In search of something to do on the May long weekend, Nancy Drew and I decided to head through the coal branch to the foot of the rocky mountains, just past the hamlet of Cadomin. Neither of us had even been caving before, but both of us had really enjoyed previous excursions into abandoned hard-rock mines; and the cave was the nearest thing to a mine within reach.
The Cadomin Cave is by no means unexplored territory; since its discovery over one hundred years ago it has been visited by dozens and dozens of people. In fact, by the time it was initially surveyed by the Alberta Speleological Society (A.S.S.), it was already heavily vandalized. The cave is home to a colony of bats and access is restricted to protect them during their winter hibernation; visiting is allowed only from May to August. Despite the steep, 1.5 hour hike up the mountain, hordes of people- both young and old- flock to the cave. Visitor traffic has increased to the point where you park in a large gravel lot, the trail up the mountain is partly constructed, marked by signs, and heavily trampled, and you can purchase maps from the general store in Cadomin. The cave is listed on most travel websites, and there are guided tours offered by more than a few companies.
Despite all indications that it was a total tourist trap, it was something I'd never seen, and I was determined to explore something underground this weekend. Besides, if it was interesting enough to attract scores of visitors, I wouldn't want to be the only one to miss out. I reasoned that if we made our own adventure, it was still exploring- even if the paths had been so heavily traveled even a blind man could follow them.
Our experience started at the general store, where we dutifully purchased a photocopied map of the cave for 25 ¢. Driving up to the road, I was shocked to see that the large parking lot at the base of the mountain was nearly full, over a dozen vehicles crowding the space. Two more pickup trucks drove in as we were lacing up hiking boots and packing flashlights into our backpacks. We each had a full canteen and multiple lights, and our past mine experiences had taught us the value of wearing a hardhat while underground.
The ground was soaked prior to our arrival, puddles formed from the rain storm a half hour earlier. The skies above were gray and threatening another shower, but since we'd arrived later than planned we hurredly started off up the trail. Even near the bottom, I could see that thanks to the rain it would eventually become a slippery climb. We walked up, through a forest of trees, crossed through a culvert under a mining road, and kept going. We passed at least twelve people who were coming down from the cave; many were dirty, wearing rain coats or coveralls, and the smart minority sported helmets. For the hike up, I'd chosen to wear shorts and a t-shirt, stowing everything else into my backpack; this soon proved a smart decision as it was very warm and humid. We kept walking, following a trail of broken rock up beside a gully. We passed by a man and his energetic, muddy six year old son (who was still excited from the cave), then crossed over the small stream, going up into the trees once more. The path, still very well marked and even covered with wood chips in some areas, turned and became steeper. 45 minutes after we'd left the parking lot, we were covering more distance vertically than horizontally, using tree roots as stairs up the trail. Thanks to the humidity I was sweating buckets, and Nancy Drew wasn't doing any better. We broke out of the tree line onto a hill that was nearly vertical, and did our best to ascend using muddy, heavily trampled steps in the slope. People coming down the trail above us disloged a fist-sized rock that bounced down toward us, narrowly missing before continuing down the hill. After that, we both put on our hardhats for the remainder of the climb.
The cave's entrance is at an elevation of 1891m, roughly 300m above the parking lot where we'd started. We climbed the final steps up to the mouth of the cave, where a group of people in dirt-smeared clothes were feeding a chipmunk a granola bar. On the exposed mountain side, Nancy Drew and I found a dry rock to sit on while we changed into coveralls and readied our gear for exploring. The sky was still obscured by grey clouds and the view of the valley was dim and foggy. Another small group of people reached the top of the trail, and celebrated their arrival at the cave by taking a cigarette break. Cancer-causing smoke was the last thing we smelled before heading to the rocky entrance of the cave.
The cave mouth, a dark gash in the solid rock of the mountain, was frosted by a small, rapidly melting snowbank; the water from this flowed down in a stream into the cave. I ducked in, and followed the trail of footsteps down the muddy slope into the darkness beyond. Nancy Drew followed me in, and I turned on the headlamp strapped to my hardhat.
The ground, a mix of dirt and rock, sloped down away from the entrance toward some bigger boulders. At first, I couldn't see much of anything, so stood for a moment to let my eyes adjust. A group of responsible-looking people came up from the depths of the cave, their headlamps bobbing past. I said a quick hello to most, and found out they'd been exploring for about four hours. I felt slightly jealous- we could only spare half that time to explore this mysterious, rocky darkness.
