Huge, recently discovered B.C. cave closed to public — and trespassers face $1M fine

B.C.'s provincial government has shut down the area around a newly discovered cave thought to be Canada's largest in order to preserve the massive cavern — and anyone caught in the area could be on the hook for $1 million.

'It is an extremely dangerous location … the cave itself and its remoteness'

A newly discovered cave, seen in an undated handout photo, in a remote valley in B.C.'s Wells Gray Provincial Park just might be the country's largest cave. (Catherine Hickson/Tuya Terra Geo Corp.)

B.C.'s provincial government has closed the area around a newly discovered cave thought to be Canada's largest for the sake of its preservation and public safety — threatening a $1-million fine for those who don't stay away.

A helicopter crew came across the cavern in the northeastern corner of Wells Gray Provincial Park in March. It's the largest known cave of its type, with a depth about the length of a soccer field, and researchers have kept its exact location a secret.

'It's about the size of a soccer field,' geologist Catherine Hickson said. 'So, if you think of a soccer field and you put that soccer field on its end so you have this pit going down.' (Catherine Hickson/Tuya Terra Geo Corp.)

B.C. Parks announced on Wednesday that the cave and its surrounding area are now closed to the public. Those who try to get close despite the shutdown face a fine of up to $1 million or a year in prison.

Geologist Catherine Hickson, who's part of the team studying the cavern, said the closure came as a welcome surprise.

"You're kidding. Wow," she said Wednesday morning.

"It is an extremely dangerous location … the cave itself and its remoteness."

'Not the place for a casual visitor'

Hickson first visited the site in September.

The entrance pit is about 100 metres long and 60 metres wide. Its depth is hard to measure because of mist from a waterfall pouring over the opening, but initial exams show the cavern is at least 135 metres deep.

"For city-dwellers, when they're looking down into an excavation pit going down a few storeys for, say, a parking garage … multiply that 10 times and that's what you're looking into," she said. 

"And, of course, there's no fences," she added.

An aerial view of the cave and its entrance:

The cave is about the size of a soccer field and might be the largest ever found in Canada. 0:31

Hickson also said only the most experienced hiker would be able to reach the cave safely, let alone climb into it. 

"This is not a place for the casual visitor," she said.

"This would only be undertaken by the most serious people and even then, they're not going to be able to carry the equipment you need to carry into the cave," Hickson said.

One of the researchers working with Catherine Hickson climbs into Sarlacc's Pit during an expedition this fall. Hickson said only the most experienced hiker could reach the cave, let alone climb into it safely. (Catherine Hickson)

In the winter, it'd be a 50-kilometre ski trip through unmapped terrain to reach the pit. In the summer, it would be a lengthy paddle and a gruelling hike with no support along the way.

Run into trouble and you'd need a monstrous, costly rescue operation to get home.

On top of that danger, there's also the chance the cave holds cultural significance for First Nations in B.C.

"Certainly, it might have been a known location in terms of a sacred place … but we just don't know," Hickson said. "That's what [B.C.] Parks is working on."

An aerial view of the entrance to the cave in Wells Gray Provincial Park. (J. Pollack)

The people who first spotted the cave from the helicopter named it Sarlacc's Pit because of its similarity to the lair of the sarlacc, a creature from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

The cave is the largest known example of the type known as "striped karst,'' which is marble interspersed with other types of ancient ocean rock.

Hickson said a formal naming of the cave will happen after consultations with First Nations. She added further investigations and research of the cave and its unique geography will likely be carried out in 2020, depending on funding.

B.C. Parks said the area will be closed until consultation with First Nations is finished and public safety has been fully assessed.

In the meantime, Hickson said Canadians should be content to appreciate the site from a distance.

"It's an important landmark — an important feature for Canadians to be proud about," she said.

About the Author

Rhianna Schmunk

@rhiannaschmunk

Rhianna Schmunk is a reporter for CBC News based in Vancouver. Reach her at rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca or on Twitter. @rhiannaschmunk

With files from The Canadian Press

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