I stand on the fenced-in platform with my elbows propped on the railing watching Monique, my guide, descending the stairs into the narrow opening of Saint Elzear cave. Her white hard hat disappears but I can still hear the “clink, clink clink” as her hiking boots find each metal step on her way down the 40 meter shaft. Amanda belays, and when a tug on the rope signals Monique has arrived at the bottom. It is my turn.
A carabiner is snapped onto my climbing harness. Amanda gives the straps and rope a good yank, to insure they are secure then looks me in the eye for symptoms of regret. I nod. I am ready and move my foot onto the step of the medal ladder. The first couple are not so bad, but once I disappear under the lip of the cave, it suddenly feels very cramped. I tip my knees outward and place each foot on the stair sideways to stay close to the ladder. I can sense the wall against my back. The sunlight dims and my headlamp takes over, and illuminates a spot in front of me. The rock is wet and I anxiously clinch onto the metal railing. The cold seeps through the gloves. It is a constant 4 degrees Celsius within the cave. I can hear my breathing and feel the tension in the rope holding my weight. I tremble just a little. The layers of rock pass by as I continue down, and just when I start wondering when it is going to end, I hear Monique say in a French accent, “Ah,.. one more step”. I turn around and she is smiling obviously rewarded by the relief registering across my face. She unshackles me from restraints of the belay rope and gives me a moment to let my eyes adjust to the lantern light
A metal walk-ways come into view, as it leads away to another landing. The pile of bones beside me are hard not to notice. ” Wow” Monique starts to tell me the story, We have already discussed back at the tour shop that her “English is not so good” I stated at the time, to “just do your regular tour speech, I will catch on”.
From what I catch, the cave was discovered during the winter, steam was seen rising up through the opening on a very cold day. She points to the bones and says “Moose…. fall…. through opening” The bones have been dated to over 5000 years old. The cave itself was formed over 230,000 years ago. As she speaks she pauses grasping to come up with the equivalent of a French word, in English. Together we find them. She uses her laser pointer to direct me to some of the stalactites in the cave. Mostly small, It takes thousand of years to crystallize minerals, from drops of water, into these fragile formations. She says hundreds of geologist have visited the cave. “it is very special for these parts”
She gets more comfortable with her English and explains the bones of a wolverine were found deeper in the cave. It was the only animal the indigenous people feared. “Wolverine, no longer inhabit the Gaspe region”. She also says, “moose bones were found farther in the cave to”. Pointing below the metal platform we stand, she draws my attentions to the boulders, coupled with the low ceiling, “it is obvious a moose couldn’t walk around in here,” I say. She smirks implying the moose carcass was dragged to the back of the cave and consumed by another animal.
” Now we turn out the lights ah?” she suggests. I say ” please do” We are plunged into complete darkness, and silence. The peril and fear an animal must have endured falling into this hole, an eminent death if the fall didn’t kill it. I try to take a few steps up the ramp but I am paralyzed with fear. “Lights again please.” ” Oh some people like to walk with the light out” She chuckles. She again points out some bones and adds, “No human remains have ever been found”
We arrive at the end of the chamber, a wide open space. I can hear water plopping into pools, she point out a tiny body of water, It has a name Lake …. I didn’t catch. Lake, sound comical for this tiny basket of water laying in an eroded dived in a rock. She shines the pointer upward to see mineral formations cascade down the conical shaped ceiling.
” Do you want a picture?” ” yes please” I pose against the railing with the cave backdrop.
With the tour over, we head back to the stairway. I am first to accent. My hands go numb against the cold metal rail of the ladder. I step then slide my hand up the pole then re-grip, then step again, a tedious slow advance. The Belay rope become taught with every step I take. I really just want get to the top. 40 meter is a long way up when you don’t like heights or confined spaces. The air warms and I am finally hit by day light. Amanda takes my arm and assists me back to the landing. We walk the short distant to the guides camp, where I return my helmet and climbing harness. I give both Monique and Amanda a hug, They have another tour in half and hour so I have to hike back to my truck on the one kilometer trail through the woods. Then drive another 35 minutes on the dirt road back to civilization. It was worth it.
If you would like to know more about the caves here is the link. https://lagrotte.ca
Please join me on my next adventure to Port-Daniels-Gascons in the province of Quebec.
Happy Travels from Maritme Mac.