Vancouver Island

Going Underground

A mysterious subterranean world awaits explorers in Vancouver Island’s caves

by Andrew Findlay

Little Huson Caves near Nimpkish Lake, courtesy of Boomer Jerritt/Tourism Vancouver Island

I’ll admit it: I’m most comfortable on terra firma with the sky above. But I’m also drawn underground, to the magic and wonder of caves.

Humans have always found shelter in them, and used their walls and ceilings as a canvas to express their imaginations. Modern-day explorers seek caves to experience a mysterious subterranean frontier. It’s largely a hidden world for most of us — until we visit Vancouver Island, a paradise for experienced and novice cavers alike.

More than 1,000 natural caves and tunnels perforate the bedrock of the Island, including those at the popular Horne Lake Caves near Qualicum, Upana Caves west of Gold River and Little Huson Cave Park near Port McNeill.

On a crisp October day, I follow a rugged trail into the mountains above the gravel logging road between Gold River and Tahsis. I’m in search of a remote system of caves and perhaps, if I linger long enough, a glimpse of the little brown bat or one of the other 10 bat species found on Vancouver Island.

After a steep hike up an old logging cut, I enter an ancient forest of hemlock, cedar and fir. Lichen is draped on the branches like Christmas garlands and the forest floor is spongy with ankle-deep moss. I descend, curving around a rock bluff, and then suddenly the ground seems to open.

A black hole wide enough to permit two adults shoulder-to-shoulder beckons. There’s a rush of cool air, as though the earth itself is breathing. My heart quickens as I put on a helmet and click on my headlamp.

Upana caves, near Gold River

Vancouver Island’s many caves are a result of its karst topography, a landscape shaped by the dissolving action of water on carbonate bedrock — mostly limestone, dolomite and marble. As rain falls, it accumulates carbon dioxide. The raindrops percolate through the soil, picking up more carbon dioxide and forming a weak solution of carbonic acid that naturally exploits cracks or crevices in the rock. Over many thousands of years, underground drainage systems develop and become caves.

Vancouver Island’s regular rainfall and large mass of soluble rock are key, along with steep topography and tectonic, or seismic, activity that forms cracks in the limestone allowing water to enter the bedrock. Finally, the dense forest cover offers up a steady supply decomposing organic matter that adds more carbon dioxide to the environment.

Little Huson Caves

Caves can be ethereal, otherworldly and beautiful, but they are also extremely fragile. Crystal deposits that grow as slowly as one cubic centimetre per century can be destroyed by a carelessly placed foot or hand. Other formations like stalactites and stalagmites, reminiscent of a cathedral organ’s soaring pipes, may never recover if they’re broken.

This delicate subterranean world also supports a hidden ecosystem of plant and animal life. Some fern species are adapted to growing in the cool, moist twilight conditions of cave entrances. During summer, caves provide a cool respite from the sun’s heat, and during winter they are often warmer than the surrounding air, so animals from wolves and cougars to elk and deer seek shelter there.

Of course, many bat species depend on caves for roosting and hibernation, and caves can be home to troglobites, unusual plant or animal species that have evolved to live exclusively in the total darkness of caves. In BC, the only troglobite identified so far is a freshwater crustacean found in underground pools on Vancouver Island.

For many of us, the narrow openings and total darkness of caves might seem intimidating and claustrophobic. But if we can get past our aversion, a world of surreal geological formations and otherworldly sights awaits. These are silent places that resonate with the dreams of our earliest ancestors, when caves were a refuge — sacred, mysterious and wonderful.

Spelunking at Horne Lake near Qualicum Beach, courtesy of Boomer Jerritt/Tourism Vancouver Island

Where to Cave

The variety of caves on Vancouver Island is as unlimited as the imagination, and more are being discovered all the time.

Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park is home to some of the most accessible karst caves in Canada. Discovered in the early 1900s and thoroughly explored in the 1930s and later, Horne Lake has options for avid and novice spelunkers alike. Two small caves are open to the public to explore independently. For a guided experience, Horne Lake Caves and Outdoor Centre offers regular two-hour Riverbend Cave Explorer Tour, a fantastic way to learn about cave geology and ecology. For the more adventurous, the five-hour Underground Extreme tour has cavers rappelling down a seven-storey underground waterfall then climbing back out on a cable ladder.

The Upana Caves, about 25 minutes from Gold River, are named after the underground river that flows through the system. The system features five caves for experienced spelunkers, a viewpoint overlooking a waterfall and a viewing platform near the entrance of Resurgence Cave.

Near Tahsis, Thanksgiving Cave is Vancouver Island’s longest known cave, at 7.6 kilometres, and is for experienced and self-reliant cavers only.

Further north, Little Huson Caves Regional Park in the Nimpkish Valley showcases outstanding karst features such as soaring limestone arches, rock bridges and deep pools of crystal-clear water.

Caving Essentials

Dress appropriately; caves can be cool, damp places so wear gloves, warm synthetic inner layers and an outer layer that is abrasion-resistant. A helmet is essential, and knee pads and elbow pads also help guard against bruises when passing through narrow openings. A top-quality headlamp, with extra batteries, is the single most important piece of equipment.

Flowstone formations at the Riverbend Cave System at Horne Lake near Qualicum Beach, courtesy of Boomer Jerritt/Tourism Vancouver Island

Though you might be tempted to go deep into the earth, remember that whatever you go up or down in a cave you must be able to pass over in the opposite direction. Experienced cavers are skilled in climbing techniques, using ropes to descend and ascend otherwise-impassable features. If you lack these skills, only go caving with a guided group or experienced spelunkers. Finally, never cave alone, bring enough food and water and know your limits.

— Andrew Findlay is a Comox Valley-based writer who has experienced travel and adventure on five continents.