The designation and protection of Horne Lake Caves was a cloak and dagger race against discovery. (T.W. Paterson collection)

T.W. Paterson column: B.C.’s most beautiful park is a dream come true

Untouched by the destructive hands of man, nature’s sculpture knows no bounds.

Here, in the heart of a mountain, untouched by the destructive hands of man, nature’s sculpture knows no bounds.

Last week’s blast from the past, ie. the Chronicles, was based upon the late Nellie Frumento’s scrapbook from the 1960s.

This week, purely coincidentally while rummaging in my own memory vault, I found a clipping of an article I’d written for the Star Weekly in November 1969. It was the follow-up to a news story that had made the front pages of the Vancouver Sun, what was then Victoria’s Daily Colonist, and CBC Radio.

This time, for a dramatic change, I didn’t just record the event, I participated in its making. I quote…

A mind-bending fantasy-land of spectacular beauty — in the bowels of a mountain — will become British Columbia’s newest park if provincial authorities accept the urgent recommendation of a determined handful of citizens.

The mile-long cavern, “somewhere on Vancouver Island,” recently made national news when four Victoria spelunkers — cave explorers — announced discovery of a vast underground labyrinth, second largest in B.C., but refused to divulge its location to protect it from vandalism.

The four, members of the Canadian Speleogical Society, are catskinners Paul Statham and Dave Frankham, commercial designer Jean Andre, and this writer.

The society’s discovery actually dates back to early 1967, during the routine investigation of a cave long known to the group. Usually, caves are found through talking with loggers and outdoorsmen, studying geological maps (most B.C. caves are of limestone), and searching through dense undergrowth and logging slash, foot-by-foot.

This time, however, members had been casually examining the known cave after several visits, when they noticed a tiny, gravel-choked hole to one side. With a single folding army shovel, members had scooped out yards of gravel, mud and boulders, uncovering a long, winding tunnel — termed a resurgence — the width and thickness of a slim man. When time and batteries ran out, the entrance was refilled.

The following weekend, spelunkers succeeded in penetrating the 60-foot-long “Cathole” to its end, which opened upon a vast new system previously unsuspected.

If it sounds easy — it wasn’t. Veterans of the Cathole now like to tease newer society members with hair-raising tales of crawling through total darkness for what had seemed an eternity, arms extended, faces pressed in wet gravel, shoulders rubbing chill mountainside, ice-cold water trickling down a sleeve, across the chest and on down a leg. Every foot gained meant pushing one’s hard hat ahead as it couldn’t be worn there.

Once through, the terrors were forgotten, explorers staring in open-mouthed astonishment at the breathtaking beauties to be experienced in Casteret Cavern, as it was soon named after the famed French speleologist, Norbert Casteret.

Here, in the heart of a mountain, untouched by the destructive hands of man, nature’s sculpture knows no bounds. Over millions of years, it has carved thousands of formations, from the tiniest glistening calcite crystal, to towering white calcite flows that resemble quick-frozen lava.

It’s a wonderland that literally defies the senses. Virtually every formation known to caves is found here: stalactites, stalagmites, bacon strip, soda straws, helictites — tiny stalactites that seem to defy gravity — and moon milk.

There are vast rooms, seemingly without depth, their ceilings reaching far beyond the dancing pale of a tiny headlamp. Everywhere, millions of beads of water wink like diamonds, as voices echo eerily through the cathedral stillness. Far ahead, in the obsidian-like blackness, a subterranean stream murmurs restively.

Above all is the overpowering feeling of peace: nowhere else can darkness or silence be so complete as underground. It’s an awesome experience.

Making this cave unique among those of Vancouver Island is the fact it’s almost dry but for scattered pools on the lunar-like floor, so clear as to be invisible. Also remarkable is the fact that travelling is easy, for the most part, and visitors stumble eagerly on, intoxicated by the unfolding panorama.

Even time loses meaning.

Last April, further exploration uncovered yet another, longer section of the cave, which led spelunkers to a second entrance on the surface.

Subsequent and much easier visits have been made with other society members and guests, all of whom were sworn to secrecy, as it was debated just what to do with the cave. Spelunkers could trust to luck that their secret wouldn’t leak out and simply hope no one else found it. Or they could request the provincial parks branch to assume responsibility and, ultimately, develop it as a park along the lines of those in the U.S. and Europe, with walkways, coloured spotlights and guided tours.

The society’s greatest fear has been that of vandalism. Too often, members have seen delicate formations smashed by vandals or carted away by souvenir hunters who can’t appreciate the fact that they’ve destroyed the miracle of eons in a few irresponsible seconds.

When a report to B.C. Recreation and Conservation Minister Kenneth Kiernan went unanswered (his letter expressing interest had lain some weeks on the desk of a vacationing staff member, as it turned out), the society had released photos and details of their find to the press.

The headlines brought forth a 30-year-old Nanaimo longshoremen, Jim Johnson, and his wife, Jody, who claimed to have discovered what they called Euclataw Cave, after Indians [sic] who once frequented the region, in 1965. The society has since recognized the Johnsons’ claim — and their name for it.

Johnson said he’d earlier tried to interest the province without success. This time, the recreation department immediately responded by sending two officers, Parks Director Bob Ahrens and planner Bill Spriggs, to tour Euclataw Cave with members of the CSS and the Johnsons, then helping to lever tons of rock and rubble over the entrance to bar access until the cave can be developed as a public attraction.

The infamous Cathole is flooded until spring.

In Victoria, Ahrens, who broke a finger during the sealing operation, recommended that the cave, which he described as “fabulous…nothing like it in the province,” be made a Class A, Category 2 park. (This is the highest class designation: the number refers to “outstanding natural phenomenon.”)

At the time of writing, members of the Canadian Speleological Society — and an intrigued public — are awaiting word from the government as to whether Euclataws Cave will become B.C.’s newest, and possibly most spectacular, park….

So I wrote in 1969. Much has happened to “Eluclataw Cave” since then. For one, it’s had another, final change of name to Riverbend Cave and Main Cave, and it’s part of Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park. As we’d also hoped, access is restricted to guided tours that are tailored to familes and the more adventurous.

“Whichever method of exploring the caves you choose, you are bound to be fascinated by this amazing underground world in the heart of Vancouver Island,” reads a Parks brochure.

My participation in the preservation of this remarkable natural phenomenon pleases me to this day. It’s one of those memories that continues to give a warm glow all these years later.

www.twpaterson.com

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