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What is Caving ?

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Ian Mckenzie, Alberta Speleological Society

Cave exploring, or caving, is the recreational companion of speleology, which is the scientific study of natural caves. Caving enthusiasts call themselves "cavers", rather than "spelunkers" which is a term often used by noncavers.

Although cave exploration in Canada is older than the country, organized exploration began in the 1960s when many of our caving clubs were organized. Today, cavers may be found in every province, and major clubs are found in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia. BC and Quebec also have regional associations, but there is no national caving organization although Canadian cavers keep in touch with each other through an independent national publication, The Canadian Caver. Cavers from Canada often work together on major cave explorations, and Canadians have organized or participated in cave explorations throughout the world.

Western Canada has the country's longest and deepest caves, roughly grouped into two major regions, Vancouver Island and the Rocky Mountains. Vancouver Island has the greatest number and arguably the best caves in Canada, as the climate and geology tends to produce caves that are more voluminous and better decorated than elsewhere in the country. Rockies caves tend to be cold, muddy and uncomfortable, although the longest, deepest and most challenging caves are found there. Caves elsewhere in Canada tend to be fairly small, although Quebec has two long caves including Canada's longest underwater cave.

Interest in caving is growing worldwide, partially due to the continuing concern for health, fitness and the environment, and a growing demand for outdoor experiences with an educational purpose. Perhaps the caver's greatest motivation is the thrill of original discovery. The remotest corners of the globe have been observed by satellite technology, yet there is no alternative to personal investigation of caves. Most cavers are drawn by the potential for discovering new caves or finding new extensions to known caves, but some simply enjoy the solitude and beauty of the underground wilderness. Others enjoy the camaraderie of caving, which can be a rewarding group activity as the physical and technical challenges can demand concentrated team work.

For some, caves are objects of study, to be entered as much for scientific examination of underground features as for pleasure. Natural caves may be studied for their archaeology, ecology, biology, cartography, history, geology, minerology and hydrology, to name but a few research disciplines.

Besides the growing number of Canadians who cave for recreation and research, there are many who enter caves as casual visitors. Indeed, the growth of "wild cave" tourism, a form of commercial recreation, has paralleled that of caving, and several commercial operators offer supervised tours. Now the average person can enjoy an activity that he or she may have missed through lack of experience, skills, equipment or leadership.

Hazards can include flooding, rock instability, falls, getting stuck, getting lost, light failure, exhaustion, and hypothermia. Depending on the level of difficulty and the length of the cave visited, caving can be a strenuous activity requiring reasonably good fitness and health. Casual exploration of simple horizontal or semihorizontal caves requires some equipment besides warm clothing. A good, reliable light with at least two backup sources ensures your exit and helps you see the cave's features and your footing on uneven floors. A helmet with a chin strap protects you from low ceilings and falling rocks. Sturdy, rubber-lugged boots are needed in slippery conditions, and if you are more adventurous, hands-and-knees situations require gloves, knee pads and additional protective clothing such as coveralls. More advanced caving involving the safe negotiation of vertical drops requires specialized ropes and equipment and the knowledge and experience required to use them properly.

To ensure safe, enjoyable experience, prospective cavers are encouraged to join a caving club or take one of the courses offered in some communities. Remember, never go caving alone... and always inform someone of your plans! If you have an accident that requires outside assistance, contact the nearest RCMP detachment.

Cave environments can be very fragile. For this reason, cavers follow a basic code of conduct to maintain the caves for future visitors:

  • Keep to the established underground routes.
  • Do not litter or mark the caves.
  • Do not disturb crickets, spiders or other forms of life.
  • Do not touch cave formations

The caver's motto is: "Take nothing but pictures, kill nothing but time, leave no trace."

For a description of cave types, click here

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This site created Sept '95,
Updated 11 December 2005.