Wilderness School caving program shines light on environment

Exactly what she found was nothing like she had expected. Hollywood mining scenes of sprawling underground tunnels gave way to the reality of dark and narrow fissures beneath the soil. Theresa explored this new world with other members of her Wilderness School cohort at Horne Lake Caves & Adventure Centre. It’s an annual expedition for the program, designed to blend curiosity with lessons in preserving natural spaces most people never even see.

“The contrast between the self-guided versus the guided cave tours is so drastic in terms of preservation of these areas,” explains Sarah Glenn, Power To Be logistics coordinator who helped facilitate the program. “It’s good awareness and education around why we need to take the measures we do to preserve these areas.”

Over the course of two days, the youth explored some of the more than 1,000 caves on Vancouver Island, learning about delicate formations under the ground and facing unexpected challenges negotiating tight corners.

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“There was a waterfall – I did not expect it,” Theresa says, noting that when she learned she had to climb up it she was hesitant at first. Her reward for taking on the challenge was the opportunity to sit at the top, immersed in the silence afforded by the environment as one by one the group members clicked off their headlamps.

“Your senses increased – all of them. You could hear the waterfall a lot more,” Theresa says. “If you waved your hand in front of your face you knew it was there, but you couldn’t see it. I didn’t mind the dark, but it was good when the lights came back on.”

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“Those moments of silence are vital components of the overall experience. With so many distractions above ground, the caves offer a chance to really be present,” Sarah says.

“The focus has to be where you can put your hand, what you are looking at and who is beside you,” she says. “That self-awareness brings you right into the moment.”

With awareness comes appreciation for the fragile formations, with names like soda straws, flowstones and stalactities, which only retain their value when left untouched, Sarah says. Exploring the caves is a tactile way of teaching the youth the value of looking, rather than touching. It also instills a sense of accountability to protect the space – both below and above ground.

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Following the caving adventure, the youth transplanted ferns from one area of the property to another in an effort to discourage foot traffic through natural spaces. “They could see the work they were doing and there was a tangible result,” Sarah says.

“It’s nice to give back to your community,” Theresa adds.

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Gaining a deeper understanding of that community, both through connections with her cohort and an education in the natural formations that surround them left a lasting impression.

“When you get out you realize how much you learned,” she says, “and what a bigger experience it is knowing what’s down there.”

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