It’s a hot July day outside but my breath mists in the cool air as I peer into the blackness at the tiny lights twinkling far, far below.
“That’s an awfully long way down,” I say as I go on belay.
My guide, Brent Arnold, can hear the fear in my voice.
“You’re doing great,” he says.
I clutch the rope in a death grip as I inch my way backwards over the seven-storey drop into the darkness.
It has been a long time coming. Two years ago I had peered over this same void with my then-13-year-old son, knowing there’s an age limit of 15 years to take this final plunge into the so-called Rain Barrel and through the spectacular formations in the China Shop that wait below.
As I inch my way down the cliff I have at least some confidence, having just undergone a training session about the basics of rappelling down a cliff face overlooking Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park.
From there our small group — the extreme tour to the very bottom of the Riverbend Cave takes a maximum of five people — hiked up a switchbacking trail to the cave entrance. It’s a steep, fairly long walk, but Arnold stops frequently to talk about caves, cave etiquette and the need for cave conservation.
We can feel the coldness streaming out of the cave as we file down the metal stairway and past the impressive gate that prevents unauthorized access. There’s a good reason for the gate. Vandals have made a point of spray painting and breaking some of the fragile rock formations inside, snapping off tens of thousands of years of growth in an instant.
We continue on into the darkness, our headlamps illuminating the calcite formations on the walls and ceiling. We stop briefly at the formation called the Smiling Buddha — a calcite deposit that could look like the spiritual leader meditating beside a still pool or a lump of mashed potatoes, depending on your outlook. However, we soon move on. There’s another tour coming in, a family one, that will make that spot its final destination before turning around and heading back for the light.
Soon we have to crouch and then go on our hands and knees in the first of three major crawlways and pop out at what Arnold calls the Decision Room.
“Because of the crawlway, people will tend to decide if they are willing to accept the rest of the cave,” he says. “This one has been known to make some people cry and the next one is four to five body-lengths long.”
There are no problems however and we continue through that low, narrow passage to the waiting room, where we wait as Arnold begins the siphon to drain the water from a pool of water that used to be known as the end of the cave.
A caver named Stephanie McLeod changed all that, he explains, when she decided the pool might have something behind it. She stripped down, tied a rope to her ankle and gave the other end to her husband and plunged in.
“There was a little air pocket so she flipped over on her back and got a breath and then continued, but the rope was too short so she untied it and went on,” Arnold says. “She popped up on the other side and went exploring for three more hours. Her husband and her friends must have been bawling after pulling up the rope with no Stephanie attached.”
The siphon finishes its job and we begin the belly crawl through to the other side. Rocks scrape my back as I ease my way through — no place for the claustrophobic!
Past the siphon the calcite formations — soda straws, bacon strips, flowstone, cave coral, moon milk and more, are a pristine, glistening white. Only about five per cent of the people who visit Riverbend Cave ever opt to crawl through the siphon, meaning there is less damage and discoloration from people inadvertently touching the formations. Arnold is strict about ensuring we leave them entirely untouched.
It’s a short scramble behind our headlights before we get to the next challenge, a 17-foot rappell into what Arnold calls the Wonderbread Room, for its brilliant white calcite formations.
After yet another drop down a foot-wide caving ladder into the Crinoid Kingdom — so called because of the abundance of ancient fossils embedded in the layers of chert, we take a detour to peer over the edge of Achilles’ Pot, a gloomy hole in the floor that sports crystal formations nine metres-long and metres thick. They must have been growing there, he says, for millions of years to get that huge.
It’s just a short traverse to the Rain Barrel, a drop of 70 feet. Although we all signed waivers prior to our departure, Arnold is meticulous about ensuring everyone practices safe rope protocol as we approach the black void.
I’m last in line to take the plunge and while the first step is frightening, Arnold is warm and reassuring and I spider my way down the cliff until my grateful feet again touch gravel.
That’s where things get really interesting. The formations here are absolutely pure, in all their wild forms. It’s a visual feast.
To keep them this way, we crawl and contort ourselves into quasi-yogic positions to get past them with absolutely no contact.
Arnold holds up at the end of the China Shop. It’s just a short, winding passage between there and the terminal sump — our destination, the very back of Riverbend Cave.
We do a lights out in the 100 per cent blackness and Arnold tells us how after three hours in perfect darkness the brain starts to create hallucinations, few of which are pleasant.
Fortunately there’s a ladder partway up the side of the Rain Barrel and we slowly begin our ascent back towards the light — but not before we attempt the Troglobyte Challenge. That involves belly crawling through the siphon and the next major crawlway with our lights out. It’s tough and despite the narrowness of the passage I am forced to flash my light four times after getting disoriented. The others manage with varying levels of success.
Finally, we squeeze pass a family tour group and mount the stairs to the welcoming sunlight.
Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park is located on Horne Lake Road and has cave tours for all levels of fitness and ability. Call them at 250-248-7829 for more information.