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R. Brian Campbell

            Even though Jesse loved cave exploring, he’d never had the opportunity to check out Vancouver Island’s famed Horne Lake Caves.  But that would soon change.  Jesse had booked the entire week off, flown to Vancouver, rented a car, and took the ferry over to the Island.  He stayed at the Travelodge in Parksville, and booked a 7:00 am wakeup call, so he could get an early start in the morning.  Then he settled in for a good night’s sleep.

            Jesse was so excited, he was up before his wakeup call. He quickly showered, packed, and headed downstairs for a hearty breakfast. By 9:00 am, he had a good meal in his belly and a full tank in the rental car and was back on the road, heading towards the Horne Lake Caves.  There were a number of guided excursions, but he preferred the freedom of going alone, so he was looking for the best way to avoid getting involved with the tourist crowd.  According to the maps he’d been studying, there was a little used back way in.  It meant avoiding checking in with the park staff, which was frowned upon, especially when it came to something as risky as cave exploring, but Jesse always believed that it was easier to get forgiveness than permission, so he turned down the dirt road leading towards the entrance of his choice.

            Jesse pulled over to the side and parked.  He got out, inhaling the crisp mountain air and admiring the scenery.  A lush, green valley stretched out from the road’s edge, encircled by the majestic Canadian Rockies.  Jesse took his backpack from the trunk and rested it comfortably across his shoulders, as he closed the trunk and locked the car.  He climbed the wood fence and set a brisk pace along the glade.

            Halfway across the valley, he stopped, took out his compass and checked his bearings.  Matching the compass’s readings against the position of the sun, he adjusted his direction slightly, took a sip of water from his water bottle, then removed a granola bar and munched on it as he started off again.

            What was that? Jesse froze, looking down at the ground. He pressed down on the spot again with his foot.  Hmmmm. That’s interesting. Feels spongy.  He dropped to his knees and, using a multi-tool from his pack, began digging at the soft ground, using first the knife, then the axe tool.  Realizing that the soft patch was larger than he had originally thought, he switched to a compact folding shovel to complete the job. In a short time, he cleared away a space roughly the size of a manhole cover, and found himself looking into a vertical tunnel.  Looks like the Horne Lake Caves would have to wait. His curiosity was piqued. 

            Jesse removed a length of nylon rope from his pack and took several paces back from the hole, until he found a solid piece of ground.  Then, using the blunt back of his axe tool, he pounded two pitons into the ground, looped one end the rope through both of them and tied it off.  Gripping the rope with both hands, he pulled as hard as he could against the pitons, leaning into the pull with all his weight.  The pitons didn’t budge.  Good.   He removed a flashlight from his backpack and clipped it to his belt.  Then he strung the rope through the shoulder straps of his backpack and lowered it into the hole.  The backpack reached the bottom with a splash.  Jesse sighed.  Well, the pack was supposed to be waterproof. Now he’d find out if the sales pitch was true.  He would soon find out if his Gore-Tex hiking boots were also as waterproof as promised.  He swung over the edge, and lowered himself into the pit, hand under hand.

            Jesse’s feet touched solid rock only a couple inches below the water, and he found himself in a low ceilinged space, with barely enough headroom to stand up straight.  He untied his backpack, replaced the rope, and shrugged the pack onto his back.  Then he unclipped the flashlight and shone it around.  The cave was about four paces in width, and maybe seven or eight paces in one direction, before shrinking down to the point where it just barely accommodated the stream running through it.  On the other hand, the other direction extended beyond the reach of his flashlight.  The stream covered nearly the entire floor space. Fortunately, both his boots and pack turned out to be as good as their hype.   His shirt and pants, on the other hand, were not water resistant, and he shivered as rivulets of cold water ran down his back from the exterior of the pack.  Well, no adventure was complete without a bit of discomfort. Stalactites reached down from the ceiling, creating an added challenge to his exploration.  There was a narrow ledge on one wall, containing an old wine bottle with the stump of a candle jammed in it.  He wasn’t the first visitor to this cave.

            Jesse pointed himself towards the longer passage and followed the beam of his flashlight, careful to avoid the stalactites.  As he followed the tunnel, he noticed movement up ahead.  His brain was just registering the movement when dozens of dark forms separated from the cave ceiling at the edge of his flashlight beam, and, in a flurry of beating wings, swarmed towards him.  BATS!   In moments, they were all over him, leathery wings flapping and fluttering, trying to force past him in the narrow space. Instinctively, his hand shot up to protect his face.  The flashlight clipped a stalactite and went spinning away, hitting the water and going out.  He was enveloped in blackness.

            Great!  Now what?  The bats had vanished to wherever bats go, but the damage was done.  Okay. Don’t panic.  Think.  Once his breathing had returned to normal and his logical mind kicked back in, he quickly worked out a solution to his dilemma and began moving.

