Words by Photographer and Canadian adventurer Dax Justin
I’d lived every day of my life above ground, until my latest assignment required me to descend deep beneath the surface. I was part of a three-person caving experience in Alberta, Canada, made up of myself, my manager and a guide. Max, our guide, was an invaluable resource as we prepared to descend hundreds of feet underground into Rat’s Nest Cave.
As I write this, I’m staring down at thousands of years old sediment still trapped underneath my fingernails. I don’t really care to wash it off yet. I want the experience to stay fresh in my mind as long as possible.
Rappelling into a fault line
I have to admit, I expected the cave to feel “underground,” as in dark and claustrophobic. Instead, it felt like another planet - an alien planet that was alive. Only a rare place can exist without the assistance of the one thing we all believe every living thing needs to survive: the sun.
The cave doesn’t need it. In fact, it thrives without it.
We started by rappelling into the same fault line that created Lake Minnewanka. This Canadian glacial lake is located in the eastern area of Banff National Park. Admittedly, I'm uneasy at the thought of crawling into tiny cracks and squeezing through tunnels hundreds of feet below the Earth. But something happened down there. Time stopped. And as we descended into Earth’s womb, so did my fears.
Fully harnessed, I gazed down into the dark abyss. I felt slightly nervous; I wasn’t sure what to expect. The indigenous people who visited the cave thousands of years before referred to it as the “heart of the land.” Thinking about this, I felt a sense of reverence come over me. I knew I was privileged to experience the same thing as generations upon generations before. I was ready to absorb it, challenges and all.
Into the darkness
We slid on our backs between two slabs of rock at a 45-degree angle to enter The Bone Yard. The room overflowed with skeletal remains: deer and paleontological specimens of birds, snakes, fish and amphibians. But where did they come from? Some animals fell into the cave and died, the bones of others were carried in by rats. Prehistoric tools found here date back roughly 3,000 years.
We left The Bone Yard and prepared to rappel 18 metres into the pitch-black. There was no turning back.
Inside Rat Nest’s Cave
Accurately named, one of the cave’s main features – The Laundry Chute – is a vertical crawl down a tight squeeze, followed by a sharp horizontal shimmy that requires you to shift your body into an “L” shape. It takes approximately two minutes to get through. This squeeze challenges anyone who is claustrophobic. Two minutes is not a long time, but it feels endless when you’re maneuvering through the Chute.
We made our way to the Grand Gallery, the largest room in the cave. I remember staring straight up at the long fault line that leads all the way to Lake Minnewanka and thinking, “These two chunks of the Earth formed the cave I’m standing in, shaped by pressure and time.” Wow.
We crawled a further 54 metres down to reach the Grotto Pool. (The lowest point in the cave is -165 metres.) More intimate in size, the water inside is clear and pristine. Stalactites and stalagmites surround me, adorning the cave’s ceiling and floor. If I ever find myself on another planet, I think this is what it would look like.
Interconnected “curtains” that took about 750,000 years to form – referred to as Pig’s Ears – stole my breath. Max explained: “This is a picture of a time machine. It's fine to say that we are looking back at thousands of years of growth, but when we look back, what is it that we see? This creepy alien thing is actually a wise old storyteller with many yarns to spin, and empowered with information about the climate's past, we can begin to make informed decisions for the future in regards to climate change. This is just another way that the cave can teach us about the world, the past, and ourselves.”
Returning to the real world
Inside the cave, we discovered the ultimate sense of solitude. We learned how paleoclimatology (the study of time through climate) gives us windows into past worlds. We only spent five hours underground, but being in the cave really felt like entering a living time machine. I now understand why this visceral, thrilling exploration is a Signature Canadian Experience.
Even after the dirt has been cleaned from beneath my nails, the opportunity to “go deep” will stay with me forever. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I ventured into Earth’s womb and came out a new person, nurtured by the deep.
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to venture underground?
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