Have you ever witnessed total darkness?
Strap on a helmet and headlamp and venture 70 feet beneath the Niagara Escarpment and you can experience it firsthand.
Claustrophobics unite as they attempt to conquer their fears with the ultimate challenge: caving.
It seems to be an activity you love or you hate. The challenge of exploration attracts many, but descending into small dark holes deep underground certainly isn’t for everybody. Whether you are new to the sport or a seasoned caver, there is an adventure waiting for you in our backyard.
The escarpment’s unique geological formations make Grey County a caving paradise, and Metcalfe Rock is the unofficial center of it all. Free Spirit Tours is one of a few outfitters operating where Metcalfe meets the Bruce Trail.
Jonathan Nunes, an avid climber, has been guiding with Free Spirit for three years.
Nunes was initially drawn to the area for its world class climbing, but he quickly learned to look deeper and ventured beneath the rocks he was eager to climb.
Nunes claims he is far from claustrophobic, but even for him, his first time caving was a bit of an adjustment.
“It’s a journey inward. I know that sounds a little corny,” says Nunes. “You are going into the earth, but you are also going inside of yourself. You are losing sight and losing sound, you don’t have any other senses apart from your internal voice.”
Free Spirit runs their tours in a choose-your-own-adventure style, as it is not uncommon for participants to become increasingly uncomfortable as they descend deep beneath the forest floor.
“I can never anticipate how people are going to react,” says Nunes. “You can have a 20-something who plays every sport under the sun back out before they even start, they just can’t wrap their head around going underneath the 80-foot cliff in front of them. And then you have the 70-year-old scrambling ahead of the pack.”
Nunes’s favourite cave at Metcalfe Rock is the Ice Cave, which gets its name from arctic-like atmosphere it experiences throughout the summer.
“Caves have their own personality and their own seasons,” he says.
The sun may be shining on a beautiful July morning, but upon entering the Ice Cave you step into a chilly November. The temperature hovers around -2 degrees Celsius, and the rock itself is covered in a thick layer of muddy ice. The only time you won’t find icy remnants is between November and January.
“During the summer the caves are nice and cool, but in the winter it’s warmer in the caves than it is outside,” says Nunes.
The cave is a network of damp, dark and eerily majestic “rooms,” but to access each of them you have to crawl, climb, and squeeze yourself through the bottleneck that forms in between. Once you wiggle your way down to the fourth room, you start to hear a faint trickle of water flowing; the limestone’s filtration system at work.
It’s now time, if you’re brave, to turn off your headlamp and allow total darkness to take over.
“Once you’ve come this far there is no more light pollution. Even if you are here for hours, your eyes won’t adjust. The image in front of you is the same whether your eyes are open or closed,” says Nunes.
All of these factors contribute to the sport of caving, but because of them, caving is a collaborative sport. There is no such thing as competitive caving. It’s typical to go through a cave system single file, with each person checking on the person behind them to make sure they are okay.
Nunes says as a guide, he is really only able to help one person at a time. It is up to that person to communicate with the person behind them and relay any tips, tricks and warnings of the obstacles ahead.
“It’s a great team building activity,” says Nunes.
As you scramble your way back up, the sunlight replaces your guide and leads you to what Metcalfe cavers like to call the birth canal, releasing you back into reality.
But, ultimately, if squeezing through damp, chilly rocks in a pitch-black pit isn’t your thing, there is much more this area can offer. Free Spirit also runs half-day rock climbing tours, allowing you to explore the limestone cliffs in an entirely different light.