The view from the top of Blue Mountain was the stuff of dreams. The picturesque town of Collingwood, Ontario rested far below and the vast expanse of Georgian Bay filled the horizon. Fascinating rock formations were visible from the various lookout points along the Scenic Caves trail. The brilliant blue sky was scarcely marred by wisps of white clouds. It would have looked like a beautiful painting, except for the gently dancing leaves on the trees.
It was a day full of hope. Hope for several joyous hours of quality family time. Hope for good weather and exhilarating exercise. Hope for a new adventure for our daughters to experience. And for me, hope to continue my life-long avoidance of a cave known as Fat Man’s Misery.
Everything had started out well. We hiked to the top of the mountain, stopping halfway up the trail to explore the Natural Refrigerator. This is a cave that has a constant cold draft blowing through it from deep in the mountain. The Huron Indians actually used it for keeping their food cold hundreds of years ago. Our daughters, five-year-old Abigail and four-year-old Miranda, were quite intrigued by the phenomenon.
By the time we reached the top of the mountain and stopped to enjoy the view, Miranda was moaning about her sore feet. We sat on a bench so she could show me the damage. My heart sank when I saw the open blisters afflicting both of her heels. I couldn’t make her hike through the caves in that condition. Neither could we carry her over the rocky, treacherous terrain. The solution presented itself in the form of desperate, maternal ingenuity. Using the tiny fold-up scissors from my purse, I cut a panty-liner in half and stuck the pieces to the insides of Miranda’s shoes. In less than a minute, we were on our way, her blisters cushioned in sterile, padded softness.
We crossed man-made bridges over deep crevices, stopping frequently to try to see to the bottom or listen to our voices echo through the cavernous spaces. Another tourist inadvertently added his sunglasses to the scenery sixty feet below us. My resolution to not be annoyingly overprotective was tested frequently by Abi’s enthusiasm for adventure. I resisted the urge to make her hold my hand the whole time, but I drew the line at climbing the fences.
We began our descent into the large crevice that was to be our path for the next hour. The rocks were large and condensation from changing temperatures made them slippery. In most places, there was a dirt path that wound around the biggest rocks, but it was still slow going. My husband, Pat, and I took turns helping the children explore some of the smaller caves that we came upon. Neither of them wanted to heed our admonitions to go slowly or wait for us, but they weren’t really given a say in the matter.
Frequent signs informed us of the caves’ names and interesting tidbits about their historical significance. Our daughters’ lack of interest in the history didn’t bother me; some of the stories were a little too gory to share with them. We continued on our way, enjoying the scenery and each other’s company.
All too soon, we came upon Fat Man’s Misery. This cave is more like a tunnel than a typical cave. The entrance was before us, barely visible behind several boulders. Miranda and I climbed up so she could take a peek into the mouth of the cave. I had seen it before, and was unwilling to go beyond that point. We moved off to the side to allow room for the brave souls who were waiting to go in: my husband and my first-born daughter. Abi was giddy with excitement. Pat was reluctant, but macho enough to act like it was no big deal.
As we bid them farewell, memories of my previous attempt to conquer this particular cave compelled me to pray for their safety. Miranda and I watched until they were out of sight, then took the alternate route. Steep, metal stairs led us up and over the rock wall to a bench on the other side. We sat near Misery’s exit, camera poised, waiting for their triumphant appearance.
Abi was the first to emerge, her face aglow with pride over her conquest. Pat was not far behind her, although it took him a little longer to squeeze through the narrow opening in the rock wall. Miranda and I heartily congratulated them, and I thanked the Lord for answered prayer.
We continued on our way, and I naively presumed that I had escaped facing my fear for a few more years. As we came to the end of the trail, we rejoiced in the adventure that we had just shared as a family. Miranda hadn’t complained about her blisters the whole time, and I congratulated myself on my impromptu first aid. Both girls, instead of being worn out by our arduous journey, were energized and looking for more.
It was Abi’s idea to do the hike again. “Please, Mom? This is such an interrupting place.”
