• cavers on the plateau near Fernie, B.C.

    Cavers on the Bisaro Plateau near Fernie, B.C. (Photo: Jérôme Genairon)

A group of cavers from across the country ventured once again to the Bisaro Plateau near Fernie, B.C. in August 2018. This time, the 22 members of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s 2018 Expedition of the Year weren’t focused on explorations inside the Bisaro Anima Cave, the deepest in Canada as of January 2018. Instead, they set their sights on the surface, hoping to find new entrances that connect to the known cave system. Bisaro Anima is 5.3 kilometres long, more than 670 metres deep and located on a two-square-kilometre plateau with hundreds of depressions, but surprisingly there’s still only one known entrance ― so far. Here, project leader Jeremy Bruns shares his expedition log of the most promising finds from the week-long trip.

A panoramic view of the surface camp, with (left to right) Mt. Klauer, Mt. Bisaro, and the Bisaro Plateau behind camp. (Photo: Jeremy Bruns)

A map of the known Bisaro Anima cave system. (Map: Chris Brackley)

Black Watch

Aug. 4-5

Henry Bruns, Claire Allum, Jesse Invik, Nadene Beyerbach and I fly up to the plateau with an extra helicopter load of equipment for the larger group that will follow. We have 230 litres of water (try lifting that!), hundreds of metres of rope, hardware, hammer drills and other equipment. Three weeks prior, participants Braden Kudel, Jason Matichuk, Christian Stenner and Melanie Stenner performed an aerial drone survey on the plateau and left some supplies: a tent, about 450 kilograms of firewood, camp chairs and a generator, which will power our camp for the week.

After we set up, we wander around the plateau searching for new cave entrances. Before long, we discover a cave on the surface above the “Black Watch,” an area in Bisaro Anima featuring a vertical shaft 35 storeys deep. Henry and Jesse rappel down a snow-covered slope and enter the cave, which opens into a walking passage. They survey as they go, take measurements and draw a cave map. About 70 metres in, they reach a tight point in the passage and decide to move on to other leads.

A little after dawn the next morning, the rest of our group makes the trip up to the plateau. At camp the entire 22-person team, the largest group of cavers in the history of the seven-year Bisaro Project, discusses leads, methods and safety plans for the next week. On iPads, we use the Avenza Maps app to mark entrance locations across the plateau on the high-resolution drone imagery.

A map of surface locations that could connect to the Bisaro Anima Cave overlayed with drone imagery. (Photo: Bisaro Project)

Left to right: Christian Stenner, Chantal Tempelman and Jesse Invik return to the surface after two nights exploring the inside of Bisaro Anima. (Photo: Jeremy Bruns)

Gaping Maw and Tapeworm Trench

Aug. 6-9

Exploration starts in earnest the next morning. Christian, Jesse and Chantal Tempelman venture inside Bisaro Anima for two nights and deliver another 130 metres of new passage in “Did Nazi That Coming,” the surprising extension near Camp 1 ignominiously named “Side Pit” on earlier surveys. What’s more is that they turn a single lead into eight by discovering a new section of phreatic tubes, a type of passage formed underwater, that intersect a new underground stream inside the cave. Water seems to flow to and from multiple places in Bisaro Anima. This particular find is exciting because it implies that there might be more passage length and maybe even a way around the sump at the current bottom of the cave, which we explored in January 2018.

Up on the surface, teams throw themselves at various projects, inventorying holes, checking possible entrances and digging. Henry, Claire and Tessie the border collie discover a promising potential entrance on the upper plateau, which they name the “Gaping Maw.” Jérôme Genairon, Paul Verville and Marie-Claude Matieu, a trio of experienced cavers from Quebec’s Société québécoise de spéléologie (SQS), scout the upper plateau to the southeast. They find many new entrances, but nothing longer than 30 metres. Most passages are ultimately blocked by rock, snow and ice.

Trip co-leader Claire Gougeon and Charlene Barker work on finding more entrances on the lower plateau to the southwest of the main camp, where rock benches fall away one after the other to a cliff overhanging the valley below. The group finds a crack in the rock that's blowing cold air in a howling draft ― the only problem is that the crack (named “Tapeworm Trench” in keeping with our First and Second World War theme for the plateau) measures about two metres by 15 centimetres. Nadene and I join this group and start hammering away to open up the passage. After all, we’ll need to actually get in there to assess its potential.

Ethan Dinnen, Peter Chiba and Kirsten Mathieson, a crew of cavers from British Columbia, help me lower a GoPro down the opening. When we pull it back up and watch the video, we are blown away. The small crack opens up to a more than 25-metre drop leading to a two-metre-wide canyon with a tall passage at the bottom. This could be our connection to Bisaro Anima. Work on opening an entrance redoubles and more cavers assist throughout the remainder of the week.

Paul Verville rapells into the Gaping Maw. (Photo: Jérôme Genairon)

After rock is removed, Claire Gougeon tries to squeeze into the Tapeworm Trench in the lower plateau. (Photo: Muriel Chahine)

Gear Cave

Aug. 10

At the “Gear Cave,” a small cubby hole that we used to store our gear located directly below our surface camp, Vladimir Paulik and Muriel Chahine discover a way through its ice floor and break into new passage several storeys below. Vlad takes Muriel and Jared Habiak in to explore, and they find another few hundred metres of passage overlying Bisaro Anima 150 metres below. Just as excitement peaks, Vlad seriously injures his finger, and the team turns back at a crucial moment in exploration. This project will have to wait for the October trip (see “October and beyond” below).

Muriel Chahine waits for the opportunity to descend into the Gear Cave. (Photo: Jared Habiak)

Muriel Chahine rappels through layers of ice and false floors in the Gear Cave. (Photo: Vlad Paulik)

Bisaro Enema

Aug. 11

Christian and I wake up early and take a few survey photos inside Bisaro Anima to get a more accurate picture of the entrance chamber. Surprisingly, we are able to survey passage upwards slightly, adding another three metres to the depth of Canada’s deepest cave.

That same morning, Kathleen Graham and Jason Lavigne helicopter to a deep valley northwest of the plateau where a natural spring (named “Bisaro Enema” in true caver fashion), was dye-traced in 2015 and found to be a resurgence of underground streams that flow into Bisaro Anima. Kathleen attempts an inspection dive with simple gear and, while tight, the spring seems to have lots of potential to lead us into Bisaro Anima, prompting plans to return in the fall when its flow is lower and we can collect data to help us estimate the water volume between it and the cave's sump. With that information, we might be able to tell whether the passage connecting the two is mostly dry or underwater.

Kathleen Graham emerges from the dive in the northwest resurgence, playfully named Bisaro Enema. While there are tight spots, it has potential to connect to the main cave. (Photo: Jason Lavigne)

The waterfall below the resurgence reveals how significant the flow rate is in the summer. (Photo: Jason Lavigne)

Final thoughts

Despite the challenges and frustrations we endured during this exploration, the team is proud of its accomplishments. More than 10 new surface caves were surveyed and a couple of them will likely become significant. Thanks in part to the drone footage taken a few weeks prior to the expedition, we documented more than 50 new locations of interest on the plateau that could yield new caves. The Gear Cave turned out to be more than we had thought, and we made progress on Tapeworm Trench, now one of our best surface leads to Bisaro Anima. And to add a bit of icing to the cake, Bisaro Anima is now surveyed to 5,613 metres long and 673 metres deep.

Muriel Chahine is silhouetted by the sun and smoke over Mt. Klauer in August 2018. (Photo: Vlad Paulik)