Long before it became a popular tourist destination, two adventurers stumbled upon the unexpected while exploring the Upana Caves.
We descended into a magical underworld. Giant, spider-like cave crickets filled the vast corridors of karst topography. Waterfalls highlighted the landscape as the Upana river carved its way through the limestone, eventually disappearing through a massive marble siphon. I squeezed through a tight, cylindrical tunnel and discovered a chimney-like feature that was four feet by thirty feet in height. While observing the rock walls, I caught a glimpse of an object out of place against the cold, natural world surrounding it—an old, mortice-style chest key. To us, it meant one thing. Treasure.
It had been a prolonged winter, with days short of light and saturated with precipitation. Mother Nature had just delivered one of the deepest snowpacks Vancouver Island had ever seen. My friend Andrew “Fox” Malcolm and I decided on an overnight snowboard tour in Strathcona Provincial Park. After a full day of touring, we dug out a snow cave and settled in for the evening. The next morning we woke to bluebird skies, and our minds turned toward warm weather expeditions. The seasons were shifting.
The days lengthened and the May showers subsided before the warm days of June arrived. By this time, Fox and I were excited for another adventure. It was natural that the cavernous nature of our winter abode would lead us to the caves of Vancouver Island. We decided on a journey to the Upana Caves.
We loaded up Fox’s Toyota Tercel with all the necessary provisions (including my Backroad Mapbook, as these days preceded smartphones), and set out on our expedition. First stop, Gold River. The flashing “open” sign of a local coffeehouse caught our attention, and upon entering, the barista noticed our spirited grins and asked us what we were up to. We revealed our adventurous plans and her demeanor changed from cheerful to worrisome. She said that most sensible people hired a guide, and pointed out that the high elevation of the caves might be a concern. Apparently we had overlooked a few factors.
Snow started to appear as the little Toyota climbed the forest road towards Tahsis, and by the time we reached our destination it was waist-deep. We remained focused nonetheless, undeterred by the sudden absence of summer. Other than some old snowshoe tracks heading into the forest, the buried trail was hidden. We decided to follow, and fortunately our unknown snowshoe guide led us to the main cave.
Upon finding the key, we spent hours exploring this underground wilderness. We crawled through tiny passages, scaled rock walls, and tirelessly searched for signs of treasure. Our curiosity led us into caves full of snow, funneled in from the forest above, and impassible sections completely filled with water. The day had grown long, our headlamps were dimming, and we were soaked to the bone. The key still mystified us, but the treasure hunt was drawing to an end. Reluctantly, I placed the key back in the cavern where it might be discovered by future adventurers. We hiked back to the car, cranked the heat, and descended back down the forest road to summer-like conditions.
Later that evening, brew in hand, we contemplated the success of our journey to the snowy Upana caves. Even though we never found a cache of gold that day, we were content with our mission. The real treasure was the adventure itself, and to this day it serves as a key reminder to get outdoors and explore.