Photographs courtesy of Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park

When I first heard about the Horne Lake Caves from a co-worker, I had visions of a huge opening similar to the cave I toured on the coast of Oregon, in the U.S.A. At the Oregon cave, fairly large groups of visitors are led into a cave strung with electrical lights. The path we followed was easy to walk, with no climbing or stooping involved. The only other cave I had the pleasure of entering was in Greece, where tours were conducted entirely from a boat.

At the Horne Lake Caves, my family took what they call the 'extreme tour'. It started at 9:30 in the morning with lessons on rappelling. We were led to a small cliff near the cave entrances where we were instructed in how to wear the rappelling gear, how to work the ropes and harnesses, and to practice letting ourselves down the cliff. On this day, there were 5 of us taking the tour. That is the maximum number of participants for this type of tour. I was immediately impressed with all the safeguards that were put into place for this practice session. Although they did slow us down a bit, it showed that nothing was left to chance, and that we were in good hands.

After becoming comfortable with rappelling, we went back to the parking lot and took a break for lunch. As this is inside a Provincial Park, there were picnic benches for us to use, but we just sat on the grass alongside the gravel parking lot and ate the lunches that we brought with us.

After lunch we dressed into coveralls and donned what appeared to be miner's hats (you know, those hard hats with the lamp on the front). Our guide also passed out kneepads. I wondered why, but in the end, I was sure glad I had them! Crawling over gravel on your hands and knees without them would be very hard on your knees! We then crossed a small suspension bridge that led us away from the parking lot and to an interpretive center that explained a bit about the caves. From just beyond the interpretive center, there are three paths that lead to each of the three caves. It was a bit of a hike up the fairly steep path before we reached the cave entrance, so our guides gave us a couple of rest breaks while explaining about the earth's tectonic plates and how caves in general are formed. The entrance to this particular cave was located in a forested mountainside, almost invisible to the untrained eye. I saw what looked to be a dried-up creek-bed that abruptly ended against the side of a rock. In the face of this rock was a metal door about the size of a manhole cover (the ones you commonly see in our streets). Our guide unlocked the door, and one by one, we climbed backwards into the darkness. The first part of the cave was quite steep, but there was a ladder in place for us to climb down. The first person down waited at the bottom of the ladder until our guide had locked the door behind us and all of us were together. This part of the cave was about the size of an elevator shaft. With only the light from our helmets, we clambered single-file through the long narrow passage. I can best describe this passage by saying that the floor was like a riverbed, strewn with gravel and boulders. The walls were as though the river had cut a chasm through solid rock (which is literally what had in fact happened here thousands of years ago). In some places, the cave opened up into large chambers like huge rooms in a stately mansion, while in others, the cave narrowed and the ceiling came down to where we needed to walk crouched over like the famous Hunchback of Notre Damn.

All the while, we were cautioned to look out for flowstone, stalagmites, and stalactites. These rock formations are made from calcite that has been deposited by water over many hundreds of years. Since it takes so long for nature to make these rock formations, this cave has been locked up to protect it from vandalism. Some of these rock formations take on recognizable shapes and have been given names such as Ice Cream Waterfall, Jabba The Hut, Winnie The Poo, Piglet, Howling Wolf, and Crocodile. Some of these rock formations are very brittle, such as the Soda Straw stalactites, which are paper-thin hollow pipes. Any of the rock formations that are made of calcite must never be touched because just the oils in our skin can forever change their appearance or growth.

Eventually we reached a point where the cave was originally thought to end. There was this large puddle of water with about 2 inches (5 cm) of airspace above the surface of the water. One day in the past, a very brave cave explorer decided to find out if this really was the end. This person lay on his back in the water with just his nose above the water and pulled himself through an opening in the rock that was just large enough to slide through while laying down; All the while, breathing from this tiny air space above the waterline. That was how the other half (or more) of this cave was discovered. After discovering this pristine part of the cave that was never touched by human hands, it was decided to lock the entrance in order to protect it. From that point on, only guided tours were permitted in this cave.

A pump has been installed to drain this puddle, so we did not need to get nearly as wet as this first explorer. However, getting through this tiny opening was still not exactly easy. We literally slithered through on our bellies! As the opening got larger, we could crawl on hands and knees, and then finally stand up again. At this point our guide issued us with the rappelling gear that he had been packing for us in a duffel bag. After putting on our gear we continued down the slight slope, past pools of water that had to be climbed past if we did not want to get our feet soaked. The floor of the cave was now no longer gravel, but solid rock. The 'rooms' had spectacular calcite formations. On two separate occasions we used the rappelling gear to lower ourselves into vertical chambers, one of them 70 feet (21 m) down. This one was called the Rain Barrel, as there was a constant drizzle of water falling on us from above. Deeper into the cave, we could see layers in the rock walls, and our guide pointed out a spiral fossil that was just clinging to the side of the stone, ready to fall off. It was almost 2 inches (5 cm) long and half an inch (1.5 cm) thick. I was so tempted to pluck it off and keep it as a souvenir. This thing was millions of years old! I could now easily understand why this cave is locked up! Without supervision, it would be plundered in no time.

Finally, we reached the end of the cave and I was disappointed that there was no more. There was gravel on the floor again, and I wanted to dig out the gravel to find out if there was more to the cave. Unfortunately, we had no shovels, and if we stayed much longer, we would not get out before nightfall. On our way back out, we saw things we had not seen before, as we were now looking at everything from the opposite angle. Where we had rappelled down the sheer cliffs, ladders had been brought in for us to climb back up on, however we were still using our harnesses in case we fell off the ladder. Safety was always a priority. At any spot where someone could possibly fall from height, we were always tethered with the rappelling gear.

Exiting the cave, we found out that dusk was upon us. We had spent 6 hours underground! It was hard to believe that time could go by so quickly (time flies when you are having fun). There was no time for us to check out the two caves that are open to the public without admission charge to enter, so I cannot comment on them other than to say that they exist and also require you to have your own hard hat and lights (always carry a spare light). I am told that the other two caves do not require rappelling gear, but coveralls or old clothing is recommended. For a free taste of what it is like to explore a cave, the caves with open access are fine, but to experience the thrill of seeing unspoiled caves without the fear of something going seriously wrong or having to purchase ropes and harnesses, take the tour. If you decide to take the guided tour, I suggest you bring and wear work gloves or old gloves you don't mind getting muddy.

For more information about Horne Lake Caves, visit their web site at http://www.hornelake.com or
write to
Richard Varela - Program Director
Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park
Phone: (250) 339-0555

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