Nicholas J Parkinson
To some, a hike through a quiet meadow in Banff National Park seems barely “extreme” enough for their tastes. As summertime temperatures start rising in the Canadian Rockies, excursions into the underworld of caverns provide a sometimes needed change in scenery and a great way to see the “other side” of the Rockies.
If tramping through the mud, sliding through small rock portals and wiggling your body through pitch-black chasms sounds like a vacation highlight, the Canmore Caverns, some 20km from Banff, are just a day trip away. While there are various caves in the area, the majority are isolated and inaccessible to tourists.
After donning a pair of overalls, gloves, kneepads, helmet, and headlamp, tourists are ready to explore the underworld of Canmore Caverns. The cave temperatures never rise over 5°C which makes it “unique” according to the owner of Wild Cave Tours, Pamela Young. “Regardless of the weather outside, it’s always the same in the cave, all year long.”
After a 30 minute approach on foot, the tour goes underground at the mouth of the Rat’s Nest Cave, part of the Canmore Cavern system. After future spelunkers rappel down a 60ft airy abyss, they arrive at the first chamber. “Here, guides interpret the natural history of the cave, covering geology as well as all the creatures habiting in the cave,” according to Young.
After this, explorers descend further into the cave’s viscera, through the Grand Gallery and finally the mini-grotto, known as the Laundry Chute, at the bottom of the cave, where a sump blocks dry passage to the rest of the caverns.
“The tour is aimed at people who are physically active and in fairly good shape. Not for your busloads of tourists that want to shuffle around. You get muddy, you wiggle, so people either really love it or it’s not for them,” Young explains.
The Adventure Tour lasts 6 hours and costs around US$130 Canadian Dollars. The less adventurous version is the Explorer Tour, in which cavers scramble down the cave as opposed to rappelling.
When caving in the Canadian Rockies, always remember to wear plenty of clothing, carry a headlamp and know the way out. An excellent source of information and advice on caving can be found at the Alberta Speological Society. Contact them to find out about current cave conditions and to learn about the rules and requirements for safe caving. If an independent excursion into the pits of the Canadian Rockies doesn’t strike you as a good idea, you might want to call Wild Cave Tours.
Probably one of the most daunting of all the caves in the area is Castleguard Cave, located in an isolated region of Banff National Park. The caverns cover some 20km of explored passages. Besides being enormous, explorers must first hike 20km to reach the cave’s mouth. From there, it’s an adventure just to get in since the entrance is regularly flooded and closed to the public.
“The Castleguard cave is extremely remote and not open to general public at all, there are no tours, because it is a serious undertaking to go into the cave,” she said.