Written by MELISSA RENWICK Tuesday, 20 December 2011 17:32
Descend into Rat’s Nest Cave. There are tight crevasses that force you to inhale like you’re getting fitted for a corset in the Renaissance, cold drip-water falling from limestone rock, cliff edges with no bottom in sight and rats, lots and lots of rats, which scare off all but the most determined.
There was no warning of what was to come. The only thing heard was “lights out,” and in the blink of an eye, there was darkness. Like a cartoon character, my eyes bulged out of their sockets as my head cranked from left to right searching for a crack of light, but there was none to be found. Not a moment later, sound had also vanished. But rather than panic, stillness rushed through me. The world had been put on pause – my mind was blank and numb, allowing consciousness to fade in and out like a pulsing heart.
A sudden flash caused kaleidoscopic patterns to dance across my eyes as they slowly adjusted to the light. My unreciprocated conversation with darkness had been cut short, as I was instantly reminded that my journey wasn’t over; that I was buried deep inside Rat’s Nest Cave — 90 metres underground.
Flashback three hours prior: myself, along with four friends, found ourselves clad in white helmets equipped with headlamps and oversized jumpsuits – concealing the harnesses snugly wrapped around our waists. Standing on the south-facing slope of Grotto Mountain (located a few minutes outside the town of Canmore), we gazed up at the entrance to a subterranean world unlike anything we could have conjured up in our minds. It was our first time caving and we were buzzing in anticipation.
Lindsay Walker, an unassuming petite blonde who works for Canmore Caverns Ltd., was our guide for the day. After giving a brief (albeit thorough) synopsis of how to attach our carabiners to the ropes once inside the cave, she led by example. With the help of a rope that fell from a dark, barred metal gate, we pulled ourselves up the slope which led to the cave’s entrance.
Once piled inside – KLANG, the door slammed shut, sealing off the outside world. Sun light leaked through the metal bars taking away from the mystery of the cave. However, it did illuminate the dozens upon dozens of rat droppings littering the limestone ground – unraveling the mystery behind the cave’s name.
“Alberta is known to be rat free, but there’s one species of rat that lives here – the woodrat,” Walker said. “And they live inside this cave. They look sort of like a chinchilla, with a bushy squirrel-like tail and cute little bear ears. They don’t look anything like sewer rat, which is what most people think of.”
While nearly 3,000 people enter the cave each year, there are some who are so spooked by rats that they refuse to enter the cave, despite the coaxing by the guides. It’s a fitting response, especially since our provincial government proudly states “Albertans have enjoyed living without the menace of rats since 1950.”
After gazing around at the clay and mud encrusted rock, it wasn’t long before the thought of rats drifted far away. Ancient native tribal drawings painted on the walls, showed some history of the cave as holding a sacred status and being a hunting site for Alberta’s aboriginals. As we inched further inside the entrance, a huge black hole loomed through the darkness. Thirty-four different species of mammal bones have been uncovered from the depths of the excavation—unfortunate animals which had fallen in the pit over a 7,000 year span.
A narrow down slope to the left of the apparently bottomless pit was the designated route. One-by-one, we crawled forward, weary and watchful, lying flat as not to smash our heads on the overhanging limestone which was damp with drip-water. Once the crevice opened, there was room to stand upright, allowing the vast sights and musty smells of cave’s first cavern to sink in. The vast and open chamber caused heads to spin in continuous 360s, eventually coming to a halt when Walker motioned toward the display of bones that rested on one of the caves limestone shelves (the bones are placed in open sight to allow visitors a close-up look).
“A lot of people like to do adventure sports – white water rafting or mountain biking – but the cave is just so different from everything else,” Walker explained.
Her words rang true. The cave whispers idiosyncratic secrets, causing thoughts to reflect inwards. Rather than feeling the need to outcry: “Whoa bro, that was seriously gnarly,” it’s almost as if the silent dialect between you and your comrades is honoured. A common language is formed through a mere glance into each other’s eyes.
From that initial cavern, comfort and ease settled in. Limits were tested as we slid down the intricate channels like our jumpsuits had morphed into toboggans. It wasn’t long before the cold, damp air was welcomed, rather than detested. Arms turned into rubber, quivering as they attempted to haul tired, deadweight bodies up, down and through the cave’s different landings.
“Rat’s Nest is a lot of bang for your buck in terms of cave systems,” explained Walker. “You have your vertical pitches, you have small, small spaces, you have big spaces, you have formations, you have water pools [which one cave diver has dared to explore] – it contains a lot of the elements you would look for in a cave, in one small area.”
The most memorable part of the trip was the “tight squeeze.” The space is so small that it requires you to slither like a snake, arms lodged and locked under your ribcage, because rather than widening, the passage gets tighter midway through. This is also the only point during the adventure-tour that I started to hyperventilate with anxiety. Panic set in by the thought of becoming lodged between the two walls, never to return to the world which continued to move above me.
Once through, my breath restored itself to normal. Panic averted. Although the squeeze didn’t unveil any uncharted passages, digging tools were discovered – tucked away in a small crevasse. Walker said that the tools are used to push the cave’s known 4 kilometre limit, as it’s potentially over 40 kilometres long.
Like a ghost, Canmore Caverns owner and operator, Charles Yonge, emerged to join in on the last leg of the journey. Well-versed in geology (cave deposits being the focus of his PhD thesis at McMaster University), Yonge described how caves offer an opportunity to trace global climate change through the cave deposits, known as stalagmites. As our informal geology lesson continued on, we began to notice familiar formations and caverns– our time underground was coming to a close.
We climbed out of the cave from the same way we had entered, scurrying around on all fours, peeping around stupefied like a bunch of woodrats. Hearts raced as grins extended from ear-to-ear.
Jesse Martin started caving seven years ago, joining the Alberta Speleological Society in the fall of 2007. When describing how caving makes him feel, he shared that “there’s a thrill when I enter a place where (it feels) no living thing has ever been before. I also tend to appreciate how things [are more] beautiful above ground after spending a significant time underground.”
“The discovery aspect is really what turns all cavers on,” Yonge said warning us that “caving is addicting.” Spoiler alert: he was right.