Outdoor Adventures

An underground adventure

Caving offers a new take on mountain treks

Outdoor adventure doesn't have to be confined to what lies on the surface. In Canmore, visitors have the opportunity to experience nature in a whole new way with a labyrinth of cave tunnels waiting to be explored.

Cave tours take place in Rat's Nest Cave, located in Grotto Mountain, and inside is a terrain filled with caverns, stalagmites, animal fossils and a fascinating world of geology. The underground wonder that is Rat's Nest Cave was shaped during the Pleistocene Glaciations of the past 1.6 million years, which caused melt waters of the glaciers to dissolve and carve the limestone rock and create a four- kilometre-long cave system. The cave has been left in its natural state, which means no interior lights, handrails or trails, just the way nature created it.

Tours run year-round, as the cave's temperature consistently stays at 5 C, which may be a little cool in the summer, but a welcome reprieve for those venturing through during the winter cold after a half-hour hike up the mountain. Once inside, guides offer a lesson in natural history of the cave. During the course of a year, approximately 3000 people visit its craggy interior, with the bulk of visits occurring summer months.

Canmore Cave Tours owner Charles Yonge, who has been caving for nearly 40 years, says it's been the thrill of exploration coupled with a scientific interest in caves that's kept him coming back.
“Caves are very interesting scientifically. There's lots of topics that are covered from hydrology, geology, chemistry, geography, physics, anthropology, the whole gamut,” says Yonge, who has a graduate degree in geochemistry.

Rat's Nest Cave has been declared a provincial historic site, and Yonge says it possesses its own unique natural history, which can be experienced just as easily in the winter as during the peak summer season. He notes that visitors may encounter different types of cave life depending on the time of year.

Bats tend to be common cave inhabitants, but Yonge says it's rare to see large numbers of them, particularly in the summer. He adds that the system within Rat's Nest Cave is currently measured at four kilometres, but believes it's much larger than that and substantial bat roosts are likely to be housed in its undiscovered territory.

“There's been two species that have been identified. There's the little brown bat and there's the silver-haired bat,” Yonge notes, adding the brown bat is the more common of the two.

Along with bats, and the occasional bushy-tailed wood rat during colder months, are numerous different species of bugs. Yonge recalls a University of Calgary student who found 23 different types within the cave. Other small, cave-dwelling animals include shrews, which are the smallest mammal in the world and survive off a steady diet of insects.

Of course, climbing into a dark cave isn't for everyone, and Yonge says regardless of whether the thought of going into a cave scares or excites you, come and give it a try anyway.

“If you can get people just inside to take a look, once they get used to the environment they're able to carry on, and in some cases we've had people really scared at the beginning and at the end they're poking their head into everything,” Yonge adds.

Through Canmore Cave Tours, participants can choose to participate in the Explorer Tour, which is four-and-a-half hours, with approximately two-and-a-half hours spent underground. The more adventurous can sign up for the six-hour Adventure Tour, which involves spending approximately four hours underground. Yonge suggests that first-timers tackle the Explorer Tour first, as the Adventure Tour involves rappelling and more advanced skills.

Either way, caving is a strenuous activity and Yonge advises that participants be in good physical shape in order to complete each tour. Equipment such as coveralls, knee pads, helmets, headlamps, safety lanyards and backpacks are provided, but Yonge advises wearing hiking boots or running shoes with a good tread to participate. Warm, comfortable clothing should be worn under coveralls as well.

For those who have completed the Explorer and Adventure tours and want to take things one step further, alpine caving is next on the list. The three-day trek, which is only done in July and August, involves backpacking and camping in a remote mountainous area in the Crowsnest Pass.

“It's an absolutely world-class trip,” Yonge says. “We do six rappels, which is why we like the Adventure Tour to be done … we're amongst permanent snow fields over 8000 feet up.” V


Canmore Cave Tours

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