Access: Getting to the Horne Lake caves is not easy but it is most definitely worth it. From Vancouver take the local bus to Horseshoe Bay [see Getting to Horseshoe Bay ] and catch a ferry to Nanaimo's Departure Bay. From the ferry you'll want to meet up with the north-bound bus. See Getting Up Island. Get off at Qualicum Beach and call Parksville Taxi [250-248-5741] or Alliance Taxi [250-954-5567] for the final leg of the journey. Horne Lake Caves is situated 14 km from the Island Highway at the end of an active logging road. Camping is available at the entrance to the park. If making a weekend of it try your hand at trout fishing or try tramping some of the local hiking routes in the area.
Spelunking, otherwise known as cave exploring, has long had a dedicated core of enthusiasts. And while spelunking will always remain an underground sport, interest has surged in recent years as would-be adventurers thirst for new and exciting kicks.
With over 1000 know caves, Vancouver Island is the locale of choice for coastal cavers. Newcomers to the activity will want to check out the extensive network of caverns at Horne Lake.
The Horne Lake Caves, discovered in 1912 by a local geologist, comprise seven separate caves estimated to be as much as 120 thousand years old.
Amateur explorers rediscovered Main and Lower Caves in 1939 and subsequent vandalism and souvenir collecting damaged or obliterated formations that had taken thousands of years to grow. Riverbend Cave, a more recent discovery, was sealed in 1971 to protect it from similar idiocy and remains largely unscathed.
Tours of the caves, now part of the Provincial Parks system, are available but are not recommended for children under 5 or those with frail health. "These are not show caves like you find in the States," notes Richard Varella of Island Pacific Adventures. "The caves are undeveloped and therefore have uneven, rocky floors. A certain amount of agility is required."
The Horne Lake Caves now attract over 50,000 visitors every year. Two different tours of Riverbend Cave are offered. The $13 family-oriented tour lasts 1½ hours and explores the most accessible sections of the caves with an emphasis on geology, conservation and history. Tours start at 10 AM daily and are offered every hour thereafter until 4 PM. Participation is on a first-come first-served basis.
The High Adventure Tour picks up where the first one left off. Participants will crawl, climb and scramble down to the bottom of The Rainbarrel, seven stories high. Basic climbing instruction and all climbing gear is included. Costing $59, the High Adventure Tour last five hours and reservations are required. Participants must be 19 years or older.
Being undeveloped, the caverns have an aura of magic and mystery about them. Calcite formations, built up a molecule at a time over countless aeons, inspire awe at every turn. Spelunkers can expect to find such usual features as stalactites and stalagmites growing from ceiling and floor. Less pedestrian formations such as the "Howling Wolf," "flow stone," "brainrock," "cave pearls" and, perhaps, pearls of wisdom from the "Smiling Buddha" himself will also be encountered. Those with an appetite for more can feast their eyes on "bacon strips," "moon milk" and the "Ice Cream Waterfall."
Such beauty is fragile, however, and much of every underground tour is devoted to cave ecology in addition to area history and geology. "We feel that only through education can we increase understanding and consequently the preservation of these remarkably fragile underground environments," says Varela who offers tours in the caves on a contract from BC Parks.
Bats, creepy crawlies and icky things are notably absent from the caves. "It's just a little bit too cold," Varella explains. One exception can be found in Main Cave where, in certain passages near the entrance, hundreds of daddy long legs spiders crawl in every fall only to die. White mould consumes their bodies leaving behind what looks like, in the light of a head lamp, pearls with legs.
Claustrophobics will be relieved to note that the main tour is limited to exploring relatively open grottos with the only tight squeeze being the iron entrance gate used to keep would-be vandals out. "In all reality most people have some kind of apprehension about going underground. Fully half express some kind of hesitation. But going with a guide, in a group atmosphere makes people feel at ease. It becomes a much more pleasurable experience." Varella adds that very few people ever back out at the door to the cave. "Maybe a dozen out of thousands."
Since the caves maintain a constant cool of five degrees Celsius year round, warm clothes and possibly work gloves are recommended. Footwear should consist of sturdy running shoes at the very least with hiking boots recommended.
Following your cave tour you may wish to explore Main Cave and Lower Main Cave on your own. Helmets and head lamps can be rented from the park office. These two smaller caves offer some tight squeezes, simple climbing, interesting grottos and even a waterfall. Spelunking is a messy business so be sure to pack change of clothes. A word of warning: Cougars call the park home and may call your poodle supper. Keep pets on a leash at all times and keep a close eye on all children.