Sacred cave faces a modern threat

An 'awesome' underground lake is part of a complex of the Songhees people's culturally significant sites

Stephen Hume

Vancouver Sun

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

When a senior out for a hike in the hills just west of Victoria mentioned to Trish Glatthaar that she and her companion had spotted a curious hole descending into the mountainside, the amateur local explorer tried to curb her excitement.

For years she'd been trying to track down the source of a legend about a cave with an underground lake said by some to be used for spiritual purposes by the Songhees people who inhabited the region for millennia before the first Europeans arrived.

Songhees elders had no doubt about the cave's existence, although its location appeared to have been lost, forgotten or carefully concealed to protect it from vandals and newcomers insensitive to its significance.

Glatthaar had herself come across some obscure references from one of Victoria's newspapers about a century ago. On the other hand, there are also known to be some abandoned mine shafts in the area that date from a soon-abandoned gold rush to the Leech River almost 150 years ago.

So when she went up to examine the hole, she didn't know what to expect.

"It's a very strange feature," she said. "You can be six feet from it and not even see it." What she found when she later ventured carefully into the opening still renders her near speechless.

"I was overwhelmed. I just thought, 'Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh! My! Gaawwd!'"

Glatthaar subsided into silence for a few moments, then reached again for words that might describe for me what she saw. "It's not like any cave I've ever seen," she said.

"This is the most awesome, the most beautiful, the most magnificent [cave]. It's absolutely gorgeous. There are these beautiful, moulded rock formations covered with lush moss and ferns of the greenest, most luxurious coastal green."

And there, extending away from her into the mountain lay the mysterious subterranean lake of legend. "The water is crystal clear. It is bewildering it's so clear. It's like invisible water. It's so clear you can't even see it. It's very cold. And it is a lake.

"There's no current, no ripples, it's absolutely still and deep -- you can float a boat back into the cave. All around are these little stalactites and stalagmites and to be in that water, this silvery water, was just magical."

Glatthaar said she understood immediately why the place is important to the Songhees.

"It's overwhelmingly spiritual in a very deep sense," she said.

Cheryl Bryce and Ron Sam of the Songhees told me that the cave and its underground lake are part of an adjacent complex of culturally significant sites which they believe are threatened by expansion of Bear Mountain Resort, a subdivision and golf course nearby.

She says blasting and clearing have begun near an area where elders and provincial archeologists have identified what appear to be undisturbed grave sites, a sacred cairn, rock shelters, middens, culturally modified trees, an artificial pond possibly used for spiritual cleansing rituals and the cave with its hidden lake. Caves traditionally have been powerful sacred places.

As recently as December 2005, Grant Keddie, curator of archeology at the Royal B.C. Museum, was writing to Jim Spafford of the province's archeology branch, urging that a formal assessment of the area above ground be made. On Feb. 6, Rob Buchan, the city planner for Langford, also advised an immediate archeological assessment.

Now the urgency for an evaluation of the cultural importance of the burial sites, the bathing pool, the cairn and the cave with its unusual underground lake appears to be intensifying.

Paul Griffiths, an expert in limestone formations, told me after visiting the secret site at the weekend that the lake and cave have "biological, mineralogical and hydrological resource values that require protection and management. The integrity of the cave is quite possibly jeopardized by the development activities nearby, including any blasting." He said some of its elements were so fragile that further public access should be prevented.

Yet Bryce told me that, despite the Songhees chiefs' expression of urgent concern about risks to an irreplaceable heritage site, the provincial government appears to be dragging its feet.

"They're going slowly, the developer is going fast," she said. The provincial government claimed to be unaware of the situation when presented with the Songhees' concerns, she told me, but said it would "look at it over the summer and maybe in the fall talk to the [First Nations] Summit -- meanwhile, there's blasting."

Well, here's a suggestion for the Summit. Get on the phone now. Tell Premier Gordon Campbell that if he meant what he said in the legislature May 4 about "no more excuses," he'll insist upon a full archeological and cultural assessment -- as his own senior experts advise -- before the possibility of damage to a site that may be of profound significance.

Standing about sucking your thumb while somebody accidentally drives a bulldozer through what might well be the equivalent to one of Canterbury Cathedral's holy chapels and then, when it's too late, saying, "Oops, we're sorry!" is just not on.

Surely it's not unreasonable of the Songhees to ask that we make sure we know exactly what we're dealing with and the full consequence of what's being done before any more blasting or bulldozing. Surely we have a collective duty to do so.

The Vancouver Sun 2006