It’s spring 2018, and a group of wildlife experts are gazing down from their helicopter upon the beauty of the scenery in a remote part of British Columbia. The team have been tasked with tallying the number of caribou in the area. But as the experts look out over the stunning landscape, they spot another feature that takes their breath away. What’s more, it’s a feature that until then – incredibly – no one had ever even begun to explore.
Canada is a vast land that boasts diverse geographical features and a wide array of wildlife to boot. By area, it is the second biggest country in the world, and yet only about 35 million people inhabit it. Indeed, it’s actually one of the most underpopulated countries on Earth – at least in terms of human occupants.
Now the sheer size of Canada – as well as the relatively low impact of human settlement there – helps ensure that the country retains a variety of ecosystems. To the west, for instance, lie the Canadian Prairies, while to the north an Arctic desert is to be found. Then head still further west, to British Columbia, and you’ll discover an expanse of dense forest.
Canada as a whole is said to contain some 70,000 species of fauna and flora. Yet even within British Columbia alone, a great level of biodiversity is present. In fact, thanks to the comparatively low levels of human interference in the region, wildlife that is threatened throughout the U.S. has been able to thrive there.
Animals such as bears, beavers, marmots, wolves and caribou can all be found in British Columbia. Many rare species of bird – including hawks, eagles and ospreys – soar in the region’s skies, too. Meanwhile, in the province’s well-stocked rivers, one might come across trout and salmon, and along the coast creatures such as porpoises and whales are a majestic sight to see.
There remain, then, rich and varied ecosystems throughout British Columbia today. And yet this is not to say that wildlife does not face threats across the region. On the contrary, in fact, a number of the creatures found there have been designated as endangered.
Examples of animals that are native to British Columbia whose numbers are waning include the spotted owl, the American white pelican and the Vancouver Island marmot. The loss or damage of these creatures’ habitats is considered to be a major factor contributing to their population declines. And oftentimes, such damage occurs as the result of human activity.
Across Canada as a whole, over 400 species of animals and plants are believed to be at risk. And it is in the areas most affected by humans that the highest numbers of vulnerable species reside. So to mitigate this, the Canadian government grants protections to some of these areas and certain species within them.
One such protective measure has seen Canada split into 39 different natural districts. The initial aim of this action was to eventually establish at least one national park in each of the districts. And today, the country has 47 such protected habitats in 29 of the 39 territories.
Yet national parks are not the only areas safeguarded throughout Canada. There are, you see, also a number of provincial parks found across the country. And just as with the national parks, these provincial counterparts were to a large extent created to help protect the country’s natural environment.
Provincial parks have continued to be established throughout Canada right up to the present day. The first one, though, was created more than 100 years ago. This was Queen Victoria Park, which encompasses the area overlooking the world-famous Niagara Falls.
Over time, following the inauguration of Queen Victoria Park, provincial parks began to be established across the whole country. And British Columbia was the first of the provinces in the western part of Canada to designate an area as such. It did so in 1911 with Strathcona Provincial Park, which is located on Vancouver Island.
And where Strathcona Provincial Park led, a great many more followed. In 1938, for instance, the largest park in British Columbia, Tweedsmuir, was established. Then another, Wells Gray, came into existence just a year later.
Wells Gray Provincial Park is today just one of no fewer than 600 parks scattered throughout British Columbia. It is, however, also among the province’s largest. Indeed, the habitat accords protected status to some 1.3 million acres of land within its boundaries.
There are reportedly some 700 species of vascular plant – that is, plants that suck up and distribute nutrients – to be found throughout Wells Gray Provincial Park. At least 219 different kinds of birds inhabit the area, too. And in addition, no fewer than 56 types of mammals call the park home.
Wells Gray bears the moniker “Canada’s Waterfalls Park” owing to the fact that it contains at least 39 such torrents of water. In truth, though, the area may boast many more falls – but only 39 have specifically been named. The largest of these include the Spahats, Helmckn and Silvertip waterfalls.
Wells Gray Provincial Park is also home to the southern section of the Cariboo Mountains. And the tallest of the Cariboo peaks are part of a group known as the Premier Range. The summits within this range are named in honor of 11 Canadian Prime Ministers, as well as one of their British counterparts, plus a single premier of British Columbia.
When it comes to fauna, a number of rare and vulnerable species inhabit the areas in and around the Cariboo Mountains. These include bull trout, mountain goats and grizzly bears. And, as their name clearly suggests, the mountains are also home to caribou.
Caribou have been found throughout the area that we call British Columbia for millennia. However, changes to the creatures’ ecosystem in modern times have posed a considerable threat to their survival. Province authorities estimate, in fact, that the animals’ local population has shrunk from 40,000 at the beginning of the 20th century to fewer than 19,000 today.
In response to the challenges facing the caribou population in British Columbia, the government has sought to take action. For example, it has launched a program that aims to protect herds of the majestic mammals throughout the province. Naturally, too, an important step in protecting the animals is keeping up to date with their numbers.
And it was precisely for this purpose that a group of experts ventured into the skies above Wells Gray Provincial Park in April 2018. The Canadian Ministry of Environment and Climate Change sent the crew to fly over the park by helicopter. But during their survey of caribou, the airborne team ended up spotting something quite different.
