Sinking into the earth through a small child-sized hole, placing careful hands and feet on the walls, I am surrounded by the earth’s warmth. The dark engulfs me, broken only by the small beam of light attached to my helmet. Shimmying over boulders, belly, and knees scraping on clay, my light fades and disappears into the seemingly endless surrounding tunnels. This is Andre’s Annex at Horne Lake Caves.

The lake has always been a summer attraction for people of Vancouver Island, but it was in 1963 that the caves were officially discovered by Nanaimo-based amateur spelunkers (cavers) Jim and Delores Johnson. In 1971, after being explored and charted, the caves became a provincial park to combat vandalism and other harmful access that had damaged their natural wonder. The caves are located west of Qualicum Bay, in the 105-hectares of Horne Lake Regional Park, below Mount Mark’s cliffs.

There are three caves open to the public for self-guided tours. Experienced spelunkers might have all the equipment they need to dive head-first; others, like me, who are not accurately prepared can rent equipment from the cave’s information office. Helmets and headlamps are a must—the one I rented had shallow, dirty cuts on the top from previous rocky collisions.

The park’s guided tours, which run between three and four hours and explore Riverbend Cave, fully equip cavers with boots, gloves, and helmets. The day trip costs $74–105. The tours have more challenges—slides and vertical drops.

Standing outside the first cave, named the Main Cave, for the first time is daunting. Looking into the mouth, most first-timers stop to fiddle with their equipment before taking their last breaths of outside air. Upon entry, park guides hazard about what to expect underground. Calcite crystals, echoing chambers, cave crickets—like regular crickets, but sub-dwellers and as big as your palm. Imagination gets the better of you.

The folded, laminated map that the guide distributes outlines the obstacles you might encounter. The main chamber gives the opportunity to adjust to the surroundings—walls of limestone and darkness on every horizon. Ahead, the Cheese Grater: two rough walls, bubbled with rock, just wide enough to fit a helmet. The Wind Passage allows a channel of air through the cave but was entirely too small for a human to get through. The passes in the Main Cave were claustrophobic.

Lower Cave offers more options for climbing, and for getting wet. The entrance had a metal gate to pass through, and a steel grate to step over the river. A groundwater stream flows out to the river that feeds the lake. The Birthing Canal is a triangular rock formation where the only passage through was to crawl on hands and knees through the river, helmet cracking off rock.

Outside, the forest is damp from overnight winter showers and the air chilled, despite the blue skies and peaking sun. But inside the caves the temperature is constant and contained year-round; there is no draft aside from your own nervous breaths.

Andre’s Annex, the third cave, is a 25-minute hike uphill. Along the way are path markers that identify the different signs and features of caves. In 2014, BC Parks, with the assistance of geology students at Vancouver Island University, set up the sign posts. They educate on the topics of karsts, subsurface creatures (crickets, harvestmen, hibernating bats), gullies and grikes, corrosion and corrasion, and area-specific flora and fauna.

Tim Stokes, Earth Science professor at Vancouver Island University, takes his upper level geoscience students to sites like Horne Lake Caves and others on the Island to teach them about the rocks, the soil, and the ground water.

“Mostly we use the surface of the karst landscapes, to look at the different features on the surface. The surface is intimately connected with the subsurface,” Stokes said. “One of the unique things about karst is that the subsurface can have its own ecosystem.”

For those who are less inclined to spend the day shimmying between dark cave walls, the park offers canoe and paddle board rentals, fishing, or hiking.

The 10 km of gravel road winds through the provincial park, with the caves on the most western corner of Horne Lake, but the park’s year-round campground accommodates all types of motor homes and trailers, and, for the warm summer months, tents. Per night, camping in the North- or South-Park costs between $20 and $80 a night. The nearest town, Qualicum Bay, also offers quintessential cabins and hotels.

For a first-time spelunker, the self-explorable caves allow you to throw precaution to the wind and experience a sense of gravitas at exploring on your own—even if that means turning back when faced with the Birthing Canal.