The Canmore Cave Tours team are thrilled to share an exciting new project with you. As of April 2019, in partnership with the Alberta Speleological Society, we have embarked upon the resurvey of Rat’s Nest Cave; a project that we hope will shed new light on a fascinating and important part of Alberta’s history. As one of the longest caves in Canada it still has potential for significant new exploration and research contributions in the realms of geology, biology, anthropology, ecology, and more. Resurveying the cave is the first step in what we hope will be a long journey of new discovery and we invite you to join us for that journey!
First and foremost, if you haven’t visited Rat’s Nest Cave, we’d highly suggest you join us for a tour so you can get a feel for what we’re talking about. If you’re not able to explore the cave personally, follow along with our updates, photos, videos, and articles. We’re delighted to be re-surveying the cave, and we’re even more delighted to share our findings with all of you.
Before we begin giving you updates on our findings throughout the project, we’d like to answer the obvious questions: what is a cave survey? why would one survey a cave? how does it work? etc. So, to answer these burning questions we asked project lead and owner of Canmore Cave Tours, Adam Walker, for some insight. Find our full interview below, but first, a little history on Rat’s Nest Cave (scroll past if you already know the scoop).
In case you weren’t aware, Rat’s Nest Cave is old. Very old. “While Rat’s Nest Cave is a physically demanding place and offers high adventure, it is also a museum of time transporting you back through some 300 million years of natural history and 3000 years of human history” (Yonge, 9). The cave is indescribably fascinating for countless reasons. In fact, because if it’s remarkable history, the cave has been designated a Provincial Historic Site by the Government of Alberta, and as the provincially designated caretakers of the cave we are committed to its protection. In order to maintain the integrity of the cave and preserve all of the incredible resources contained within, access to the cave is limited to members of the Alberta Speleological Society and guided visitors with Canmore Cave Tours.
Humans have been visiting Rats Nest Cave for thousands of years, as indicated by the modified animal bones, pictographs, and artifacts discovered near the entrance of the cave. A fragment of a newspaper from the 1950’s, postulated to have been used as a sandwich wrapper, shows us that the cave was likely an interesting hiking destination for Bow Valley residents in the more recent past. But it wasn’t until the early 1970’s that the exploration of Rat’s Nest Cave truly began when a couple of visiting cavers noticed a pack rat disappear behind its nest prompting the cavers to do a little digging. That digging ultimately led to the discovery of over 4km of cave passage and one of the longest and deepest caves in the country.
And despite having been explored for over 40 years, new discoveries are still being made in Rat’s Nest Cave to this day. Thanks to the advent of brighter caving lights, the introduction of cave diving, and other modern technological improvements along with new generations of passionate explorers the cave continues to slowly give up its secrets. Changes in technology have also improved our ability to capture and document the discoveries we make in the cave and it is for this reason that we have chosen to undertake the resurvey of the cave.
Rat’s Nest Cave is intriguing beyond belief. From ancient pictographs drawn on the cave walls to the countless geological formations, it is truly a must-experience part of the Canadian Rockies. And really, how often do you actually get to explore IN the Rockies? We are a passionate team of adventure seekers, science lovers, and explorers who are committed to doing this wondrous cave justice through further exploration and documentation as well as ongoing preservation.
No use hanging out in the past! Let’s chat about the exciting project that’s afoot.
Caving and cave surveying isn’t exactly common knowledge. As such, we asked Adam to give us a little insight into what this project is like on the inside.
Adam: By surveying a cave, we are attempting to document as much information about the cave as possible which can help us understand the geological and hydrological processes involved in creating that cave, how the cave interacts with the environment and us as humans, and even contribute to cave science as a whole. Caves are incredible repositories of history, but that historical information can really only be properly appreciated if it is collected in a systematic and scientific way. A cave survey attempts to do this.
In its most basic form, a cave survey generally involves capturing the physical dimensions and properties of the cave by taking measurements and displaying those measurements as a map. This map then becomes the framework from which much of the other collected data gets referenced.
