From left, the late Bill Goward, Ken Sinkiewicz and Paul Statham were members of a work party that gated the cave entrance to deter vandals. (T.W. Paterson collection)

From left, the late Bill Goward, Ken Sinkiewicz and Paul Statham were members of a work party that gated the cave entrance to deter vandals. (T.W. Paterson collection)

T.W. Paterson column: Finding B.C.’s most beautiful park was easier than protecting it

Over the years I’ve seen acts of destruction that required hard effort, sometimes even ingenuity.

Over the years I’ve seen acts of destruction that required hard effort, sometimes even a little ingenuity. Why? You tell me.

There’s more than I told you last week to the story of the discovery of what’s now known as Riverbend Cave and its subsequent inclusion in the dedication of Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park.

Finding it, as it turned out, was the easy part. So was catching the provincial government’s attention. All it took was for the story to catch fire with the national press and the rest, as they say, is history.

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We later learned from Jim Johnson of Nanaimo, the actual discoverer of the cave with his wife Jody, four years before I, Dave Frankham, Paul Statham and Jean Andre found it” in 1969, that he’d been unsuccessful in interesting the Parks branch in acquiring the cave, even though it’s on Crown land, for a provincial park.

Jim didn’t know about the power of the press.

Because the letter sent by our small group, Vancouver Island Cave Explorers, had gone unanswered, we assumed that the Department of Recreation and Conservation, headed by Minister Ken Kiernan, was giving us the cold shoulder, too.

No problem!

As I wrote regularly for the Colonist, it took just a chat with the news desk and a display of some great underground photos to get a response. As one of four participants in the story, I didn’t write the resulting front-page feature that, in turn, alerted the Vancouver Sun (another front-pager), CBC Radio or the Star Weekly. (Television, for reasons that should be obvious, didn’t work.)

In the course of various news stories I did, as VICEG’s liaison, allude to our having been snubbed by the government. When the call came from the office of the Parks deputy minister to meet with him in the parliament buildings, we didn’t realize that he was gunning for us.

This became apparent the moment he led us to his temporary office in the basement as the legislative building was being renovated. For the information of us insolent young pups, he barked, our letter to the ministry had been received and Mr. Kiernan had answered, expressing interest in our cave. But the letter had stalled for several weeks on the desk of a vacationing staffer.

By which time, of course, we’d pulled the pin, gone public and had captured the public’s interest. Neither Mr. Kiernan nor his deputy, we were bluntly informed, were amused.

By then, of course, it hardly mattered. The public was informed and interested. And so was Parks.

They agreed to send Parks Director Bob Ahrens and planner Bill Spriggs with us to confirm that the cave, which we’d named for a noted French spelunker, was as spectacular as we’d been telling the world.

Arrangements were made for these Parks representatives to accompany us on a visit and see for themselves. Mr. Ahrens was astounded at the underground fantasy world that Nature had created of limestone and water, later describing it as “fabulous…nothing like it in the province”. He recommended that it be made a Class A\ Category 2 Park. This is the highest class designation: the number refers to “outstanding natural phenomenon”.

There was no doubt in his mind that the cave must be given governmental protection as other caves in the area, which had long been known to the public, had been vandalized to the point they were nothing more than natural tunnels; all of their intricate formations were stripped away and long gone.

Which is why we’d kept our cave’s location a secret and which is why we needed the government’s participation.

Mr. Ahrens not only wholeheartedly agreed, he had our reconnaissance team seal the cave’s one known surface entrance with large boulders, which we elbowed in with pry bars that he carried in his truck. At the expense of a broken finger for him, unfortunately.

This was purely a temporary measure; all of us wanted to maintain access through this portal. But, already, there was evidence that, thanks to our news stories, others were looking for our cave and we well knew the dangers of unrestricted access. We had to act fast.

So the idea was born to re-open the cave by re-configuring the entrance with concrete and a length of culvert for a passageway, with iron bars and a padlock for a gate.

Unluckily for us, it was quite a distance from the road up a steep, twisting deer trail all the way. Everything, including the sacks of Portland cement, would have to be back-packed in. (Not by Parks employees but by VICEG members and volunteers who were sworn to secrecy.)

I don’t know how many readers have lugged 80-pound packs of cement on their backs but it’s not a task for the faint of limb and heart. I was much younger then and certainly in better shape but, let me tell you, those sacks of cement were heavy.

I can’t remember how many it took to do the job, let’s just say too many!

The short length of metal culvert was no big deal, neither were the reinforcing rods, pre-cut and welded together as a gate, but those damn sacks of cement..!

Well, to make a long story short, vandals can be industrious, too. In fact, I’ve seen acts of destruction that required hard effort, sometimes even a little ingenuity. Why? You tell me.

Hardly had we installed the culvert-gate in its bed of concrete than someone found the entrance and tried to break their way in. That’s why we’d been so concerned with secrecy and why we needed governmental protection.

Almost 50 years later, Riverbend Cave is accessible to the public but only by means of guided tours. Souvenirs, need I say it, aren’t allowed. I’ve not been back since it became a public attraction but I have great memories of exploring what I and my friends initially thought had never been seen by human eyes before our first visit.

The fact that the Johnsons had beaten us doesn’t matter to me. The fact that Riverbend Cave has been spared otherwise inevitable destruction does.

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