Video clip of Mac Elder in his Warden days in Jasper National Park …

Mac’s son, Craig, was able to share this video …


Exploring Grotte Mickey, Nahanni National Park, Part 2

Exploring Grotte Mickey, Nahanni National Park,  Part 2

Later on that summer Lou found room in the schedule for “exploring Grotte Mickey part 2”. We were one park warden short as GT-2 Steve Cooper had recently moved on from Nahanni. His Grotto1vacancy was filled by the short term deployment of Ray Breneman from Prince Albert National Park. Unfortunately Joe Buker couldn’t join us for part 2 because patrol duties took him to Rabbitkettle Lake, so Ray took his place on the team. With only one day in the schedule to do the trip, Lou chartered Okanogan Helicopters from Fort Simpson to pick us up at Nahanni Butte and fly us to the top of first canyon and land on the rim as close as he could above the entrance to Grotte Mickey.

With plenty of rappelling and jumaring experience from part 1 of our adventure, our amended plan was to rappel the 30 meters down to the cave entrance and begin our explore from there. We were joined by National Geographic writer Douglas Chadwick and our helicopter pilot, Bruce Reilly. Ray recalls thinking it was a good idea of Lou’s to invite the pilot so he could not find an excuse to take off and leave us behind.

In dropping down to the Grotte Mickey there was about 400 meters of exposure, but the cave’s opening was substantial and provided good footing we could lower to it without too much difficulty. Doug wrote in his National Geographic article “It was being able to look down between your legs and see the river 1000 feet farther down that made this an honest slide.”

Once everyone had rapelled down to entrance we moved back from the canyon wall and dug out our maps and put on our mining lamps. Schroeder’s sketch map of Grotte Mickey showed a narrow passageway 20 to 30 meters into the cave before it opened up into the much larger galleries. The opening was so low we had to crawl on our bellies. Being the smallest (and perhaps least likely to get stuck) I was selected to go first. I crawled in only a short distance before my daypack caught on the cave’s ceiling impeding my progress. I backed out and tried it again this time pushing the pack in front of me a foot or so at a time. It was very claustrophobic and I remember it took me two or three attempts of squirming in and back out again before I was able to relax and get the hang of it. I let the guys know that low and slow would do the trick, but they’d have to be that much more careful being larger than me.

What the sketch map didn’t show or note was that once you had committed and got part way in and lined up head to toe, that there would be a surface of ice we couldn’t lift our bellies off. If that wasn’t enough, there was also several inches of blasphemously cold (Doug’s words) icy water we’d have to crawl through for what seemed like hundreds of meters. There was no turning back, so on we went.

If any ghosts of previous explorers remained in the cave (remember Grotte Vallerie had the skeletal remains of 80 some dall sheep and the Nahanni had names like Headless Canyon and Deadmen Valley) we needn’t have worried about them. Our continuous hoots, hollers, moans and groans from squirming through water cold enough to give you a headache and make your feet, fingers and nether regions ache would have certainly have scared them away.

It seemed like forever but eventually we exited the narrow entry tunnel into the larger Grotte Mickey galleries. We quickly wrung out socks, pants, and shirts etc while marveling at immensity of the cave before us. With lights off you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Slightly dryer, spirits high, lamps on and maps in hand, we set out exploring the nearest galleries. Our excited voices echoed our presence as our large shadows stretched out across adjacent walls. In our exhilaration, we quickly forgot we’d have to crawl back out through the treacherously cold water again at the end of our exploration.

Ray recollects how once inside the cave we encountered foot prints of whom we assumed could only have been from Ford and Schroeder ‘s exploration of the cave. They looked as they were left just days rather than years ago. If the galleries had names I don’t recall them, but I do remember following the map down to a lower chamber. The going was not that difficult. Short roping wasn’t required as we scrambled up, down, around and about.

About halfway through our explore, we came to a narrow opening separating the upper and lower galleries on our route. A closer examination of the opening determined we could and should push Grotto  on. Ray and the pilot went first and had no difficulty getting through the narrow hole. Lou went next only to find himself completely stuck part way through. He tried several permutations with no success, giving true meaning to the phrase “stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

While it might have been easier for Lou to try and back out to dislodge himself, no one wanted to retrace our steps. Waiting a day or two for Lou to get thinner was not an option either, although we did give him a hard time discussing this option. In any case, with Ray and Bruce pulling from above, and Doug and I pushing from below, combined and assisted by Lou’s anger at our amusement, we finally managed to spring him loose to work his way through. Lou said later that the pushing and pulling, and frustrated anger continued through out his career as he dealt with Parks Canada’s always challenging and ever changing bureaucracy (or maybe it was me that said that).

