When caves come up in conversation, perhaps you visualize scenes from exotic adventure movies like Batman or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Yet those who reside in or visit Vancouver, Canada may not realize that some of the world’s finest spelunking action can be found right here.

Actually, hold that thought. Yes, there are more than 1,000 caves across the Strait of Georgia, waiting to be explored beneath the forested terrain of Vancouver Island. But to avoid giving the impression that your awareness of caves only scrapes the surface, don’t use the term “spelunking.” Derived from the Latin word for cave, “spelunca,” this was considered an acceptable descriptor until the mid-20th century. Today, a “spelunker” is the equivalent of the wannabe cowboy at the dude ranch.

“I use the term ‘spelunker’ to denote someone untrained and unknowledgeable in current exploration techniques, and ‘caver’ for those who are,” said expert Steve Knutson in 1985.

So what are the prerequisites for fitting into the underground scene? First, you’ve got to dress right. Start with hiking boots that offer support and traction. Stay warm with wool socks and up to three layers, including a waterproof jacket, for your torso–synthetic blends fare better than cotton, as the damp subterranean air averages eight degrees Celsius. Durable leather or rubber gloves will come in handy, along with a portable pack for your food and water supplies and a couple of spare flashlights. On a cave tour, the host company will rent you the indispensable hard hat with a headlamp.

Now, where to go? Some of the best-known Island sites include Upana Caves near Gold River, and Little Huson Caves and Artlish Caves near Zeballos. Probably the most accessible destination from Vancouver is Horne Lake Provincial Park, a 60-kilometer drive north of Nanaimo after the ferry crossing from Horseshoe Bay.

Heading for your first caving expedition, you may wonder how these natural wonders came into being. Essentially, Vancouver Island is rich in limestone deposits, and its caves have been formed over millenia by the runoff of acidic groundwater, which erodes the limestone. The same process is responsible for the panoply of outrageous stalactites and stalagmites you’ll behold on the ceilings and floors of the caves.

Visual stimulation and physical challenge merge constantly in this experience. One moment, you’re admiring creamy-white crystal formations that resemble something out of Disney’s “Fantasia.” Then you’re crawling on your belly through a cramped, wet tunnel. You can find yourself far deeper below the surface of the earth than you ever dreamed you’d go. For instance, at Horne Lake the deepest cave lies some 220 feet down.

Of course, you can’t just climb down a seven-storey underground waterfall like Horne Lake’s Rainbarrel on a whim. Advance rappelling training is a must, and the park’s Island Pacific Adventures offers a two-hour technical course on the proper use of ropes, setting up anchor points, and so forth. 

For novices, taking a guided tour is the way to go, but repeat visits may impel you to do some self-guided caving with friends. Whatever your choice, remember that you should never go caving alone. For aesthetic and safety reasons, you also need to refrain from smoking, littering, or tampering with delicate rock formations or insect life.

This is Vancouver Island we’re talking about, so you’re not going to encounter the kind of spiders and snakes that typically aggravate Indiana Jones whenever he ventures underground. Still, you may have other fears. If you’re prone to claustrophobic attacks, you should only be reading this article for informational purposes.

Cave exploration does have certain inherent risks: after all, you’re in a dark, slippery, rock-filled environment. But if you take the right precautions, this can be one of the most thrilling and rewarding forms of contemporary adventure tourism.

For more information about the sport, visit Caving Canada’s website at www.cancaver.ca. To inquire about tours at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, call (250) 757-8687 or email info@hornelake.com.