Canmore Cave Tours and a Claustrophobic Caver

Everyone has fears and phobias – even if they don’t like to admit it. Claustrophobia, the fear of being in small spaces, is one of mine. I know it’s irrational, but when I find myself stuck in a small space my heart starts to pound and I want to get out as quickly as possible. Sometimes I panic, like the time I got stuck in the ladies bathroom at a Subway restaurant when the doorknob broke. Knowing this, you might wonder why I signed myself and my family up for a guided tour of the Rat’s Nest Cave with Canmore Cave Tours. And you might be surprised to learn that it’s an experience I highly recommend.

An image of the inside of the Rat's Nest Cave and a man standing on a rock with a helmet and head lamp on - Canmore Cave Tours
Sometimes you just have to challenge yourself and caving is a cool way to do it. Photo by Adam Walker. Compliments of Canmore Cave Tours.

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Why I Booked a Caving Tour

I realize claustrophobia is an irrational fear and I’m always trying to conquer it – or at the very least not let it hold me back from trying new things. I think it’s good to challenge myself ever now and then. Guided Canmore cave tours are a safe way for beginner cavers to challenge themselves. Perhaps these caving experiences will help me stay calm the next time I get trapped in a bathroom or heaven forbid – an elevator.

An image of a man looking at a rock formation inside the Rat's Nest Cave near Canmore, Alberta - Canmore Cave Tours
There are fascinating rock formations inside the Rat’s Nest Cave. Photo by Greg Olsen.

Related: Getting stuck in bathrooms happens. At least it does to me. Find out how I got out when I was Trapped in a Bathroom in Rome.

Canmore Cave Tours – Rat’s Nest Cave

Canmore Cave Tours utilizes the Rat’s Nest Cave just outside Canmore for its cave tours. Named a Provincial Historic Site in 1986, the 4-km Rat’s Nest Cave was carved by the melt waters of ancient glaciers on Grotto Mountain and is well decorated with stalactites and stalagmites and other fascinating geological formations. . Although it wasn’t discovered by Europeans until 1858, the cave entrance must have been open for several thousand years judging by the amount of ancient animal bones left by indigenous people in the entrance cone. It is classified as a wild cave, because there are no lights, boardwalks, railings, or other man-made amenities inside.

An image of a group of people on a Canmore Cave Tours in the Rat's Nest Cave in Canmore, Alberta.
These photos look fairly light, but trust me – it’s dark inside a cave – really dark. Photo by Travel Alberta.

Inside the Cave

Before we headed out on the tour, I warned the guide that I have issues with claustrophobia and he was very patient and good at assuring me that I would be safe. The mouth of the cave was pretty wide, so going in didn’t bother me too much. I kept telling myself that it was only for a few hours and I could do anything for a short amount of time. I was pretty sure that was true. The cave got narrower as we went deeper and there were a couple of tight spots that got my blood pressure up. I was doing quite well until we reached a section called the Laundry Chute.

An image of the laundry chute inside the Rat's Nest Cave near Canmore, Alberta , Canada
The laundry chute was the scariest part of the tour I did. Tours do not always include the laundry chute, because there are other ways to get around the cave.. Photo by Greg Olsen

Peer Pressure and the Laundry Chute

I thought I was long past the days when I could be influenced by peer pressure. I was wrong. Our guide said that every person had to agree to go through or no one could go through. It was an all or none situation. As I looked at my kids’ hopeful faces, I knew they wanted to do the laundry chute. “We can take this as slow as you want,” said our caving guide Eli in an apparent attempt to calm me down. Going slow was the last thing on my mind. “How quickly can I make it through?” I said hesitantly. When Eli said he thought I could shimmy through in about a minute I decided to give it a go.

As Eli slipped into the narrow chasm, I waited for the signal for me to follow, took a deep breath, and dropped into the narrow hole in the rock. “Keep to the left, when the chute splits,” he said. “The right side looks bigger at first, but it gets narrow really quick.” The left side of chasm was so narrow that it was hard to tilt your head enough for a head lamp to effectively illuminate the passageway ahead. I couldn’t even imagine what the right side would be like.

An image of the rock formations inside the Rat's Nest Cave in Canmore, Alberta, Canada.
Caves can be fascinating. These rock formations were inside the Rat’s Nest Cave. Photo by Greg Olsen.

