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Caving in Canmore – A Thrilling Experience

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It was only in the last month that I stumbled on the fact that Canmore, Alberta boasts one of the largest cave systems in Canada with approximately four kilometres mapped to date. You’d think that after living in Calgary for over three years, I would have heard about this – but I hadn’t.

The thought of caving scares a lot of people – including myself. Fortunately there are tours for novices like me who want to test themselves, experience a real adventure and get the adrenalin pumping. Canmore Cave Tours, with an office just 10 minutes from downtown Canmore has been around for 30 years. Though they started with tours for the military, they have turned the business into a year round affair. (Caves maintain a constant temperature of about 5 C so you can quite literally cave 365 days a year). Now they take about 4,000 people per year into the Rat’s Nest Cave on one of four tours that they offer. I signed up for the six hour adventure tour – with four of the six hours underground.

The Rat’s Nest Cave is accessed via a five minute drive from their office and a 25 minute hike up a canyon, with some stellar mountain views along the way. But before we even leave the office, we must sign waivers and get suited up in caving gear.

Reading the waiver is almost enough to put me off. Rescues can be difficult, blasting at a nearby quarry can happen and shake the ground… really the list goes on but I dutifully sign and figure chances are actually super low that anything bad will happen.

In the office I meet my guide for the day, Diana Kirkwood, and two other participants – Byron and Marina, power systems electricians from Calgary. We don knee-pads, a climbing harness and then a set of coveralls that makes me feel like I’m wearing prison garb. Though they’re anything but flattering, they do help keep your clothes clean as the Rat’s Nest Cave is muddy and dusty; plus these coveralls have pockets and zippers in all the right places. We’re also provided with wool gloves, helmets and powerful head lamps.

It's a beautiful hike up to the cave entrance

It’s a beautiful hike up to the cave entrance

I had brought my usual backpack with me and stuffed it with safety gear as well as water, lunch and a camera. In the office I was told that I would be leaving all of that behind. The reason being – there are tight places to slither through and a pack would get in the way. Plus it’s so gritty you can actually taste it – and that’s not a good environment for expensive cameras. In the end I brought only a power bar and my cellphone.

Before we arrive at the cave, we stop to discuss the geology. A couple of interesting rock samples are produced that attest to the fact that these mountains are made of limestone with fossils from the past.

Shells in the limestone found along the trail to the cave

Shells in the limestone found along the trail to the cave

We reach Rat’s Nest Cave, discovered by hikers in 1972 and see a sign designating the cave and a square mile around the entrance as a Provincial Historical Site. The entrance itself is gated and locked, with the cave accessible only with a guide or by permission.

Dressed in our caving finest outside the entrance to Rat's Nest Cave

Dressed in our caving finest outside the entrance to Rat’s Nest Cave

The tour begins and over the next four hours (which fly by) we are treated to tiny tunnels, large caverns, a 60 foot rappel into the darkness, a narrow descent through what’s called the Laundry Chute and some stunning cave scenery. Our guide told us that one client had this to say about the Laundry Chute – “Oh man, that was worse than a colonoscopy.”

There are two optional squeezes that looked just a tad too tight for my comfort. At one point, we turned off our headlamps and sat in complete darkness with our eyes frantically trying to make something out of nothing. Then, still with lights off, we clambered on hands and knees forwards in the direction of the guide’s voice. It wasn’t until we turned our lights back on that we saw the slab of rock and the bumpy ground we had covered.

My fellow cavers in the Rat's Nest Cave

Melinda and Byron – my fellow cavers

Other highlights in the cave included a sighting of a bushy tailed wood rat. With giant eyes, it was actually kind of cute. A few minutes later what looks like lichen on the wall turned out to be a mess of Daddy Long Legs spiders.

Daddy Long Legs en masse not far from the opening if the cave

Daddy Long Legs en masse not far from the opening if the cave

Rat's Nest Cave

Me before our big rappel

Rat's Nest Cave in Canmore

It’s getting tight – but it looks worse than it is

Rat's Nest Cave in Canmore, Alberta

All legs

Rat's Nest Cave, Canmore, Alberta

The 60 foot rappel

Coming out of the laundry chute - Rat's Nest Cave

Someone sliding into the Laundry Chute – Photo credit: Canmore Cave Tours

Rock icicles - growing at 1 cm/100 years

Soda straws – growing at a rate of 1 cm/100 years

The beauty of calcite

The beauty of calcite

Our turn around point was a beautiful area filled with calcite formations and a couple of crystal clear pools. Experienced spelunkers bring scuba gear down here and continue exploring. Visibility is excellent when they swim in, but the pool gets stirred up and all the silt and mud effectively reduce the visibility to zero for their swim out. No thank you.

More underground beauty - Rat's Nest Cave, Alberta

More underground beauty

At the turn around point, we were roughly 60 metres below the surface. To get back to the entrance, it was a combination of backtracking and new ground. I found we were at the entrance breathing fresh air in short order.

Then it’s a quick jaunt downhill to the car and mission accomplished.

A relaxed walk out from the cave

A relaxed walk out from the cave

Exploring the Rat’s Nest Cave is a thrilling experience. I learned that I was far more capable of crawling into tight places than I thought possible. I was wowed by the beauty and in awe of the real spelunkers who explore the underground world.

There is a two hour tour that doesn’t require the rappel – but that was a highlight for me. It takes some guts and a sense of adventure to do this tour but it’s definitely worth it.

Would you consider the Canmore caving experience?

Caving in Canmore, Alberta is a thrilling experience

This post was sponsored by Travel Alberta but all thoughts and opinions as always are strictly my own. 

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
HikeBikeTravel
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Author Hike Bike Travel

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Arianwen says:

    This looks right up my street! I’ve been caving in New Zealand, Belize and Guatemala and it’s so much fun! I was a bit scared rapelling into the darkness, but it’s a fantastic feeling!

  • I’d be leaning towards the 2-hour tour, but the rest of my family would be voting for exciting rappelling and squeezing through tight spots. I can definitely see how getting a backpack down through the Laundry Chute would be difficult. Do they measure people beforehand to make sure no one will get stuck? I also had no idea that Alberta had such a large cave. It looks like it’d be a fun alternative to skiing if I was on holiday up there.

    • @Michele It sounds like you have a very adventurous family. I think they must have a look at people and size them up – but they don’t formally measure anyone. Maybe people self select. I think the minimum age for kids is 10.

  • NullNFull says:

    Yay! I was scared even reading this post. Would I consider entering this cave? Probably! Thanks for such a wonderful story.

  • Marcia says:

    The Laundry Chute, huh? Had to laugh when you said someone likened it to a colonoscopy.
    You’re pretty brave, Leigh. That was a tiny space you had to crawl through — and moving around in the dark? Yup, you’re brave.

  • melyssa says:

    How did you get such great pictures? With your cellphone? If so, what tricks or settings or app did you use? We are doing this tour in July and I want to get some awesome pics.

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