A contingent of Prince George cave explorers is off this week to the northwest corner of the province in search of underground adventure.
There are indications that the Taku region near Atlin might be home to the deepest caves in Canada. Local caver Bob Rutherford is leading a team of fellow subterraneanites into the mouth of that mystery.
"It's one of those mythic karst [limestone terrain perforated with holes eroded by water over millions of years] areas of B.C. that cavers have talked about for years," Rutherford said. "I'm not prone to hyperbole so 'the deepest caves in Canada' is not the message we're sending, but we do know that there is potential for a pretty interesting system, and we know that the entire mountain drains underground."
The water somehow descends internally from the top of the Mount Sinwa plateau to the Taku River 1,500 metres below, so the members of the Northern B.C. Caving Club know that the cave they seek exists but the exploration is to discover a passage wide enough a person can pass through. Rutherford is well aware that the water may leach through fractured rock or through tight, twisted holes, instead of chimneys and caverns.
Adding to the difficulty of the expedition is the remote location. The 10 men and women on the journey (five from Prince George) will be ferried in by aircraft (three trips each way for all the people and gear). There are no roads, and although it is the traditional territory well known to the Tlingit First Nation, no one currently resides anywhere near the plateau. The cavers are on their own.
"Whenever you are caving, hypothermia and water are two of your biggest concerns, and of course sustaining an injury underground," Rutherford said. "In karst, water is a major issue. It just disappears underground and you're going in there not knowing what you're going to encounter for water pressure, depths, the kind of obstacles water might present. Karst is not unlike a watershed on the surface, where lots of little creeks and streams trickle together eventually into a major river passage. That main waterway is our best chance of finding a way for people to go through, but it is also where most of the water will be."
The area is question has been made, in recent years, into a provincial protected area with jurisdiction shared by BC Parks and the Tlingit First Nation. Permission from both groups was required in order for the cavers to make their trek in. Part of the permission was contingent on the cavers sharing their discoveries with both the province and the Tlingit.
Science is the only value for this cave mission, said Rutherford. The area was placed under conservancy due to its ecosystem value, not its tourist potential, and should Canada's deepest cave come to be discovered that would likely not change.
"There is barely tourist potential for caves on Vancouver Island, where there are many caves with easy access, and easy to go through. Up there it is so remote, and the only people with the interest and the resources are professional cavers that it is kind of self-protected."
This is the second time the club has made the trip to the Taku region. Last summer's trip gave them some preliminary understanding of the terrain and pinpointed some cave entrances of interest. This year - with 600 metres of rope, more than 100 carabiners, a wall tent, and various other gear in tow - they are pressing for deeper answers.