What causes a person to put on a hard hat, some old clothes, and crawl and grope around in the large cavities and tight passages of a natural underground cave?

It is a question that is sometimes hard to answer. To many, caves are dark, damp, claustrophobic places where snakes, strange creatures, insects, and bats live. This might be true. Then again, caves are wonders of nature that take thousands of years to develop. These structures are the beautiful works of erosion, evaporation, and precipitation.

Acidic ground water produces mild ground water acids that work at dissolving beds of limestone. Over thousands of years, cavities begin to form in the underground beds of limestone. Sometimes the ground water forms underground streams that have even more erosive power. On one occasion, I visited Bonnechere Caves hear Renfrew, Ontario where the main cave complex was formed almost entirely by an underground stream.

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Other types of caves may be formed on a seashore cliff where the abrasive action of the sea’s waves have pounded a large mouth to the cave. The Fairy Hole on the tip of Cape Dauphin (near the entrance of the Big Bras d’Or inlet) is a good example of this type of cave.

A small stream enters the beach alongside of the Fairy Hole and is the site of another small cave. It has been formed by an underground stream that emerges from the mouth of the cave. A small cave at Bornish on River Denys Mountain has a small stream entering the mouth of the cave and re-appearing several hundred feet away on the back side of the hill.

One of the interesting aspects of caving is trying to determine the natural forces that were at work forming the cave. Cave seekers (spelunkers) often map the underground rooms and passages especially if the cave complex is of any significant size.

Outcrops of limestone and gypsum are good places to look for caves. Gypsum is softer than limestone and less stable and more care has to be taken when entering a gypsum cave. Cape Breton has large deposits of gypsum with a considerable number of small caves and sinkholes (the roof of the gypsum cave has collapsed). A visit to a gaping gypsum cave entrance in North East Margaree left us wondering if we should take a chance on entering the cave.

The great cave systems of North America extend for miles and miles underground. Very old caves are those that have beautiful caverns, rock structures (stalactites and stalagmites), and underground streams and lakes. The Luray Caverns, the Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Cave, are some examples of giant cave systems in the United States. Many of these are commercially developed.

Cape Breton’s caves can be said to be young caves with very recently developed rock structures and features. As a person who likes to travel to other parts of North America, it was always exciting for me to visit a commercial cave with safe and illuminated passages. Whether or not there are any hidden large caves in Cape Breton or mainland Nova Scotia is not definite and remains to be found.

Still I have heard rumours of holes in the ground that seem to have no bottom. Caves can be classified as unique and fragile features of our environment and need to be protected. Whether it is waterfalls or caves, they have a lot to offer to the inquisitive outdoor person. Like waterfalls they are very special places of Cape Breton.

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Musician and freelance columnist Wally Ellison lives in Inverness County