Feeling his way with his hands, Jesse slowly navigated to the cave wall and carefully worked his way along it.  It seemed like forever, but he eventually found the ledge with the bottle on it.  He allowed himself a deep breath.  He shrugged out of his backpack and rummaged blindly around inside until he found the butane torch lighter.  Lighting it, he used its light to find his emergency candles.  He had to release the lighter button to open the package, so he set the lighter on the ledge next to the bottle.  Once he had a candle out, he set it on the ledge, while he used the lighter to melt the old candle stub so he could push it into the bottle.  Then he heated up the butt end of his emergency candle, slid it into the bottle far enough to be secure, allowed it to cool long enough to stay in place, then lit it.

The candle was nowhere near as bright as his flashlight, but it was light, and he had no intention of leaving this cave unexplored.  He turned back the way he had come and continued. 

The dim, flickering candlelight made the going much slower and trickier, and sent wildly distorted shadows climbing the cave walls and ceiling.  Now stalactites glared at him with ghoulish faces and gigantic forms loomed over him, as he made his way back downstream.  Droplets of hot wax burned his hand, but he gritted his teeth, gripped the bottle that represented his only light source, and continued.

Jesse’s foot struck something, and he felt it move.  He bent over, careful not to tip the bottle holding the candle, and felt around in the water.  Got it!  He straightened up and looked at the object.  His lost flashlight.  He nearly threw it back in the water, but thought better of it, and returned it to his pack.  As he resumed walking, he shook his head and began laughing, but quickly stopped, when his breath caused the candle flame to waver violently. 

He rounded a corner slowly, cautious, lest he met up with more bats or other cave dwellers.  The passage appeared to be getting larger.  Additional airflow was causing the candle to gutter and flare madly.  The tunnel was alternately becoming brighter and darker.  If this continued, he may end up without light at any moment.  But as concerning as it was, he continued following the stream.

A gust of wind extinguished the candle.  Jesse froze.  As the initial shock passed, he realized two things at once.  He could see.  Not well, mind you.  But he could see.  The interior of the cave was much like the twilight, just after sunset.  The second thing he realized was that wind, combined with the increased light, meant that an exit was near.  He dipped the stub of the candle in the stream, assuring that it was out, then placed it in his pack.  He might still need it before this adventure was over. 

Now, the light seemed to increase with nearly every step and the cave became wider and higher.  Soon he was walking on dry, or at least dry-ish rock alongside the stream in a fairly comfortably sized cave.  He could easily see into the distance, even to the point of seeing a well-lit place ahead that, presumably was the exit.  As much as he enjoyed cave exploring, it would be nice to see daylight again.

Then he caught something out of the corner of his eye.  Stopping, he turned towards a dark object, jammed between several large rocks at the side of the cave.  He walked over to it and bent down.  A box of some sort.  Looked very old.  He opened the knife blade of his multi-tool and jabbed at the box.  Rotten wood crumbled under the blade, so he increased his efforts.  Eventually, one side disintegrated completely, and a mound of gold and silver coins scattered over the rocky ground.

Jesse picked up a coin and gazed at it.  Then he picked up another, then another.  These were old. Very old.  And European, from the look of them.  Pirate’s bootie?  Pirates of the North Pacific?  Impossible! He shook his head and looked at the pile of ancient coins.  Well, someone left them here.  Whoever it was, and whatever the reason, this was neither the place nor time to work out the mystery.  Not unless he intended to spend the night here.  He gathered as many coins as he could find and poured them into his pack.   He set the broken flashlight and the wine bottle in the broken chest, so he could use the space for coins.  They would also help him to find this spot again.  There was no doubt that he was coming back.

Shouldering the pack, he continued to the cave exit, emerging into the light of a sun that was already beginning to settle towards the mountains in the west.   He looked around the valley he had emerged in, and up at the rocky hill he would have to climb to get back to his car.   A bit of work with the additional weight in his pack, but a better and quicker option than trying to navigate his way back the way he had just come.  He removed his pack, sat on a boulder, took a deep drink from his water bottle, and ate a couple of granola bars, before beginning the climb out.

Jesse worked his way, cautiously, but quickly, up the hill, trying to beat the setting sun.  Once he reached the top, he could see the glade he had previously been crossing.  Checking his compass, he estimated where the rental car would be, and set off down the other side of the hill.  For a brief moment, he stopped and looked back towards the cave.  A mystery remained.  One that he would still have to work out.  But not today.  Probably not even on this visit.  He needed to find someone he could trust to analyze the coins he found.  That may help figure out what he should do next.  But one way or another, he would figure it out.

But for today, what he needed was a good meal, a soak in a tub; hot tub preferably, and a good night’s sleep.  He put one foot in front of the other, racing the setting sun across the field towards the car.