From the moment I entered the Laundry Chute my heart began to pound and I focussed my efforts on sliding down the slippery rocks as quickly as possible. “You need to slow down!” said Eli when my foot came close to his head about three quarters of the way through. Although I desperately wanted to get out the other end, something inside me sensed that knocking the guide unconscious would only increase my stress. After what seemed like several minutes, I emerged on the other side and sat on a smooth rock at the base of a larger cavern while I attempted to slow my breathing down and get rid of the atomic wedgie that had developed in my coveralls when I slid rapidly through the narrow chasm.

Canmore Cave Tours – Exit Fever

Cavers use a term called “exit fever” to describe the feeling that some novices get inside a cave. It’s an irrational feeling that makes you want to leave the cave immediately. As I sat on the rock waiting for the rest of my family to make it through the Laundry Chute I fought off feelings of exit fever. It had taken about an hour for us to reach the Laundry Chute and exiting the cave quickly was no longer an option. Fortunately the feeling subsided as I enjoyed watching the expressions on the faces of family members as they came out of the Chute with their own atomic wedgies.

An image of the Grotto inside the Rat's Nest Cave near Canmore, Alberta, Canada.
An image of the grotto inside the Rat’s Nest Cave. Photo by Adam Walker compliments of Canmore Cave Tours.

Getting to the Grotto

Once the entire group was through, we made our way deeper into the cavern. As I let myself relax, it became easier to appreciate the beauty that surrounded me. The geological formations inside the cave are fascinating. Most of the stalagmites and stalactites are thousands of years old. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the section of the cave called the Grotto. This ancient section of the cavern is the location of a deep fresh water spring that is surrounded by an abundance of stunning geological formations. We spent some time photographing and observing before turning off our headlamps and sitting silently in the darkness. You don’t realize what complete darkness is until you sit in a cavern more than 50-metres below the surface of the earth. In the darkness we could hear the sound of water dripping down the walls and into the spring. It was the kind of sound you might hear on a spa relaxation tape – even though we were about as far away from a spa as we could possibly be.

An image of people looking at bones in the Rat's Nest Cave near Canmore, Alberta.
The Rat’s Nest Cave contains animal bones that date back thousands of years. Photo by Travel Alberta Compliments of Canmore Cave Tours.

Satisfaction and Accomplishment

As we made our way back out of the cave, I felt the sense of accomplishment that comes from facing up to a fear. I may not have completely conquered the discomfort I feel in small dark spaces, but I learned that good things can happen when you don’t allow fear to prevent you from experiencing life. Perhaps peer pressure isn’t all bad.

Exploring the Rat’s Nest Cave on Your Own

A locked gate protects the cave from vandals and protects the inexperienced public from the cave. Experienced cavers with the appropriate certifications can access the cave on their own, but all others can only see it on guided Canmore Cave Tours.

An image of a person inside the Rat's Nest Cave near Canmore, Alberta Canada.
It’s a satisfying feeling to know that you faced up to a fear. Caving is a fascinating experience. Photo by Paul Zizka Compliments of Canmore Cave Tours.

Best Season for a Cave Tour

The Rat’s Nest Cave maintains a constant temperature of about 5 degrees Celsius year-round, so it is possible to cave in any season.

What’s Included – Canmore Cave Tours

Transportation to and from the Rat’s Nest Cave is included in all Canmore Cave Tours. Coveralls, gloves, helmets, headlamps, and carabineers are also supplied to all tour participants. It is important to wear hiking boots or running shoes with good grips, comfortable jeans or sweats, a t-shirt and a fleece jacket. You’ll also want to bring granola bars and water to enjoy on the hike up to the caverns and to leave outside the cave for afterwards.

An image of soda straw stalactites inside the Rat's Nest Cave near Canmore, Alberta, Canada.
“Soda straw” stalactites form along the ceiling in spots where drops of calcite permeate the rock inside the Rat’s Nest Cave. Photo by Adam Walker compliments of Canmore Cave Tours.

Caving in Alberta

Alberta has some excellent caving, but some caves are currently closed to protect bat populations from white nose syndrome. The disease, which can be spread by cavers, has been decimating bat populations in North America. The Rat’s nest cave does not have a significant population of bats, so it is open for caving. For more information on caving in Alberta, visit the Alberta Speleological Society’s website. To see a list of caves that are open for caving in Alberta, check out my book, 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta.

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