Does a mystery tunnel and caves link the Gulf Islands?

Back in the spring of 1969, I and several other members of the Canadian Speleogical Society visited Thetis Island to investigate ancient legends of a tunnel that links to Valdes Island beneath Stuart Channel.

A quick look at a map shows that such a cavern would be three miles long: a major discovery if indeed it exists and can be found.

Although this legend dates from the mists of time, we were inspired by 1955 news reports of three men from the Nanaimo area who’d made several searches for it.

Lawyer Hugh Heath, journalist Jim Hume and Boat Harbour "pirate" Ken Kendall had repeatedly scoured Valdes Island’s rugged northwestern shore whose sandstone cliffs are honeycombed with subterranean passageways, large and small. Time and again, they’d crawled, shimmied and roped their way through the island’s labyrinthine depths, finding numerous artifacts and other evidences of Native visitations.

But the legendary inter-island tunnel eluded them.

Then they made a startling discovery thanks to Abe Crocker. A grandson of the famous Chief Capilano, the 83-year-old Gabriola Island resident led them to a site on Thetis Island where, according to tribal folklore, could be found the mystery tunnel’s exit.

Pointing to a large cleft in the face of a cliff, he indicated that something special might be found within.

Carefully, the explorers climbed down, over and around tumbled boulders, each one weighing hundreds of tons.

Some 200 feet below the surface, in total darkness but for the bobbing lights strapped to their foreheads, they saw a large rectangular stone which "had all the appearances of being an altar".

A line drawn across the top of this "altar stone" and a glowering face painted in red ochre on its front supported this theory of its usage.

Its unusually rectangular shape even suggested it to have been the product of human labour although the explorers could detect no tool marks.

There were similar, considerably smaller, stones jumbled about its base.

Wedged in a crack was a cedar staff which, split at the top, answered a description of an implement used in rituals, particularly those involving tribal initiation ceremonies.

According to their guide, Thetis and neighbour Valdes Island had been used in the long-ago by local tribes for puberty rites. An initiate would be taken to Valdes to fast and to practise other rituals, then to make his way through the tunnel beneath the sea to Thetis Island, deposit his staff, and return – all with the aid of a single torch.

Abe also told them that, as a young man, he’d been shown a cave crowded with ceremonial masks and staffs on Valdes Island. Earthquakes 20 years before, he said, had completely blocked this cavern and its priceless store.

Earlier, Hume, Heath and Kendall had made a promising discovery on Valdes’s western cliffside, a cavern which dropped more than 200 feet into the obsidian depths. Unfortunately, the entrance was such that they’d discovered it by sheer accident and, despite repeated attempts, they were unable to find it again.

Whether or not it was the object of their long search, they couldn’t say, as they hadn’t had enough rope at the time to explore it.

By December 1956, they were more determined than ever to solve the mystery of the interisland cavern. But time and circumstances have a way of altering the best of intentions and Jim Hume, by then a resident of Victoria, said years later that he hadn’t been able to resume the search nor, so far as he knew, had Heath or Kendall.

This is where we came in, in March 1969.

To our surprise, we found that the island’s caves were so well known that they were linked by well-worn trails and each bore a number in garish paint.

These Thetis caves are known as talus, or rock-fall caves. Once, probably aeons ago, the earth had gone mad.

Boulders, many of them the size of buildings, were piled haphazardly atop each other in a gargantuan maze with a network of crawlways between, some of them hundreds of feet in length and in depth.

Deep in this shattered mountain, hidden from the sun, snow still lay six inches deep at the time of our visit to the cave containing the "altar stone" and grimacing face in ochre.

Other caricatures were to be seen but of more recent, and doubtful, provenance having been executed with spray paints.

Other, smaller caves, all of them formed by falling rock, make the legend of a spectacular three-mile-long cavern between Thetis and Valdes islands dubious at best.

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