Once into the upper gallery, we finished our exploration and made our way back to the entry tunnel. It didn’t take us too long to psych ourselves up for the crawl back through the icy water and narrow entry way. By the time we stepped out into Grotte Mickey’s entrance we had the benefit of the afternoon sun to warm us up as we wrung out cloths. The jumar back up the canyon wall to the rim provided additional warmth. In no time at all, we were in the helicopter laughing and telling stories of our adventure all the way back to Nahanni Butte.

Ray recounted later how the pilot Bruce’s perspective of a park warden job changed as the day went on. After the rappel down to the cave entrance, Bruce thought being a park warden was a pretty great job. The career became less appealing after our squirm through the icy water and explore of the galleries. By the time we got back to helicopter he said told us he was never going to travel with us again. Go figure eh?

When I look back on our climb to and explore of Grotte Mickey, it really was an accomplishment. It illustrated how you could put your skill set to use, learn from your experiences, and bond as a team. I realize just how lucky I was to put in my junior park warden years in at Nahanni. There is no way I would have gotten the same kinds of experience at a larger more established park. In addition to the splendor and beauty of our isolated northern national parks, is the reality that with their limited staff everyone plays an important and active role in the park warden team. Whether it be mountaineering training, whitewater canoeing, conducting wildlife surveys, visitor monitoring, or cave exploring adventures like this, we were all actively involved in these activities one way or another. This isn’t to say this couldn’t or didn’t happen in larger or busier parks because it did. It just took a few years longer before you gained the same kind of experiences and responsibilities. The team of park wardens and their families we had in my 3 summers and one winter at Nahanni National Park will always be special to me. And, while we often had fun at Lou’s expense, with out him as our leader, we would never have had these adventures in the first place. Thank you Lou.

In closing, the one ironic thing about writing this Grotte Mickey adventure is that until now, I never made the time to put pen to paper and get the story written. I recently took advantage of Yukon’s Air North’s jet service between Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Ottawa to write its first draft. It was the pilot pointing out Virginia falls as we flew over it that convinced me it was time to write this piece. I hope you enjoyed it. I expect there are many more stories like this that could be told. I challenge you all to share your park warden memories and adventures.

Tom 2Tom Elliot – retired September 2012

Seasonal GT-1 Park Warden

Nahanni National Park: May 1979 to September 1981

Cave photos by Derek Ford and Jacques Schroeder in Caves and Karst of the USA published by the National Speleological Society



Exploring Grotte Mickey, Nahanni National Park, Part 1

Grotte Mickey, Nahanni National Park, Part 1

It was the summer of 1980 and my second year as a seasonal park warden at Nahanni National Park. I was joined by fellow seasonal Joe Buker and our Chief Park Warden Lou Comin in an adventure to put into practice the climbing skills we learned from alpine specialist Willie Pfister at Hole in the Wall Lake the previous summer. Our goal was to climb up to, into and through Grotte Mickey a cave discovered in First Canyon Caves, NNP1970 by Frenchman Jean Poirel.

Nahanni’s first canyon was known for its limestone karst topography, left untouched by the scouring effects of the last continental ice sheets. The canyon had several underground caves, the most well known being Grotte Valerie with its 2 kilometers of galleries and home to the skeletal remains of more than 80 dall sheep. Grotte Mickey was lesser known, but considerably larger and much more inaccessible. It had over 3 kilometers of galleries located close to 400 meters above the Nahanni river. These caves comprised part of National Geographic’s September 1981 featured article on Nahanni National Park. Karst geomorphologists Derek Ford (McMaster University) and Jacques Schroeder (University of Montreal) explored, mapped and photographed these caves as part of their PhD research in the early 70s

Our plan was to spent 2 or 3 days as needed, climbing up to the Grotte Mickey’s  entrance about 30 metres from the top of first canyon. Joe had spent his seasonal lay-off after Willie’s school, climbing on his own and expanding his skills. He was our lead climber. Lou Comin, had previous mountaineering skills and experience from his years in Jasper. He would climb second, followed by me, the novice of the group. We got an early start and traveled up river by jet boat from the Nahanni Butte warden office and operations base. We moored our boat in a quiet back eddy just above Lafferty’s riffle.

