The crack in the earth seemed to reach down forever, into an impenetrable blackness studded with boulders. My seven-year-old daughter held my hand a little tighter. While our helmet lamps had initially seemed bright and cheerful when we’d first put them on, they now seemed woefully small.

But our guide at Horne Lake Caves, located near Qualicum Beach, was energetic and enthusiastic, and her smile made us feel we could do anything, even clamor down this rocky incline into a mossy cave. There were spectacular wonders inside, waiting for us to discover them.

This cavern, the Riverbend Cave, is one of over 1,600 caves on Vancouver Island, which boasts more caves than the rest of Canada combined. Once the bottom of an ancient sea floor, the Island’s limestone deposits and vast quantities of rainfall have created the perfect situation for the formation of caverns. Within these subterranean halls are glittering crystals, stalactites and stalagmites, and hundreds of different intricate forms created by fragile calcium deposits over millennia.

Here at Horne Lake, a private company has partnered with the provincial park and the Canadian Cave Conservancy Foundation to protect these remarkable hidden places.

“We’re focusing our efforts, trying to broaden our audience in the hopes that they will fall in love with caves,” says Richard Varela, park director for Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park. “We want to educate children to show them how amazing caves are. There’s currently no legislation to protect caves, but we hope visitors will see, they’re worth protecting.”

Horne Lake Caves provides an amazing introduction to the wonders of this underground world, one that’s important to the ecosystem but often sadly overlooked. Caves are created by the effects of water on limestone, but the rivers which run through caves do not receive the same protection as above-ground waterways, even though they are just as important to the health and vitality of local flora and fauna.

“People protect what they love, so if we hope to protect and preserve these unique and fragile environments for the future, we need to build that awareness now,” says Varela. “Unlike a forest or a river, damage in a cave takes thousands of years to repair itself.”

Each year, Horne Lake Caves shares this message with over 2,000 school children. Horne Lake also provides guided tours, offering a variety of options that cater to different age groups and abilities. For example, the Family Cavern tour is open to anyone five years and older, while participants of the longer Extreme Rappel tour must be 15 years or older. There are also two self-guided tours that give adventurous visitors a chance to explore rugged and wild caves without a guide. Be prepared to squeeze, crawl, and navigate several narrow passages as you explore.

Horne Lake Provincial Park is located three hours north of Victoria. For more information or to book a tour, please call 250-248-7829 or visit web link.

Kim Bannerman’s work has appeared in 100 Stories for Queensland (eMergent Press, 2010) and the Paraspheres Anthology (Omnidawn Press, 2006). Her most recent novel, Bucket of Blood (Fox&Bee, 2011), is a Vancouver Island-based murder mystery. Visit web link or web link.