With a clunk, my head hit the rock above me.
“Thanks for testing that helmet,” our guide, Max, called back.
“Still working!” I said. I’d “tested” it several times already.
I refocussed on the rocks beneath my feet, and knees and hands. It’s a good thing I was wearing a helmet because with all my resources concentrating on climbing the rock below me, I too often forgot about the rock above me. Clunk!
We were 16 stories under the earth, engaging in a little speleology, the scientific study of the exploration of caves. Okay, we might have been a little light on the scientific study, being more interested in the exploration part. After scrambling, squeezing, and out-right sliding, we sat in a cavern called the Grotto, filled with delicate stalactites and beautiful, wavy, “bacon” rock formations formed by the dripping water. I plopped down jubilant, but with a slight wave of dizziness, the result of mild exertion, excitement, or maybe just the darkness and thrill of discovery. Below us lay a couple of small pools, a mix of rain that had fallen on earth six months earlier and glacial run-off under Grotto mountain. The utter stillness of the air made the dripping water seem alive. We turned off our headlamps and sat in the most complete darkness imaginable. I was thankful to be sitting, after crawling through the cave with only a headlamp. The darkness seemed to magnify the sound of dripping water and it became its own entity. We were invisible, deep inside a mountain.
Unexperienced and unsuspecting, I had signed up with Canmore Cave Tours for a tour of the Rat’s Nest Cave near Canmore, AB. Closed to the public, the cave is only accessible through booking a tour. Caves interest me on a cursory level and the only cave tour I had done was at the Shenandoah Caverns in Virginia. There, at 5 months pregnant, I took the elevator to the start of the tour, wearing sandals, with two small children in tow.
The Rat’s Nest Cave is not that type of experience.
Wearing knee pads, a harness, gloves, coveralls, and a hard hat, this cave tour is only for families with children 10 and older, who are looking for a touch of adventure and an authentic caving experience. There are no elevators here. With your guide, you will do everything “real cavers” do and you’ll be thankful for every piece of gear you’re wearing (thank you, hard hat) as you scramble, slide, and squeeze your way into the depths of Rat’s Nest Cave. “Cavers don’t [go caving] because it’s sexy,” Max told us. Maybe not, but I did feel very functional and capable in my new duds.
There’s no standard tour that gets trotted out for the tourists here, as the guides can work with you. The shortest tour, the Explorer Tour, gives you approximately two hours underground and is a great option for families with kids 10 and up. The adventure starts with a picturesque hike up to the mouth of Rat’s Nest Cave (about 500 feet elevation gain) where you get your gear on. Scramble up to the cave’s mouth. You’ll see (and smell) the nest of the bushy-tailed woodrat that makes her home near the cave’s entrance and you’ll crawl past prehistoric bones earlier inhabitants left behind. Then you’re off, crawling, sliding, and wriggling your way into the earth, passing through the Grand Gallery on your way to the beautiful Grotto. And whenever you’re tempted to think it’s too hard, consider this: Canmore Cave Tours also offers concerts for special occasions in the Grand Gallery. At least you aren’t caving with a cello.
Of course, it is important to ensure this is a fun experience for you and your family. If it sounds daunting, be assured that you needn’t have previous caving experience and you only need a moderate level of fitness. Much more importantly, if you bring your sense of adventure, you’ll be ready for an unforgettable underground experience. The guides at Canmore Cave Tours will help you determine what’s best for your family.
In getting down to the Grotto, the deepest point on our tour, we were helped by gravity. After visiting the beautiful, clear waters, it was time to head back to the surface. A little more accustomed to moving in the darkness with only a headlamp for light, we started back up, using ropes to steady us at the steepest parts and now confident about crawling with our already dirty coveralls. In no time at all, we would emerge into the light, dusty and exultant, having successfully completed our amazing adventure inside Grotto Mountain.
Have I mentioned how much I love hard hats?
Tips for Family Caving:
- Rat’s Nest Cave remains about 5 degrees all year long, warm in the winter and cool in the summer. There will be a 30 to 40-minute hike to the cave mouth, though, so consider that when you’re dressing. Layers are great.
- Don’t carry anything and leave all valuables behind. Your coveralls will give you access to a pocket if you want to carry something like a smartphone for pictures. (Photography can be difficult in cave conditions but do it for the memories!) I was planning on bringing my D-SLR and our guide gently persuaded me I might have a better time if I wasn’t worried about an expensive piece of equipment. He was right, of course. Both the dust and humidity of the cave is hard on cameras, to say nothing of squeezing through tight places. Photographers can book private tours, though, where the focus is on getting a great shot.
- Trust your guide. He or she knows the cave and also wants you to have a wonderful time. You might be surprised at how easy it feels in the moment.
Canmore Cave Tours:
Address: 129 Bow Meadows Crescent #202, Canmore, AB
I would like to thank Canmore Cave Tours for hosting me on this adventure. All opinions expressed are my own. (It was more amazing than I ever imagined!)