling on hands and knees, and fighting gravity. Thankfully our guide gave us lots of breaks (Meg and I pulled out our granola bars – they were squished and a little crumbly but oh well). Returning to the surface was startling, hitting natural light after total darkness but the lamps was bizarre in a way I can’t explain. It was an absolutely incredible experience, one I am so glad to have undertaken.
Now to shower and take the deepest sleep of my life.