A recently found cave in Wells Gray Provincial Park has the potential to yield scientific discoveries and be a marketing boon in the surrounding community, according to geologist Catherine Hickson.
Hickson led an expedition to explore the massive hole last September and detailed the journey to a crowd at this year’s Kamloops Exploration Group (KEG) conference Wednesday.
“What’s exciting about it is it is a geological feature that’s rare and unusual, has the potential for new species [and] new understanding of the role between water and rock in the alpine environment,” Hickson told KTW.
With one expedition to the vertical cave under her belt, Hickson now hopes to lead another into its depths in 2020.
The cave has a waterfall flowing into it that may be moving too fast to allow many creatures to call the area home, but Hickson said more research is needed.
About two kilometres away from the mouth of the cave her team spotted a small spring from the air that was flowing out of what looked like passages — potentially the cave’s exit.
“Is it just a huge tube that’s flushing water from one side to the other or are there passageway that would have things like draperies, stalactites and stalagmites,” Hickson told the KEG crowd.
The massive hole in the ground visible on Google Earth in the Ovis Creek area was spotted and photographed last April during a mountain caribou survey. It was initially dubbed Sarlacc’s Pit by due to its similarity to the Star Wars creature.
Yellowhead Helicopters pilot Ken Lancour contacted Hickson, and she in turn contacted colleague John Pollack, a cave expert and surveyor. Together they planned and permitted a reconnaissance trip in early September 2018.
The trip confirmed just how immense the cave is — placing it among the largest in Canada, if not the largest.
The entrance pit to the cave was measured at about 100 metres long and 60 metres wide. While its depth is hard to measure because of the mist from a waterfall running into it at about a half a cubic metre per second, initial examinations show it is likely more than 137 metres deep, Hickson said.
Hickson noted the enormity of the cave in her presentation comparing it to the Statue of Liberty, which is 93 metres from pedestal to torch.
The cave is the largest known of its type, a variety of striped karst, which is marble interspersed with other types of ancient ocean rock.
It was likely formed by glaciers over the course of an estimated two-million years.
“We certainly think a major contributing factor to the formation of this cave is simply all of this drainage area draining into one particular spot,” said Hickson.
One member of the expedition was lowered about 80 metres into the cave and confirmed there was a clear passage inside as far as he could see.
“But that is as far as anyone has been into this cave, so we just don’t know what that next two kilometres is going to be like,” she said. It may in fact be a much longer route than that — a much more torturous path to get to the resurgence area.”
Hickson said she’s in the process of securing another permit to explore the cave’s interior as well as surrounding surface features, but that will likely be delayed another year as BC Parks works out it’s relationship with First Nations in the area and the role they’ll play in the exploration of the cave.
In late February the Canim and Simpcw First Nations bands called on the provincial government to suspend planning with respect to the recently discovered cave in Wells Gray Park, until the two Secwepemc communities can meet with the province.
The province has closed part of the park and announced anybody trying to enter the cave could be fined up to $1 million and sentenced to one month in prison.
According to a public notice issued by BC Parks on Dec. 14, the cave and surrounding area are closed until risks to public safety are determined and First Nations are consulted.
The Tsq’escen’ people commend the Parks Service for taking measures to protect and preserve this site as both First Nations and nature have done for so many years. However, it is time to be at the table to discuss further consultation, protection and co-management of the land, , read a statement from the Canim Lake Band.
“The Tsq’escenemc are concerned that the province’s recent awareness of the cave is being characterized as a ‘discovery’ – It is not new to us” stated Chief Helen Henderson, noting that the cave is located in Secwepemculecw, the territory Secwepemc people have called home for more than 10,000 years.
The cave is covered with snow and ice for most of the year, which is probably why it’s gone mostly unnoticed, according to Hickson, who noted the hole was mapped once before in the 80s and that knowledge of the cave has existed in First Nations oral history.
Hickson said she’s been trying to tell Wells Gray Park the cave is “a marketing dream” and noted local tourism organizations could benefit from it.
It’s discovery generated global media attention. The story even made the front page of the New York Times, she said.
“You can’t buy this kind of publicity. This publicity is worth millions. They need to capitalize on it,” said Hickson.
— with files from the Williams Lake Tribune