As they were flying over a particularly secluded area of the park, the team noticed a massive opening in the ground in the landscape beneath them. It was a cave – and one not only full of snow but also remarkably deep. Indeed, the underground chamber was seen to be of such size that the man piloting the chopper that day, Ken Lancour, felt that he should inform the park authorities.
A biologist by the name of Bevan Ernst was also on board the helicopter at the time. And, clearly a sci-fi fan, Ernst informally christened the cave “Sarlacc’s Pit.” The nickname references the lair of the monstrous desert-dwelling beast that gobbles up victims in the 1980s blockbuster movie Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.
Now following the initial discovery of the so-called Sarlacc’s Pit by the helicopter crew, a group of scientists began to study the natural feature in earnest. In particular, these experts looked at images that had been captured of the giant cavern. And in September 2018 a team led by Catherine Hickson and John Pollock set out to investigate the cave firsthand.
Speaking to Canadian national broadcaster CBC in December 2018, Hickson recalled her initial reaction upon having first arrived at the cave. “It was absolutely amazing,” she enthused. “I immediately recognized that this was very significant.”
In addition to featuring Hickson and Pollack, the exploration team was made up of Lancour – the helicopter pilot who had been part of the initial discovery – Tod Haughton and Lee Hollis. Another individual, Chas Yonge, helped with the investigation by working remotely. And together, the team set about attempting to measure the size of the cave.
Pollack was in charge of generating a 3D image of the cave using laser measuring devices. Hickson, meanwhile, studied the surface of the cave. And Hollis actually began to probe the cavern’s depths – becoming, in the process, probably the first person ever to venture inside it.
Hollis set up his ropes alongside a powerful waterfall streaming down into the cave. Then, he descended some 260 feet into the mouth of the enormous opening. And, despite his 31 years’ experience of caving across three continents, the explorer was nonetheless left awestruck.
“It was a privilege to make the first known descent,” Hollis told Canadian Geographic magazine. “My focus was purely on rigging, rockfall hazards and avoiding the powerful whitewater that could have dragged me into the abyss. This is by far the largest and most impressive entrance pit I’ve ever encountered.”
Drawing on its team members’ different areas of expertise, the group ascertained that the cave’s opening measures about 330 feet in length and a little less than 200 feet wide. And while water vapor thrown up by the waterfall makes it difficult to say for sure how far down the cave goes, estimates suggest that it’s between 440 feet and 590 feet deep.
“It’s about the size of a soccer field,” Hickson informed CBC in December 2018. “So, if you think of a soccer field and you put that soccer field on its end – so you have this pit going down. Think about this giant circular or oval hole that just goes down and down and down. It is truly amazing.”
The water gushing down into the cave, meanwhile, is thought to pour into a subterranean river that runs for well over a mile before issuing from the ground at a significantly lower altitude. And if these ideas are correct, they would suggest that the cave is among the largest ever discovered in Canada. For now, though, water levels are preventing further investigations to confirm this.
But in any case, the cave is undoubtedly a momentous find. “I’ve been in some of the biggest caves in the world,” John Pollock explained to Canadian Geographic. “And this thing has an entrance that is truly immense – and not just by Canadian standards.”
Given the scale of the cavern, it might seem strange to hear that it had never previously been properly discovered. Yet its sheer size means that your average mountaineer in the area would have struggled to explore it. Hence, Pollock is confident that nobody had ever previously entered the opening.
Backing up this theory further is the fact that there are no records of the cave’s existence. “The entrance is sufficiently notable that [a] descent attempt would have been written up by mountaineers, cavers or park staff if it had been encountered in the past 40 or 50 years,” Pollock said to Canadian Geographic. “No such account exists in caving or mountaineering literature.”
Another circumstance contributing to the idea that Sarlacc’s Pit was previously undiscovered is the fact that it is located in an extremely remote part of Wells Gray Park. It is therefore extremely unlikely, according Pollock, that passersby would have stumbled across it. Indeed, it was only because the wildlife experts flew overhead in a helicopter that the cave was spotted in the first place.
“This cave is truly in the middle of nowhere,” Pollock told Canadian Geographic. “It’s out there in mountainous terrain, surrounded by glaciers and at the bottom of a 45-degree avalanche slope that rises 2,000 to 2,500 feet above it, meaning you can’t go to it in winter. This is a wild place.”
Yet in spite of the cave’s isolated location, Pollack has nonetheless refused to disclose its precise position. That’s because additional study of the giant opening is planned for further down the line. Yes, experts are now preparing for another cavern probe – to take place in 2020.
The cave will also in time be assigned a proper name following discussions with local First Nations – the indigenous inhabitants of the region. But in the meantime, its informal nickname, “Sarlacc’s Pit,” is a fitting nod to the wondrous nature of this discovery. And that point was certainly not lost on Hickson.
“We think everything is known and everything has been discovered,” Hickson told CBC in December 2018. “But here’s a major discovery that is made in today’s world and likely has never been seen before and certainly not explored before. It’s just a message that there is still stuff out there yet to do and yet to be discovered.”