By Jaime Polmateer
Earlier this year a small group conducting a caribou census for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change found more than they were counting on during a flight over Wells Gray Provincial Park.
Ken Lancour, a Clearwater based pilot for Yellowhead Helicopters, and biologist Bevan Ernst, spotted an unusual feature in the ground in a remote corner of the park that would turn out to be one of the largest caves in the country.
After Lancour reported the find to BC Parks it was recommended he get in touch with Catherine Hickson, a geologist with the Royal Canadian Geological Society (RCGS), who quickly realized its importance after viewing photos of the cave.
“Tod Haughton (of B.C. Parks) suggested (Lancour) get in touch with me because my long association with the park, so at the beginning of May, he sent a few of the photos and the location and as soon as I saw the photos I realized this as very significant,” said Hickson.
She added after looking at the photos of the cave she immediately got a hold of a colleague in the RCGS named John Pollack who is a surveyor and cave expert, sending him the images to get his take on the situation.
Pollack’s reaction was enthusiastic and swift and the pair started making inquiries within the caving community, as well as with contacts who had knowledge of Wells Gray Park, and it seemed nobody had prior knowledge of the cave.
“Nobody had any inkling, so in June we decided the best time to explore it would be in the end of August or early September because water levels would be at the lowest,” Hickson said.
The cave was dubbed “Sarlacc’s Pit” by the discovery group due do its similarity with the lair of Sarlacc, a creature from Star Wars. Formal naming is pending First Nations consultation.
The reconnaissance field visit, which took place on Sept. 9, was undertaken by Hickson, cavers Lee Hollis, Chas Yongue and Pollack, as well as Haughton and Lancour.
The finds during the visit would surpass the team’s expectations.
The entrance of the pit is 100 m long by 60 m wide, with an overhanging drop on the high side of more than 120 m., though the actual depth of the cave couldn’t be measured because of mist from a fast flowing, turbulent river that flows into it, but it’s at least 180 m deep and likely more than two km long.
These dimensions make it one of the largest caves found in Canada.
“In the end it was decided the fastest thing was to have a single person go down and that was Lee; he geared up and descended down while I continued to look at the geology around the area, taking notes and measurements,” said Hickson.
“He was able to descend only 100 metres because of the incredible amount of water.”
Hollis said it was an honor to be the first to enter the pit, even if it was a short descent.
“It’s a privilege and as a caver of more than 30 years, this is by far the biggest pit I’ve personally seen and certainly the biggest pit I’ve had the chance to descend, so it’s a phenomenal experience and a memorable one,” Hollis said.
“For this thing to go undiscovered for that length of time to the present day is, again, pretty significant; we suspect the hole was actually filled with snow until a few decades ago and that would hide this thing from anybody discovering it.”
Another expedition to the pit was initially planned for 2020, but organizers, including Hollis, have decided to move the date to next year some time and a team is already being put together for the event.
The trip last September was short lived, and while the team discovered a lot about the cave during the investigation, there’s still a lot to learn.
“Because the last time we went we had a limited amount of time and only went a short distance, we need to understand in more detail what’s actually down there: what are we looking at? What hazards are there? What additional equipment are we going to need? How much time is it going to take to get in this thing and get it mapped?” said Hollis.
“It’s very important to get a better idea of what we’re up against.”