Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The Palaeolithic artist: part 5

"Old Man" Cro-magnon
I had been going to the Canyon Creek ice caves since the late sixties. There was a different road back then, and I remember one section that clung to the edge of a rock face on one side, and had a drop to the creek on the other. That section was always dotted with fallen rocks up to about a foot in size, and I often wondered if the car would be adequate protection if one landed on it. It never happened, though.

There was only one trip where two of my friends and I penetrated really deeply into the cave. Short of a really narrow crevice parallel with the floor in one of the large chambers behind where the impenetrable ice wall now prevents anything more interesting than a stroll in the "tourist area", we visited every part of the cave that was accessible at the time. "Floor" might be misleading, sometimes it was at an angle and there were many large rocks one had to get over.

One of the more exciting parts of the cave, and perhaps that is true with many caves, was the chimney. We had gone as far as we could in the more spacious chambers and passages when we saw it. It's entrance was about four feet above the "floor" and shining a light into it, we saw that it traveled upward at only about fifteen degrees, so it would be an easy climb. It was very small, though. I went in first. Perhaps you are picturing me crawling through it with the light from my helmet guiding the way. Think again. We took no helmets with lights on them. We were bare-headed and just had small flashlights.

I had less than a foot clearance above my head for most of the way as I crawled on my stomach using my hands and feet to propel myself along, and I had less than a foot clearance either side of me. Not a single photon of light had penetrated the cave for most of the journey so far, and of course we had all done what everybody does: we turned off all the lights and placed our hands in front of our face to see if we could detect them at all. It was utter darkness, the darkness you only find deep underground. Funny, though, all of the journey had been uphill.

It had taken us a long time to get to the chimney, probably about an hour, but we were checking every nook, cranny and crevice along the way, searching for new places to squeeze in and explore. It was cold, yes, but as we often say in Alberta, "It's a dry cold". There was often a very slight breeze coming down to us from deeper in the cave, and we had heard stories that no one had explored it all; that there were potentially dangerous parts; and that there was one passage that would lead right to the top of Moose Mountain.
The air was coming in through just very small fissures, though. Not even wide enough to get a hand in there.

There were only two smells: the limestone smell all around us was sometimes penetrated by the faintest whiff of sulphur. A lot of the rock was quite jagged and fractured: that typical Alberta Rockies look that makes you think that the mountain had just raised itself just before you arrived. On the approach, amidst all the scree, that ran down from the cave were a few tiny brachiopods almost gem-like in their crisp detail. Devonian period, about 400 million years old.  Once, a friend who did not know a lot, said that there must have been a great flood, and mentioned Noah. I laughed. "No" I said. "These mountains are made from an old sea bed".

As we went through the chimney, I could sense the thousands (or would it have been millions?) of tons of rock all around me. At no point, did I experience any fear, or even the slightest apprehension about what we were doing, and if any of my friends did, they did not mention it. Nor did I get the idea that I was pushing myself through any symbolic birth passage, either. The only emotion was looking forward to how far we might get.

"There's a creek here", I said to the friend behind me. More a trickle, really, but it was not just a temporary run-off of rainwater, as it actually had little bed with small fragments of rock that had been carried along. It entered through a hole on the right of me and flowed out somewhere through a crack on my left. But it was tiny: less than a foot wide and just a few mm. deep. I tried to stay dry, raising my body as best I could without banging my head on the rock above. That part slowed us down a bit and we all got a just a little wet here and there.

A little further and the chimney ended in a very short widening section that opened out into a short "hallway" about ten feet high at its lowest point. It was like a "T' intersection of a tiny footpath with a country road not much wider than a single lane. The floor consisted of loose rocks sparkling with a very thin glaze of ice. At each end of that "country road" though was solid ice. We had gone as far as it was possible to go. We rested for a little while and then headed back into the chimney, and got a little wetter in the creek. It was much quicker going out as we had seen everything on the way in, and were starting to get a bit too cold for comfort. No archetypal fears had made themselves known to me during the whole expedition. We made it back to the entrance. I suppose we were in the mountain for about two hours.

Then came the shock. I had never experienced anything like that in my life. As we stepped into the sunlight, the smell of Lodgepole Pine and Spruce was almost overwhelming, and I don't mean anything like those dreadful car air fresheners, or the scent from some cleaning product. It smelt like pine, sure, but it also smelled like some rare perfume. It smelled like life. I had not thought of them for the whole time we were in the cave, but experiencing that magical moment I wondered if our Palaeolithic ancestors had experienced something like that, too, the smell of their world that they had never experienced before coming out of their caves.

As you leave the city, the smells change so gradually you do not even notice any smell. We had smelled nothing at the cave entrance on the way in; I had never smelled the trees on any of my shorter visits there either. It was given us as we had spent so long in that lifeless, dark place.


  1. It sounds absolutely lovely John! There are so few places around the world that one can experience "real" cave exploration and adventure anymore. It's a wonder that one doesn't need a guide to walk through city parks these days!

    1. Sadly, Julie, the cave can no longer be explored to that degree. Mostly, that is due to nature but man also has made a nasty impact on the entire area. I talk about a couple of later of later visits to the cave and the area (and a couple of Cougar Canyon experiences) here:

      The first incident was just a week before I went into hospital for spinal surgery and I was not sure whether I would be paralyzed as a result. I was in great pain, but I wanted to to see the place again. Fortunately, my 50/50 chance worked out well for me (after a year's post operative exercises, that is!)

      I certainly share your sentiment!