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