April 4th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 14
Looking Back - John Kinnear
More Than Meets the Eye
Looking Back
Vyk Harnett photo
Low Sentry cave running water during the 2013 flood
Take nothing but pictures,
kill nothing but time,
leave no trace.
Caver’s motto
It is a sure sign of spring (no pun intended) when one sees those wind-whipped cascading waters pouring down onto the old highway that at one time wrapped around the south edge of Emerald Lake. It used to be that we got to drive by that magical spray on our way past that beautiful green lake before the Emerald Lake Narrows Bridge was put in.

Unbeknownst to myself and probably many others is the fact that this intermittent waterfall pours out of a cave referred to by cavers as Low Sentry. Even more remarkable is the fact that it extends a mind blowing 113.9 meters (358 feet) into Sentry Mountain. How do I know this? Because I talked to the man who investigated the first 36 meters of this ancient bit of karst back in 1997. His name is Ian McKenzie and for many years he was a fearless speleologist; an explorer and mapper of caves in this area.

In a 1997 article written for the Journal of Subterranean Metaphysics, a newsletter of the Alberta Speleological Society (A.S.S.), Ian notes that Low Sentry was first named by cavers from McMaster University who did a lot of cave exploration in the Crowsnest Lake area in the late 1960’s. To clarify what they had found Ian and other ASS cavers decided to sort out the mystery of what McMaster had labeled as Low and Middle Sentry caves. I know, I know. As I write this it is April Fool’s Day and A.S.S. just seems like an unlikely acronym but it is and I ain’t foolin’.

Ian’s mapping, by body length, was halted at about 36 meters by a water sump. He describes his exploration as a “flat out crawl” and that mercifully there was a spot at the sump where he could turn around. Think about that for a minute. Crawling backwards is awkward and tricky so one likes to be able to see where one is going when one crawls into and out of a hole in a mountain. The next January, in 1998, cavers Reg Desjardins and Jason Morgan got past the somewhat dried up sump to the caves end and on the way encountered a larger more “decorated” passage.
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Decoration in caving terms refers to finding speleothems like stalactites, stalagmites and soda straws. Potholers have a lot of interesting terms for what they find in caves and in the sketch of Low Sentry, like in all cave maps, they surveyed and labeled them.

In Jon Rollins amazing book Caves of the Canadian Rockies and Columbia Mountains one can find the detailed layout of this simple cave. So why don’t I take you on a journey into Low Sentry on paper. Cause it’s safer.

The first item mapped past the sump is called “spider clusters” and that one brought my right eyebrow up! Ian was quick to correct this label as not being spiders but in fact daddy longlegs (Opilionids arachnid) which are more closely related to scorpions (eyebrow up again). It seems that these harvestmen, as they are also called, do like to ball up in caves.

Past this unnerving clutter of arachnids, the next map labels are ‘first duck” (self explanatory) and then “soda straws” and “flowstone”. First duck has 0.3 (metres) written beside it. So when is the last time you crawled down a passage that was a foot high? In a mountain. With spiders behind you and God knows what ahead.

Soda straws grow off the roofs of caves and are really just tubular (hollow) stalactites. Flowstone is formed when carbonates like calcite are deposited out of water on cave walls and are the most common speleothem found in “solution caves”. On the Caving Canada website there is an article on “What is Caving” by Ian that includes a link to cave type definitions. McKenzie describes solution caves as: “karst caves found in rock that is slightly water-soluble such as limestone, dolomite, marble and gypsum. These caves are formed by water finding its way underground through porous rock, chemically and physically eroding out larger passages.”

The highest measurement for height in Low Sentry throughout its length is 1.25 meters (4 feet) and at that location they mapped “moon milk” which is another type of dripstone which is pure white and kind of soft and cloudy looking. Ian described it as looking kind of like cottage cheese and that you could poke your finger in it. The name moon milk (mondmilch) is of German origin and dates back to the 16th century. It was given by a Swiss naturalist to a cave in the Swiss Alps. In medieval times there was a belief that the rays from celestial bodies could condense on earth and that this pure white mineral was petrified moonlight. (I’m not making this up!)
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The end of Low Sentry cave is preceded by a gradual tightening of the passage to less than 0.5m and is labeled “too tight” where a second sump was noted. I would have labeled the entrance above the highway too tight and that would have been the end of my exploration! I have no intention of winding up as the meat in a sandwich of stone.

Some of the caves in Sentry Mountain area are much more extensive and are covered in-depth in Rollins amazing book. They have intriguing names like Red October, Boon’s Glittering Ice Palace (Upper Sentry Cave) and Ice Chest. And of course further south near the Alberta/BC border on the Andy Good and Ptolemy Plateau’s lie some of the most extensive caves in North America with names like Gargantua, Cleft, Ice Hall and Yorkshire Pot. According to Rollin’s write up the total length of passages in the Yorkshire Pot complex, including all seven connecting caves, is an astounding 13.8 kilometers. Yes, kilometers!

Directly across from Low Sentry on the north side of Crowsnest Lake lies a cave familiar to all of us. In Rollin’s book it is called Crowsnest Spring and the sketch shows it to be 259 meters long and dropping a depth of 136 meters underwater. (see pass herald on-line archives Feb. 17th, 2016 –Flow of the Crow Part 1 for more details on the spring and its exploration). I had noticed many years ago, as many others had, that there is another cave about thirty meters higher in elevation off to the east of the source cave.

It is known as Eagle Cave and was the subject of an archaeological dig by the University of Alberta in 1966. According to a well known East Kootenay area archaeologist, by the name of Wayne Choquette, evidence of saber tooth tiger and giant sloth were found in this cave. He also indicated that some of those unusual perfectly round shale balls (concretions) usually found in the Fernie Formation were found in Eagle Cave. Interesting! Shale balls in a limestone cave. I asked a couple of the visiting members of the Lethbridge Archaeological Society last week, at the Stones and Bones event at the Frank Slide, about them. No one was sure why but there is a definite First Nation’s possibility here.

It will probably surprise you to know that there is yet another cave nearby to the spring. It lies 74 meters in elevation directly above Crowsnest Spring but is not visible from below. It is known as The Crack and is classified as a fossil overflow for the spring cave below. The term fossil in caving indicates the cave is dry whereas caves that still have flow are called active. It is 97 meters long and descends 75 meters to what is called the air-bell sump. That sump, also called the wishing well, is where it connects to the Crowsnest Spring’s passage. How cool is that?
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As I wrote this caving article on Sunday I realized there was a very ironic twist to it. Back in 1998, around April Fool’s Day, I concocted a story about finding blind cave fish in a cave on Hosmer Mountain. I managed to blend enough realism and terminology into that Kokanee enhanced Sunday rambling to fool many readers in Fernie including a wonderful cave explorer and scientist by the name of Dr. Dave McRitchie.

The irony of this story is that this intrepid explorer, who had retired to the Fernie area to search out undiscovered karst topography, eventually was one of those instrumental in the location of what is now identified as the deepest cave in Canada. It was local caver Henry Bruns and his son Jeremy who set up a 2012 expedition that located the cave. It is named Bisaro Anima and last Thanksgiving a Calgary-based team of nine explorers extended its mapping by descending 670 meters in elevation in this 5.3 kilometer long cave.

Author’s Note: Dr. Dave McRitchie unfortunately passed in 2008. It would have made his heart glad to have been there for the spectacular exploration of Bisaro Anima. For more information on caving, cave safety and the Alberta Speleological Society go to the website: www.caving.ab.ca
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April 4th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 14
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