Eager to head deeper inside, I sort of just stumbled forward, awkwardly lurching around rocks toward a sloping wall at the back of the room. As Nancy Drew walked up, I was looking around and noticed that the wall lead up through a large hole near the ceiling. Curious, and encouraged by the scuff marks on the slope from past visitors, I led us upward. The ceiling quickly closed in, and soon I was sitting in a small chamber at the top. With some difficulty, Nancy Drew followed me, and together we waited for a moment as a group of guys passed us and headed back down the way we'd just climbed. Here, as we paused, I noticed that every rock surface was covered by a layer of dirt that was somewhere in between wet and dry; and the air was very humid.
The ceiling had closed in on us, and I realized that wearing a bulky backpack through the cave would be very cumbersome; so we decided to leave our bags at the top. Packing an extra light in a pocket, I headed off to where the guys had just come from. We popped into a long area- marked on the map as the East Gallery- that was narrow, with a ceiling that rose high above before quickly plunging back down just above the floor. We went on, crawling into more areas across a floor that soon sloped steeply down under a low ceiling, like a wide rocky chute.
At the bottom of the slope, above what looked like an underground canyon, we stopped to catch our breath and re-orient ourselves. We'd been in the mountain for a half-hour, and I had made a few observations about the surroundings. First, the only similarity the cave shared with a mine was that they are both underground, in rock. Caves are entirely natural and random, with no real sense of flat- every surface is curved around, slanted down, or jagged across. Whereas mines are inherently made for easy passage of people and machines, caves are places made by water and much more difficult to traverse. With these observations clear in mind, we set off down the boulder-choked canyon, climbing over, around and down the rock.
Eventually, it seemed we were at a dead end at the bottom of a short slope; but I happened to look up and see a black opening in the rock near the ceiling. Climbing up and inside, I got the impression of a murky, far-reaching empty space, and excitedly urged Nancy Drew to follow me in. We stood inside of a large rocky cavern that was filled with a fairly dense fog, and even the beam of my powerful hand-held torch didn't reach the far walls or sloping ceiling. The map showed a large chamber, called the Mess Hall, and given the size of the space beyond I assumed we had reached it. I made a quick foray out into the darkness, up a boulder-spotted slope before stopping and re-orienting myself. The ceiling was within reach now, an I could see Nancy Drew's light through the fog, far away at the other end of the cavern. Picking a careful path, I went back to where she was sitting. I took a picture of Nancy Drew but the fog was so thick, the resulting photo looked like we were in a smoke-filled room.
Unfortunately we only had time for a short adventure, and our decided turn-back time had arrived so we made our way back to the entrance. Instead of retracing our steps via the East Gallery, we took another route promised by the map through the Main Gallery. The crowd of smokers from the mouth of the cave passed by us at the junction, heading deeper inside; I noted that (even without our backpacks) none of them seemed as equipped as we were. We wound through a twisting underground canyon, around huge boulders and through gaps in the rock, steadily moving upward. Here and there, arrows and other graffiti were spraypainted on the rocks, never allowing us to forget that we were just two more tourists. Sadly, I realized that the bits of graffiti were about the only 'features' inside the cave; everything else was just rock covered by the omnipresent brown dirt. The chambers and canyons were all fantastic, though- strikingly different from those in a mine- and I felt very happy to be crawling around in the darkness.
All too soon, I rounded a rocky bend and caught a glimpse of daylight at the end of a long chamber. We made a quick detour and retrieved our backpacks, which luckily no one had touched. Unwilling to leave the cave just yet, we sat down and had a quick snack, listening to the strange squeals of the bats hiding in the crevices. Now and then, a quick blur would streak by, a solitary bat traveling at hight speed into the pitch black corridors beyond.
We climbed up the muddy slope and emerged on the side of the mountain. The gray clouds overhead were now leaking a slow rain, which was making the ground even more slick and muddy than it already was. As we stood there in our coveralls and hardhats, looking out across the valley, a man and his two girls climbed up the trail and asked us a few questions about the cave. After a final glance at the black hole in the rock, we began our descent.
On the way down, we discussed how the hundreds of yearly visitors are quite obviously having a huge, negative effect on the mountain and the cave. From graffiti, to garbage, to trail damage and slope erosion, the signs of tourism are everywhere. But speaking as a tourist, I'm glad the cave is still open to visitors because I had a great time inside, and we were already making plans to return by the time we reached the car.
To make the most of our time inside, I was more focused on exploring the cave than taking photos, so I left my photo gear inside my backpack. I quickly noticed that taking photos in the cave was difficult with just camera flash; but I did my best to capture something recognizable. The fog was also a problem for the flash, as was the light-absorbing mud on every rocky surface. I made them black and white because there was really no colour- just mud and darkness.