Cave explorer takes stock of hidden holes in Wood Buffalo National Park

Cave explorer takes stock of hidden holes  in Wood Buffalo National Park
Wood Buffalo National Park scientist Sharon Irwin investigates one of three known caves in the park south of Fort Smith, along with cave specialist Greg Horne.Photo: Greg Horne.

Parks Canada resource management officer Greg Horne admittedly likes to get dirty and damp while exploring some of the world’s darkest, tightest spaces, but caves and other features of karst geology also provide a plethora of scientific information beneficial for understanding the history of the earth and people, too.

The karst landscape expert from Jasper National Park, who has spent 20 years caving, was in Fort Smith last week for fieldwork, exploring the handful of known caves in Wood Buffalo National Park to assess their scientific merits and potential for recreational use.

Horne presented his 35 years of knowledge on caves, bats and other features of the dissolving rock landscape to an audience of all ages on Thursday evening at the Parks theatre, from how they form to what they can tell us.

As part of his work in Wood Buffalo, which began in 2012, Horne is doing a resource inventory, looking for types of minerals and evidence of biological life, from invertebrates to bats, as well as a hazards assessment, which applies to human exploration.

Currently caves in Wood Buffalo National Park are located kilometres off the road and trail system and are not open to recreational use, but Horne is helping to review that.

Wood Buffalo National Park staff Stu MacMillan and Sharon Irwin explore a wintery cave south of Fort Smith.

Photo: Greg Horne

Wood Buffalo National Park staff Stu MacMillan and Sharon Irwin explore a wintery cave south of Fort Smith.

“You would evaluate the hazards that are in the cave, where the hazards are the rock and things falling; there can be flooding, bad air, there can be dust, disease possibilities from the guano of bats, there can be steep terrain that requires rope,” he said generally of performing cave hazard inventories.

When it comes to caves in Wood Buffalo, Horne said the type of rock – made of dissolving limestone, dolomite and gypsum – is very risky, with walls and ceilings threatening to crumble with even a slight disturbance. One of the park’s few known caves actually closed up following a massive summer windstorm in 2013.

Photographs taken within one of the caves shows a large piece of rock, a metre wide and several metres long, curling off of the ceiling like a rock shaving.

“The stability of the caves in Wood Buffalo is definitely suspect,” he said. “You get here and you don’t want to touch the walls, you don’t want to touch the ceiling unless you have to, because it could be a kind of domino chain reaction. You bump that rock there and this thing is ready to fall down on you. So they can give you pretty good shivers.”

The number of known caves in Wood Buffalo National Park is around three, though the vastness of the park, the difficulty in accessing the majority of the landscape and the known presence of thousands of sinkholes – the most in Canada – indicates there could be many more within the park’s boundaries.

“Given all the sinkholes and all the karst topography, in theory there could be dozens to hundreds,” Horne said, noting that Wood Buffalo has the most karst landforms of any national park in Canada. “The thing is, as everyone knows here, the landscape is huge and travel is slow, before and after a fire.”

While Google Earth is helping to find caves and sinkholes in more barren landscapes elsewhere on the planet, it does little good in forested regions, Horne said.

Parks Canada karst expert Greg Horne shows off some of his caving equipment at a public presentation last Thursday evening in Fort Smith.

Photo: Meagan Wohlberg

Parks Canada karst expert Greg Horne shows off some of his caving equipment at a public presentation last Thursday evening in Fort Smith.

Plus, he said, he tends to find most caves by accident.

“I never find caves when I go to look for caves. I find caves when I’m doing something else out on the landscape.”

Horne, who has explored some of the world’s deepest and biggest caves throughout his life, said they aren’t just interesting from an adventurer standpoint, but provide valuable information for the fields of paleontology, archaeology, microbiology and climate scientists.

“In Wood Buffalo, the sediment and ice layers give a fire history, a history of flood events and periods of deforestation from fire,” he said.

Caves are also home to many species of bats, who are currently at risk of extinction due to the spread of white nose syndrome, a fungus that infects their nose and wings during hibernation and has killed at least 5 million bats since 2006.

Parks Canada is currently working with other agencies to provide a unified response to the spread of the disease, including closing off bat hibernaculum to recreational caving.

According to Horne, Nahanni National Park boasts the largest number of caves of any national park in Canada, and along with caves in northern Alberta and Wood Buffalo, host three species of bats each year.

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