Adam: There are both official reasons and unofficial reasons that someone would survey a cave. Unofficially, in caving ethics, it’s considered unacceptable to explore a cave without surveying it. Cavers refer to this behavior as “scooping booty” and is seriously frowned upon. As a community we have decided that in choosing to explore these special places we must also document and contribute for future generations. Also, caves can be darn hard to access so if the survey isn’t done right away there might be less incentive to go back once the “booty” has been scooped.
Officially, a cave doesn’t have a length, depth, or size until it’s been properly surveyed. For example, the longest cave in the world isn’t the longest cave in the world until it’s been surveyed.
Caving is one of the very few recreational activities that actually contribute to science. We can do a biological inventory, track the features, the geology, etc. We can look at the mountains from the inside and surveying allows us to plot things in real space so we can see a relation between different geological formations, predict water flow, etc.
Adam: The survey usually starts at an entrance, the “datum”, which can be located using GPS to tie the cave map to the surface. From here a map is typically created by collecting three measurements – bearing (azimuth), inclination, and distance – between consecutive “stations” in the cave. A station is a point in the cave that is easily seen from the previous station and next station, and which is marked either temporarily or permanently. Using these three measurements a 3-dimensional line-plot can be created, around which the details of the cave can be sketched by hand.
This data used to be “reduced”, or plotted, by hand, but now we are able to input this information into computers to generate highly accurate plots and visually striking maps.
Adam: The gear required to do a cave survey includes normal caving gear; helmet, headlamp, harness, cow-tail, gloves, coveralls, etc. If you’re diving to survey the cave, you’ll also need all your diving gear.
Collecting survey measurements usesd to involve using a tape measure, compass and clinometer, but we are now able to use a digital survey instrument (called a Disto X) that collects all three measurements in one go. Plotting and sketching is typically done on waterproof paper but again, technology is slowly creeping in to the underground world. We can now capture data and sketch using an app on a smartphone or tablet (check out Topodroid on Android) and the data is blue-toothed directly from the Disto. We can even view a 3D map of the cave instantly while underground!
Despite all of the technological advancements we still bring the analog equipment along in case the digital tools fail us for any reason.
Adam: 2-3 people is best. Now with the digital tools it can be done with 2, but three is better. With a group of three, you will have a sketcher, someone on instruments, and someone we call the “rabbit;” their job is to run ahead and find the next location that’s appropriate for a station. They often get to see that part of the cave for the first time before the others, which is pretty cool.
The rabbit selects a station and we shoot to that spot. While there, they will also often inventory that station. For example, they’ll say ‘water is coming in there, there’s a bat skeleton here, there are cave formations all over the place,’ etc. This is so the sketcher can make accurate plans. Remember, because the survey is done while exploring a cave for the first time, we never really know what’s around the corner at any given point so the rabbit’s job is to help coordinate the survey. The instrument person will take a shot and convey that information back to the sketcher, who’s recording all the data, plotting the line-plot and sketching the details of the cave – arguably to toughest and most time-consuming job.
Adam: If you're in a massive walking passage it goes by fast because you can do really long shots. If you can shoot 20 meters at a time down a simple passage you can move along quite quickly. It’s slower if it’s tight, if there’s water or if you’re climbing in a vertical passage. You might survey 500 meters in a day, or you might only get 50. It all depends on the cave.
Even though Rat’s Nest Cave has already been surveyed much of the old data or stations have been lost or are inaccurate. In order to be able to include the new discoveries on the official map of the cave we need to create a whole new survey, but since we already have a lot of information about the cave from the original survey we can really take out time and be very accurate. Because of this, we expect this project will occur over months and even years, depending on what we find!
Rat’s Nest Cave is an important part of our history and we are incredibly excited to take on this project. As you can imagine it takes a lot of effort to complete a project of this scope and there will be many people involved to accomplish it. The great thing about caving is that there is no requirement to be a “professional” caver in order to participate. There are some specific skills required for obvious safety reasons, but if you are interested, we highly encourage you to get involved. Not only will you get to explore an incredibly interesting and exciting part of the Rockies, but you will get your name on the map and be a part of the Rat’s Nest Cave history forever!
If getting into the cave isn’t your cup of tea we still encourage you to be involved. We will be sharing our trip reports, map progress and answering any questions you might have along the way so stay tuned!