As I stepped into the darkness, I could feel space opening up around me. I switched on my flashlight, and saw that I’d entered a chapel of geology. An arched ceiling of igneous rock. Vaulting tapestry walls, streaked with green oxidized copper. And water dripping down, down ... into nothing.
My puny light only caught something to illuminate below me when it reached the toes of my boots. Now I saw the awful truth: I was six inches from a ledge, plunging into a darkness the light could not penetrate.
Jesus. One more step and I would’ve fallen into a crevasse.
My friend Andrew came up behind me. “Wait.” He turned on his torch, and tossed a rock into the hole. We watched it pinball off the rocks, then drop – and heard a splash. Illuminated ripples danced off the walls, 20 metres below. One more step and I would’ve shattered my bones and drowned, deep inside Langford’s Skirt Mountain.
Until recently, few Victorians had any idea that the Western Communities are studded with mysterious caverns. That changed in 2006 with the fight over the SPAET cave, which the Songhees claimed was a sacred site used by their ancestors, and which the Bear Mountain golf resort subsequently bulldozed for a road down to the Trans-Canada Highway. But one of the little-known consequences of the standoff was that it spurred local adventurers to do an inventory of all the caves in greater Victoria – and as it turns out, some of the most thrilling places to explore around here are steadily disappearing.
“Of the 21 on record, 10 already have been destroyed,” says Adrian Duncan, a retired engineer and president of the Vancouver Island Cave Exploration Group, which has been documenting caves since the 1970s. One on Atkins Road in Colwood was blown up to make way for houses, and another under the Royal Oak Burial Park has been filled in. The entrance to the largest cave in the capital region, at the north end of Langford Lake, is covered by a trailer park. “It used to go about 120 metres, and you had to use a rope to get down it. A nice, sporting caving trip. It had an active stream in it, too. But you can’t get into it now.”
Today, Duncan’s attention has shifted to the other side of the lake, and a cave in the path of the planned Bear Mountain interchange. Last year he issued a media release calling on the District of Langford to move the road, noting that the 40-metre-deep limestone cave is the longest currently accessible in greater Victoria – one of the few capital cities in North America with caves within its boundaries. In other parts of the world, he notes, karst formations (the fissured limestone in which caves often form) are protected, partly because they control the flow of groundwater, but there are only guidelines for working around karst in British Columbia. “Besides, karst is terrible stuff to build on. I have little doubt that piece of limestone in Langford has plenty of cavities and passages that we’ve never been in.”
Tim Stevens, the engineer overseeing the interchange project, says he’s heard Duncan’s complaints. “The blasting will be done in a way that will not damage the cave,” he says, and the road’s been realigned to pass 10 metres away from it. As for cavers’ worries about the rest of the area, Stevens says, “They say there’s karst under there, but it’s just pure conjecture. We see no concerns. There’s nothing significant that’s going to be underneath the road.”
Even if the Langford Lake cave survives physically, though, something will be lost by building a freeway beside it. And what that might be, I learned from my own experience up the slope on Skirt Mountain.
After nearly falling to my death, I went home and did some research. It turned out the cavern Andrew and I were exploring was a failed copper mine. According to Maureen Duffus’s excellent book, Old Langford: An Illustrated History, the Ralph Mining Company dug some 600 metres of shafts on Skirt Mountain’s western slope between 1897 and 1903, removing hundreds of tonnes of ore and transporting it downhill by aerial tramway. Ralph only gave up after repeated tests showed that the copper was contaminated by magnetic iron oxide.
A few weeks later we returned with experienced climbers and proper equipment, and our team descended into the abyss. The flooded room at the bottom of the crevasse was huge, the size of a country church, with vaulting ceilings to match. It was so large that it must have been a natural formation, but there were obvious signs of mining work as well. Tunnels tall enough to stand in branched off in all directions, some of them disappearing down into the water (photos above). Collapsed beams, once used for winches and pulleys, lay at the bottom of shafts to the daylight. Iron rails (photo right) for ore cars were piled on the floor.
It was a place of old memories, perhaps as vibrantly real to a historian as the SPAET cave was to the Songhees. It was a type of place that is becoming increasingly rare. All too often these days, what’s authentic, mysterious, and wild gets steamrolled to make way for the fake, tame, and predictable. But that’s where the money is.
UPDATE (September 24, 2010): One mine/cave that’s much smaller but easier to access is in Mount Douglas Park. Watch a fun little video of a father and daughter exploring it, here.