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Qualicum Beach – Sleeping in Trees & Spelunking in Caves

Qualicum Beach – Sleeping in Trees & Spelunking in Caves

Pender Island Life

We skipped our little island a couple of weeks back and took a road trip up the Malahat Highway on Vancouver Island to Qualicum Beach, a small, picturesque town on the east coast of the Big Island, famous for its long stretch of beach and relatively warm waters. (There is no such thing as truly warm ocean water in the Pacific Northwest.  I have 2 lifelong friends who will disagree, but after 30+ years of watching them drop their clothes, assume invisible cloaks of stubborn denial and run full speed into the frigid waters all over the south coast of BC, I’m here to share the truth:  they’re crazy and the water is cold — even in August.)

But I digress.  You see, Howard and I went up to Qualicum not to walk along pebbled shores and dip our toes in cool water, but instead to hang out in a sphere suspended in the forest and explore the world 65 metres underground.

Different?  Maybe, but it was a 3 night getaway full of relaxation, good food, invigorating adventure (and subsequent exhaustion).  The best mini-break we’ve had in years, and all of it a mere 6 hours from home.


Welcome to Melody at Free Spirit Spheres.

She is a fibreglass orb suspended in the trees.  Accessible via a short suspension bridge, her interior is finished in elegant dark walnut and she comes fitted with a small sink, 2 built-in tables and benches, speakers for your ipod or laptop, lots of cubbies and nooks, as well as a double Murphy bed with a big comfy quilt.

Relief is just a short walk over the bridge to a private composting toilet.


It’s hard to describe what spending time in one of Tom Chudleigh’s spheres is like.  They’re part ship-at-sea, part tree-house, part womb, part cradle, part hobbit hole…with just a little bit of futuristic space ship thrown in for good measure.

You sway gently in the wind and a little more when you partner turns over in bed.  The energy inside is soothing and creative.  I felt myself release a little something more each time we returned and shut the hatch behind us.

Watch the video at the top of this post for a tour of Melody.


Melody’s older sister, Eryn, is wrapped in Sitka Spruce.  She has a spiral staircase up to her front door and shares a mushroom-shaped composting  toilet with the eldest of the 3 spheres, Eve (not shown).


Hello down there!

The acoustics inside the spheres are said to be perfect.  I’m no sound engineer, but I will say that watching The King’s Speech in Melody gave me a whole new appreciation of surround sound.  We could hear the crackle of the fire over Lionel and the King in their first session, bickering over whether certain background information was necessary.

A is for ambiance.  And for aaaahhhhh…

brass-runes   melody-handle

grilled-rack-of-lamb   toss a salad in a bag

After the longish journey from Pender, I knew we wouldn’t want to drive the 15 km back into Qualicum Beach for dinner on our first night, so I planned a simple meal that came together quickly on the barbecue.

I rubbed a pre-trimmed rack of lamb with some olive oil, chili, fennel seed and s+p and let it sit while I unpacked the cooler of the rest of the meal that I had prepped at home the day before:

  • Beer.
  • Par-boiled potatoes dotted with mint & dill compound butter and wrapped in foil.
  • Pre-washed romaine, homemade dressing, croutons, crumbled feta and kalamata olives for a Greek Caesar Salad that I ended up tossing in the bag because there was no bowl in the simply equipped kitchen.

About a half an hour later, we sat down to perfectly medium rare lamb with Greek-inspired sides.  We savoured it seated at a handcrafted picnic table next to a peaceful pond alive with dragonflies in the light and bats after dark.  There wasn’t an insect in sight.

When my outside meal is mosquito free, I’m a happy girl indeed.


A guardian gnome sits just below one window…but there’s not a lot of protecting to do around here, so mostly he just kicks back with a good book.

view-from-sphereMelody’s other window looks out onto the pond that glows in the sunshine from dawn to dusk.  Tom and his partner Rosie have created an especially magical world here in the woods north of Qualicum Beach.  If you’re considering a stay at Free Spirit Spheres, make it for at least 2 nights, if not 3, and plan ahead — these spheres are busy.

qualicum-beachWe did eventually come out of the trees to spend a morning in the town of Qualicum Beach.  My crazy friends aren’t in the water, but there are some older European tourists (my guess is German) who appeared to find the waters bracing.

