This past Sunday (June 29th), I had the most amazing experience as a photographer. My friend Paul Spenard organized a model portfolio shoot inside a real cave called “Rat’s Nest Cave” in Canmore, Alberta. The brave and talented model that Paul managed to convince was the lovely Tabitha Alice, and she was amazing.
Just to set the scene, you arrive in Canmore and meet with the folks from Canmore Caverns who are the only group that literally have the keys and the permission to take people inside the cave. There is a huge steel grate covering the only entrance into the cave and it is locked behind you as you enter to prevent people from coming in behind you. They are very strict about safety and you feel very comfortable under their care.
You follow the guide in your vehicle as they drive up to the cave site, which is about a 20 minute hike up a mountain. Some of the most beautiful scenery too which made the long hike carrying all my heavy camera gear a little bit more bearable.
When you arrive at the cave site, you suit up in coveralls, knee pads, safety harness, and a helmet. Then you are briefed on what you are about to endure. Apparently many people chicken out at this point, but the three of us were eager to get started. Once inside the grate, the best way to describe the next few minutes is that you do not want to be there if your claustrophobic! I had to pass my camera bag down through the passage that was just a bit larger than my body as I made my way down. There are a lot of animal bones inside the cave that are moved around by the rats (yes, I said rats) as they make their nests (hence the name of the cave). We did not see any rats while we were there, but there was the odd patch of rat droppings that were actually quite a bit larger than I expected. I must say, it was cool to have Paul with us as he is an archeologist and was explaining what each bone was and from which animal it came from.
We continued down through the cave headed for an open cavern called “The Grotto”. This was supposed to be the most spectacular area of the cave and it did not disappoint. There were formations nearly everywhere including these crystal looking things on the ceiling that look like soda straws. Other formations look like pigs ears and bacon, which are apparently their names, so not too hard to remember.
This was, by far, the most difficult lighting situation I have ever been in. Basically we were in the darkest place on earth. Just for fun our guide, Adam Walker, told to turn off our lights to which we basically saw NOTHING. He said to go ahead and close our eyes to see if there was a difference, and there wasn’t. So if you are a photographer and you have experience working in low light situations, I challenge you to get a good shot here!!! Especially when you are limited to what your allowed to bring in (basically two small bags per group). I brought a Nikon SB800 and a Nikon SB900 plus a few LED lights to just give us a bit of ambient to work with. To make the situation worse, the place had about 100% humidity and a very very very fine dust that gets into everything. I dared NOT change lenses, so I just went with what was on my camera (Nikon D300 with an 18-70mm DX lens).
Tabitha had a couple different outfits to work with. The first one was a nice white and pink dress that I think worked well. The second outfit was a custom made “cave girl” animal skin. Oh, did I mention the temperature in the damp dark cave was 4 degrees Celsius? Yes, Tabitha is an amazing girl. She was determined to get the shots even though she was standing in a very cold, dark cave in freezing cold water with bare feet and a barely there outfit.
Regardless I think we got some amazing shots considering what we had to work with in those conditions. All the LED lights I brought along with the lights on our helmets came in really handy when Tabitha wanted to do a shot that made her look like a ghost. We lit the place up with every light we had (excluding the flashes) and then with a 15 second shutter I had Tabitha stand perfectly still and then after a few seconds run out of the way to finish the exposure. I think the shot turned out exactly like she envisioned and it is quite cool.
After we got to the point where Tabitha was completely freezing and could not take it any longer (what a trooper), we packed up and headed back out. Half-way out Adam asked if we wanted to attempt “The Test”. Not wanting to be a chicken and miss an unforgettable experience we all agreed. This test involved shuffling along through an opening for about 12-15 feet that was barely large enough for our body to fit through. You had to have one arm ahead of you and one behind you and you couldn’t really lift your head to see where you were going. Eventually after a lot of grunting and squeezing it opened up into a vertical fissure that you could stand up in, but not much else. Of course, that wasn’t bad enough, but now you had to go back out the same way you came in. We all made it and gave each other high fives, proud of our accomplishment. By then Tabitha was starting to thaw out a bit, so the hard work was good to get her blood flowing.
By the time we got back up to the mouth of the cave and climbed out we were all completed exhausted and sweating like crazy. It was a beautiful sunny warm day, and we had to hike all the way back down to the vehicles. Thankfully I had a cooler with some water on ice in the back of my truck. That was the best water I have ever had in my entire life.
All in all it was an amazing experience and I would do it again in a second. I think next time though, I would like to leave most of my gear behind and just enjoy the adventure without having to do a photo shoot. The cave is extremely large with numerous passages that you can explore if your not hauling a lot of gear with you. There are areas that you can rappel down and a long tube called “The Laundry Shute” that sound like it would be a challenge. If your not claustrophobic and you are looking for an incredible adventure I recommend you contact:
Canmore Caverns (403) 678-8819 or 1-877-317-1178