Go deep at Banff’s Cave and Basin site

“The Making of a Myth” depicts three railway workers discovering the dark, muggy cave in the fall of 1883. That cave is now a Canadian Signature Experience. (Photo courtesy of Parks Canada)

Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor

BANFF NATIONAL PARK, ALBERTA — The Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) unveiled the latest 28 tourism businesses joining the Canadian Signature Experiences Collection this week. Among the list is the Cave and Basin National Historic Site Discover Tour.

The timing of this announcement was impeccable because I had just returned from Banff, and was able to lay eyes on the park for the first time in my life. I was struck by this magnificent attraction that’s little known despite being in one of Canada’s most globally beloved national parks. I remember parking my car, looking around at the mountain landscape and thinking, “Geez … even the parking lot is spectacular.”

It’s a short walk up a paved road past an information and souvenir shop to the front door. One of the first things you’ll notice is the strong smell that will remind you of rotten eggs, due to the sulphurous hot springs. It’s not an overwhelming odour, but you’re sure to see at least some visitors scrunching their faces as their noses struggle to get used to the smell.

I missed my guided tour so I decided to walk around and see this park for myself. The second thing you’ll probably notice after the unmistakable smell of sulphur is the information placards and pictures in the main hallway, just before you go into the tunnel to see the cave.

There’s one picture in particular that caught my eye. It tells the story of this park and gives you a sense of history. Entitled “The Making of a Myth,” it shows three railway workers “discovering” the dark, muggy cave in the fall of 1883 from a vent hole on top of the cave. I use the word “discovering” lightly in this case because the First Nations people knew about the spring and were using it long before the railway workers discovered it. The picture depicts the three men entering from the top of the cave because that was the only way in until the tunnel was blasted out to improve access in 1886.

A Shimmering Dream Come True

One of those men in the picture was Frank McCabe, who said, “It was as if one was in a chamber of jewels. In all my wanderings I have seen nothing like it. It is like some extravagant shimmering dream.”

Shimmering dream … couldn’t have said it better myself. When you walk into the cave that sense of history is alive and vibrant. As I moved slowly down the dark, low, crooked tunnel into the cave and breathed in the sulphur-saturated air, I could imagine McCabe coming down the roof of the cave and feel his excitement as my eyes saw this sight for the first time.

Tourists gather to get a closer look at the basin, home of the endangered Banff Springs Snail. (Rod Charles/Vacay.ca)

Outside is the basin, an outdoor emerald-coloured mineral pool, home to the unique and endangered Banff Springs Snail, a tiny animal no bigger then the head of a pencil eraser and found nowhere else in the world. This is one of the biggest reasons why you can’t swim here. Public relations and communications officer Michelle Macullo explained that several other animals from grizzly bears to water snakes and water fowl can be found at Cave and Basin, just 2.1 kilometres (1.3 miles) from the centre of town.

“There are so many animals, the place is teeming with life,” says Macullo. “It’s a beautiful area, and it’s right on the edge of town. It’s so accessible, and that’s what’s so nice about it. I think that’s part of the magic that’s Banff … it’s all close.”

The Cave and Hot Springs Bathing Pavilion in the Banff National Park of Canada is made of stone. One lovely view is at the top of the building, where you can see almost everything, from the trails up above to the covered-over pool below.

Cave and Basin had been closed since July 2010 and only reopened earlier in May of this year, after a $13.8-million facelift that included covering over an old swimming pool that had been a popular spot with the locals back in the day. Also updated was the historic stone building, along with all its interactive displays and exhibits.

And it’s money well spent — this isn’t just a sulphur pool in a cave. This is Canadian history, pure and simple. Cave and Basin is where the national parks system was born, where the seed was planted in the minds of Canadians of the value of protecting our most cherished lands.

Amar Athwel, interpretation officer and coordinator at Cave and Basin, said the importance of this National Historic Site shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Just like all of us, we have a birthplace and our national parks have a birthplace,” said Athwel, adding the park attracts people from all over the world. Every year, more than 100,000 people visit the original cave, view the indoor and outdoor exhibits and stroll on boardwalks through the rich thermal spring environment at the Cave and Basin (Mountain Parks National Historic Sites of Canada). Athwel explained that the cave has a diameter of 12.2 metres and is 6.1 metres high from the centre. The flow rate is 501 litres per minute (L/min), with a temperature of 29.0 to 33.6 Celsius degrees (84.2-92.5 Fahrenheit). The basin flow rate is 654 L/min, with a temperature of 31.6 to 34.9 Celsius (88.9-94.8 Fahrenheit).

“Here, it was decided in 1885 to create a small reserve around these natural springs, so the idea of protecting land for all Canadians got started here. And soon after, from that small 26 square kilometres, today we have 44 national parks. And it all started right here,” Athwel said.

In an article published in the Calgary Herald, environment minister Peter Kent said during the reopening of the site: “Who could have imagined that the designation of a hot springs reserve on Sulphur Mountain in 1885 would be the catalyst that would spark the beginning of one of Canada’s most important legacies and enduring ideals?”

Other features of the park include the short Marsh Boardwalk Trail below the building, the 7.4-km (4.6-mile) round-trip Sundance Trail and the 2.7-km (1.7-mile) Marsh Loop. Other interesting yet sad displays are the interpretive panels describing the World War 1 internment camp that was based at Cave and Basin.

That ugly part of Canadian history — when Japanese citizens were rounded up and moved from their homes during war-time hysteria — is over. A new era at this site launched when it was reopened by the federal government on September 13, 2013. If the world needed another reason to visit Banff, the Cave and Basin site — and its recognition as a Canadian Signature Experience — provides it.


More About Cave and Basin National Historic Site

Website: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/ab/caveandbasin/visit.aspx
Hours: October 16, 2013 to May 2014: Wednesday through Sunday, noon-4 pm.
Fees: Adult $3.90, Senior $ 3.40, Youth $ 1.90
Discovery Tour: Until May 2014, the site is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon-4 pm. Tours are Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 pm during the winter and is free with admission.

More About Canadian Signature Experiences

The CTC adds businesses to its major market development program that offer extraordinary tourism experiences. The application process is challenging — applicants must have a website with a clear call to action for sales; been in operation for at least three years; demonstrate international marketing capability in at least one of the CTC’s markets, and must be able to demonstrate how they will invest in attracting more international visitors. The program started in July 2011 and now includes 181 tourism experiences from coast to coast.

In its press release, the CTC reported that culinary experiences featured strongly on the menu of many of the 28 new entrants — including Flavours of “The Main” Culinary Heritage Tour (Fitz & Follwell Co.) in Quebec and Island Flavours Culinary Bootcamp (Holland College) on Prince Edward Island — reflecting Canada’s growing reputation for great produce and regional cuisine. Natural wonders close to Canada’s cities are also well represented by the likes of Sea Otter Kayak Tours (West Coast Expeditions) in British Columbia.


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Rod has previously worked for Canoe.ca and is currently freelancing for Huffington Post Travel. He’s also written travel articles for the Toronto Star and Up! Magazine. Living in Toronto but raised in the small central Ontario village of Holstein, Rod is a country boy at heart who has never met a farmer’s market he didn’t like.

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