I grinned at her, letting her assume that I was sharing her interest in our surroundings instead of enjoying her innocent blunder.
Pat and I looked at each other, communicating only with shrugs and raised eyebrows. Miranda’s feet were fine. Everyone was having a great time. We had several hours of daylight left. And we’d paid almost fifty dollars for the day’s use of the park. Still without letting the girls know what we were discussing, we agreed to repeat the hike.
“If you girls think you can do it again, let’s go,” I said.
They both squealed their delight and dashed back up the path.
The second time around was just as exciting. We paused longer on the bridges at the top, trying to see to the bottom where we’d just been walking. Pat and I had a better idea of where it would be safe for the girls to explore on their own for a few minutes. And the girls, knowing what to expect, were willing to take their time and explore some of the caves in greater detail.
Abi’s enthusiasm continued to be a problem, although this time the issue wasn’t fence-climbing. Abi wanted me to go through Fat Man’s Misery with her.
“It’ll be fun, Mom,” she insisted. “You can fit.”
I tried to explain well enough so that she would drop the issue, without emphasizing how terrified I was. “I know I can fit. I just don’t want to be in there. It freaks me out being in such a small space and not being able to see where I’m going.”
Abi wasn’t convinced. “It’s okay, Mommy. I’ll be right there with you.”
I might have gotten away with it if Miranda hadn’t joined in the fight. She decided that she wanted to try it, too. We had already agreed as a family that we would pair up in the dangerous parts, so I couldn’t break our rule and let Pat take both girls through by himself. By the time we reached Fat Man’s Misery again, I was resolved to do it.
Abi was happy to lead the way. She was quite pleased with our temporarily reversed roles. And to be honest, I was grateful for her constant, chattering encouragement. It helped to relieve my tension and gave me something positive to focus on.
The stairs at the mouth of the cave were narrow and steep. We carefully climbed down into the undersized chamber. The opening behind us was soon out of sight and the electric lights along the path barely dispelled my feeling of being entombed. There was a short distance that might have been wide enough for two people to stand side-by-side, but that ended all too quickly. The walls began to close in. The floor was starting to incline, but the ceiling was not. The tunnel was shrinking the further we went.
Up ahead, the path veered sharply to the right. Due to the drastic reduction in space at this turn, there was a sign instructing me to enter leading with my right shoulder. While it was wide enough for Abi to just stroll on through, I definitely had to proceed sideways. I also had to duck as the vertical space was diminishing. I stepped cautiously into the tiny space, turning my head so it lined up with my right shoulder. There was not enough room to turn and look behind me. I inched along, contorting myself to fit around the bulges in the walls. The path ahead turned back to the left. Abi was out of sight, but she was still urging me on. I prayed desperately that the end would be just around the corner. I think I would have sobbed if I’d come around that left-hand turn and not seen daylight ahead.
But there it was. Abi was beaming from the wide open space outside of the cave. I slipped my purse off my shoulder and stretched to pass it to her through the opening. The signs had warned me of this, the narrowest spot. Only fourteen inches wide. I wished I could have waited for Abi to get my camera out and snap my picture as I emerged, but I was desperate to escape my confines. With freedom in sight, that last fourteen-inch gap was the easiest part of the journey. I clawed my way through, eager to embrace my daughter. We danced and cheered and I tried not to cry.
My heart had returned to its normal pace when Pat and Miranda found their way out of the cave. I even felt brave enough to step back into the exit and pose for a picture. I needed a souvenir of my triumph.
Our day had been a success by all counts. We had enjoyed a wonderful time together as a family. We had revelled in the beauty of God’s creation - both the perfect weather and the intricate surroundings. We had satisfied our thirst for adventure and felt the exhilaration of healthy activity.
The only hope for the day that had gone unrealized was the hope to sidestep my fear. But through the beautiful encouragement of a five-year-old child, that hope was replaced with a new one: the possibility of conquering my fear and moving beyond it.