I guess it’s all in your attitude.

My attitude got me in to just above my ankles, which is more than I can say for Howard, who didn’t even wet his big toe.

On our second night, we had dinner at Giovanni’s in Qualicum.  We chose the 3-course Chef’s Special and thoroughly enjoyed a salad with smoked trout to start and veal 3 ways as a main.  The star course, though, had to be dessert.  A fresh local fig served with creamy mascarpone and crunchy walnuts drunk on Marsala.  Both rich and light, it was just sinful enough.

Our 3rd day was adventure time at Horne Lake Caves.  And if you’re going on an adventure, you may as well go for it, don’t you think?  Well, that’s what we were thinking when we booked the biggest adventure Horne Lake has got, the 5 Hour EXTREME Rappel Tour.

We started the day above ground with a rappel refresher.  As you’re about to see, we did a pretty big descent underground, so it was important that everyone was comfortable with the harness and ropes.  Howard and I have rappelled before, but it was good to have a short lesson and practice before going below.

Howard shows us the ropes…

horne lake caves

Waiting for the gate to open…and playing with the B&W settings…


And then we descended into the darkness.

A calcite wolf guards the caves near the entrance…


Still smiling, no matter how deep we go!buddha

Buddha ponders enlightenment surrounded by water.  (Can you see him?  He’s there…)


And here’s where the adventure got interesting. This picture really doesn’t do justice to the narrowness of the passage, the tightness of the fit, or the challenge to that primal human fear of being buried alive.

A 20′ (give or take) long tunnel, complete with a hand-pumped siphon to drain the water from the floor and a couple of blind corners to squeeze through.  The woman in front of me gasped and took pause as she saw the feet of her predecessor disappear into the rocks.  Instinct drove me forward and onto my belly  before I could even think.

If I had stopped to think about it, my adventure may have ended there.  I’ve never been claustrophic, but huddled over in that cramped vestibule at the edge of a small dark hole with the rest of the group crowding up from behind, it was go now or go home.  So I dove in with both hands and, once I was in there, there was no room to look back.

My headlamp went dark when I scraped my head along the floor, but after a moment I found my breath and wormed by hand up to my hardhat to turn it back on.  One more brief panic when the seat of my overalls caught on the ceiling, but I grabbed a hold of the siphon tube and dragged my back end through the last stretch and into a space with room to stand tall (and relieved).


Here’s a happy tunnel survivor emerging now….

Small spaces not EXTREME enough for you?  How about a 7 storey rappel into the Rain Barrel?

I am so EXTREME I can’t stand it.

rain barrel

When I got to the bottom, after the exhilaration of my descent into darkness had dissolved in the mist, I looked back to where I had just dropped from to realize that the only way back out was to climb back up all 7 storeys.

That’s a 32′ ladder mounted on top of a dripping wet 40′ rock wall.  The rock wall was OK.  It got ugly at about rung 12.  That’s when my left leg stopped lifting.

But it was so worth it.  We got down as far as you can in the Horne Lake Caves — into the narrow passages of the “China Shop” — a rough estimation counts just over 1000 people who have been down there since the caves were expanded in the 40’s.

It feels cool to be that EXTREME with so few for company…

Here we are back near the entrance, after we’ve had a couple of minutes to recover from the climb back from what felt like the deep bowels of the earth.  It couldn’t have been that bad, ’cause we’re still smiling…

A shot of the whole group…don’t we look pleased with ourselves?

And so we should.  That was my most EXTREME interaction with Mother Earth to date, and I’m glad I did it.  I emerged exhilarated, proud and so sore/exhausted that I had to pop an Extra-Strength Motrin just to get my pants off.


And look what I found.  If there was going to be a next time, I would make a mental note to buy some kneepads, but that won’t be necessary.  A happier one-time spelunker you’ve never met.