The objective of day 1 was to fix rope up the canyon wall below the cave as far as we could get, before rappelling back down to the boat where we’d camp overnight.  We expected to reach the cave entrance and explore Grotte Mickey on day 2. We would follow the map of Grotte Mickey’s galleries made by Jacques Schroeder. On completion of our explore we’d rappel back to the boat again for the night returning to the Butte on day 3. Collectively, we had the self rescue skills required to get us out of trouble if we ran into any problems. Brimming with confidence and youthful exuberance, we did not expect any to encounter any difficulties. Looking back a few years later, after several additional mountaineering schools, and a climb up Grassi Ridge in Yoho (lead by Claire Isrealson on my rope and Brad White on Kevin Mclaughlin’s rope), I realized I was probably in a little over my  head with the climb up first canyon we were taking on.

Things went pretty well according to plan on day one. Progress was slower than anticipated as we knocked the rust off our skills. As anticipated, we encountered no problems other than flakey Nahanni 01rock. I did have a interesting moment when both my “thank god” hand-holds on an exposed pitch pulled away from the wall. Luckily I was one a good ledge and able to maintain my balance. It did make for a heart stopping “WTF adrenalin rush” I never did share with Joe and Lou.

Day 2 started early and found us again in good spirits. We quickly made it to day one’s high point using yesterdays fixed line and protection. Progress from there was much slower. I’m not sure at what point we realized we weren’t going to achieve our overall objective. We continued to push on deciding to forgo the cave exploration and at least achieve the summit of the canyon wall. Being mid June, we had the benefit of near 24 hour day light which enabled us to continue on well into the evening. We finally reached the canyon wall summit, but by then it was close to midnight. Since we had expected to have plenty of time to rappel back down to our boat to for supper and to camp, we had only our warm jackets, rain gear and remnants of our lunch and snacks. Being non smokers and not having an Optimus stove, not one of us had matches – so much for being prepared for all contingencies.

Lucky for us it wasn’t that cold, and the ground was soft and mossy. We stood around and laughed at our predicament, swapping lies about our adventure thus far. As it went further into the night it eventually did start to cool. It had been a long day and with the adrenalin long gone, I was the first to lie down and curl up in the cushiony moss. The mosquitoes weren’t that bad but it only takes one to keep you awake. I tucked my face and exposed skin into my warden jacket as best I could and tried to get some sleep. A short time later Lou did the same. It must have been getting colder than I thought because I was a little surprised when Lou cosied up close to me for warmth.

“Well this is awkward and more than a little bit uncomfortable” I was thinking, but Lou was the boss and I was too tired to say anything. I could only imagine what must have been going through Joe’s mind. We were rough tough “north of sixty” park wardens after all. At some point Joe must have figured “what the hey” and joined Lou and I on the ground. It must have been something to see, the three of us snuggled together in the soft moss. I will admit it was the only time in my 33+ year career I ever spooned with any park wardens. I spent many a night in tents on patrol with my peers, but there was always the “personal space” provided by each others sleeping bags, assorted books, boots, clothing and packs etc.

Tom and LouWhat happens on patrol, generally stays on patrol except if it is a really good story. After 35 years I figured this was a pretty good story to share. As I think about it now, Lou was the smart one of us snagging the middle position to have warmth on both sides. While Joe and I each had one cold side, I don’t recall too much re-positioning by either of us through the night to move the cold side in. It was probably the “stillest” night sleep Joe and I ever had.

We awoke early the next morning and quickly found our way down to the boat for a hearty combined supper and breakfast. Our unplanned overnight made for a few more good stories. It no doubt made us better prepared in the future with matches, bivy bags, an improved supply of emergency rations and light weight backpackers stove. Our unplanned for night on the rim, did not dampen Lou’s quest to reach our goal. As soon as we got back to the Butte, he immediately went into action looking for room in the summer river patrol schedule for Grotte Mickey part 2.