Horne Lake caves operator celebrate 30 years

Adventure company survive three decades in business

MICHAEL BRIONES

PQB News

When Island Pacific Adventures Ltd started 30 years, its owner Richard Varela didn’t expect his tourism business venture would last three decades.

Being an avid and passionate outdoors person, who loves fishing, hiking, scuba diving, snorkeling, mountain climbing and caving, Varela said they came up with an idea to turn their favourite pastimes and hobbies into a way to earn extra cash.

“I thought, imagine if I can get paid to do these, take people out to experience different places,” Varela recalled. “It was more of a dream.”

Varela was working full-time at the Campbell River Airport when he decided to create a second job with a friend. They started a charter boat and scuba diving business in 1998, Island Pacific Adventures Ltd.

“My partner was a fishing guide and we both worked at the Campbell River Airport,” said Varela. “We saw how much fishing business was going through that place. His thing was fishing. My thing was land stuff, mountains, climbing, and caving. His thing took off first because the happening part of the economy in the market for tourism back then was salmon fishing.”

Varela focused on hiking in Strathcona Park, bringing people up to see the Comox Glaciers. While applying for a user and guiding permit from BC Parks, they were made aware of the provincial government’s plan to contract out parks. They pounced on the opportunity and applied for it. Island Pacific Adventures Ltd got the job and went on to become the operators of the Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park.

“It was the very beginning of actually a private company being able to operate within a provincial park,” said Varela. “Private companies bid on parks for services much the same way they do today. We’ve won it ever since.”

The tourism company, which is celebrating 30 years in business next year, has been managing the Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park for 29 years now.

“It’s uncommon for an adventure company to last 10 years, let alone 30 years,” said Varela. We’re happy to have achieved that milestone. For an adventure company, it’s pretty rare.”

Varela said when they started the business, they didn’t imagine it to grow and survive this long.

They have become pioneers and trend setters in eco-tourism here on Vancouver Island.

“For us, it was more of a way to pay for the fun of being in the mountains and out in the water,” said Varela. “Adventure guiding was new. Eco-tourism was not even a word yet. So we kind of had to forge our own paths in developing guiding standards and awareness in the tourism industry of our product.”

Caving was not as popular back then, said Varela, but they were able to make Horne Lake Caves into a unique tourism destination that attracts thousands of visitors each year.

“Most people thought of caves as scary and weird places to go,” he said. “Only the maximum adventurous people would go there. It was our mission to show how this wonderful British Columbia landscape could be presented to average park visitors.”

Varela said they made the protection of the fragile caves and its environment while operating a business within the provincial park system a primary goal and concern.

“We’ve done the same thing over the years to be a conservation focussed operations,” said Varela. “We present the resource in a safe way. And to provide a great underground experience will help people learn and love that environment.”

Their objective is also to educate visitors in the hope that they can spread the word about the importance of protecting the caves.

“There are seven caves within the provincial park but there are thousands of caves on Vancouver Island that are largely unprotected. The Island has the highest concentration of caves in all of Canada,” said Varela.

In the 30 years, Varela said, they’ve educated over 50,000 schoolchildren that toured the caves, and over a quarter of a million visitors.

The various innovations and work that Varela’s company has introduced and applied at Horne Lake Provincial Park has garnered them a spate of accolades and recognitions over the years. They include: 2002 “Best Natural Outdoor Site in BC” – Attractions Canada; 2004 “Raising the Bar” – Tourism Vancouver Island; 2006 “Power of Partners” – Tourism Vancouver Island; 2007 “Cooperative Marketing” Comox Valley Tourism; 2011 “Business of the Year” Parkville Chamber of Commerce; 2015 “Innovation of the Year” – Tourism Vancouver Island; 2015 “Remarkable Experience” – Destination BC; and 2017 Rennie / Clark Memorial Award – Service to Cave Protection.

Varela said they could not have succeeded on their own without the support of the community and the partnerships they’ve forged with several groups and organizations that include BC Parks, Canadian Cave Conservancy, local cavers and stakeholders.

“When you combine the knowledge, the expertise, fundraising along with somebody who is willing to stay on site and operate and manage the park, that becomes a recipe for success,” said Varela.

“Horne Lake Caves have become one of the shining examples of a park that manages its conservation and balances it with its park visitors use for the benefit of the community.’

Just Posted

City of Nanaimo being sued by human resources firm

Integrity Group seeking more than $50,000 over what it claims are unpaid bills

Heavy snowfall closes Mount Washington for the day

Road to ski resort deemed unsafe, “high avalanche danger”

New book tells how forestry contractors ‘fought for B.C.’

The Truck Loggers Association is commemorating its 75th anniversary by publishing a… Continue reading

Lifestyle change key to keeping off pounds

Pharmasave Parksville aids UBC clinical study helping sufferers of Type 2 diabetes

The Three T’s, the Ten Essentials and being prepared for the Great Outdoors

Be Prepared. It’s the old Scout motto and it should serve as… Continue reading

REPLAY: B.C. this week in video

In case you missed it, here’s a look at replay-worthy highlights from across the province this week

Philadelphia Eagles headed to Super Bowl

After routing the Minnesota Vikings 38-7, they will face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots

Heavy snowfall closes Mount Washington on Vancouver Island

Road to ski resort deemed unsafe, vehicles buried under more than three feet of snow

VIDEO: Dramatic video shows return of rescued B.C. snowboarders

Two snowboarders were rescued near Rossland, B.C. on Sunday after being lost overnight.

Tom Brady leads Patriots back to Super Bowl, top Jaguars 24-20

New England to face winner of Sunday night’s game between Minnesota and Philadelphia on Feb. 4

Homes, roads flooded in Whiskey Creek following downpour

Crews aid flooded homeowners while roads near Hwy 4 closed Sunday morning

Vessel washed ashore in Campbell River during last night’s storm

A vessel appears to have gotten loose and washed to shore on… Continue reading

Liberals quietly tap experts to write new paternity leave rules

Ideas include creating an entirely new leave benefit similar to one that exists in Quebec

Insurers say Canadian weather getting hotter, wetter and weirder

Average number of days with heavy rain or snow across Canada has been outside norm since spring 2013

Most Read