People and Places

Cave hockey — Quebec’s subterranean shinny

This is a story of the kind of stumbled-upon perfection that you couldn’t duplicate with the most meticulous measurement and planning. It rains on Christmas. We walk past patches of green grass on New Year’s Day. And we wake up early on January 3 to an overnight freeze. The window we steal for this skate is a moment that can happen only once a year. That crystalline surface is carved up and snowed over before the afternoon closes, and there’s no Zamboni nearby to give it a wipe for take two or three.

Photo: Andrew Szeto

My friend Andrew Szeto has instincts for adventure you can take to the bank. When he says the word, just set an alarm and try to get some sleep. Saturday morning we downed hot coffee and hit the road. We find that the caves have their own microclimate, five to 10 degrees colder than the soupy slush outside, and we skate for hours under a ceiling we’re never sure won’t cave in, waiting for someone who never comes to tell us our time is up. Afterwards, we cascade into a highway canteen named Mom’s, ordering enough poutine and hot chicken sandwiches to fill a bathtub with gravy.

Photo: Andrew Szeto

Our game resembles hide-and-seek on skates as much as a round of pond shinny. Howls of elation and disbelief echo. Our pucks careen unpredictably off nicks in the ice, and missed passes result in solo skates hundreds of feet to the other end of the cavern. We stick handle and shoot about as accurately as we would in a warehouse-sized zero-gravity chamber. As the day goes on, snow blows in through openings in the ceiling, clogging up passing lanes, and before we realize, we’re skating on solid white. Game over.

Photo: Andrew Szeto

The Wallingford-Back Mine, north of Buckingham, was hollowed out in the early-to mid-20th century by a succession of mining outfits for its igneous interior. Once the largest mine in North America, it was abandoned in 1972. Where once sat 375,000 tonnes of saleable stone now lies a sequence of cavernous chambers burrowed from opposite openings in the roof and what might be called the basement. The accidental by-product of years of tunnelling is a marvel on any day of the year. Groundwater has seeped up and, I’m told, takes its almost turquoise colour from the dusty sediments of quartz left behind on the floor of the mine.

Photo: Andrew Szeto

Looking down at the ice is like staring into an aquarium at your feet through four-inch-thick plate glass. Branches and bubbles submerged in the ice scrape for the top. Even small fish are seen darting below the surface. The idea that this is a place to grab your stick and lace up skates never fully sinks in. Its industrial past and menacing stalactites make it feel like a movie set for some forgotten moonscape. And yet its echoes, sheen, and sheer scale give it the elegance of a 19th-century opera house.

Photo: Andrew Szeto