Remembering the Original Wells Gray Treasure Hunt

Vancouver Sun May 21, 2008
by P.M.C. Martin

Today, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opens in theatres everywhere. The theatric geriatric returns.


You want skulls?

You want a real treasure hunt?

B.C. outdid Hollywood 15 years ago with the real thing. With a skull. And it wasn’t some cheap crystal thing.

It was solid gold.

It all started in 1993, in Kamloops, when Mike Ritcey, a paramedic and part-time hunting guide, and Harvey Surina, a produce manager at a Kamloops grocery store, decided the area needed a gimmick to draw tourists to the Thompson River area.

They decided on a treasure hunt. And the treasure they came up with was a solid gold skull weighing just over seven pounds.

Its eyes were set with 99 small rubies arranged in concentric circles. A local goldsmith made the skull, and the money needed to produce it was raised through sponsors.

To thwart searchers using metal detectors, Ritcey and Surina had a ceramic and plastic replica made too and hid it in place of the gold skull.

Whoever found the replica would win the original.

The treasure map.
The treasure map.
They came up with a legend around the skull, too – the legend of Thunder Bear. Thunder Bear was a warrior who was half man half bear, and who was invincible because of the strength he drew from the moon.

But he was slain through the trickery of a maiden from a warring tribe.

Won over by her beauty, Thunder Bear married her, and when he took her inside his tent on their wedding night – where the light of the moon could not reach him – she stabbed him when he fell asleep and cut off his head.

Putting his head in a sack, she opened it later to find his skull had turned into gold and his eyes into rubies. Panicking, she fled and buried the sack.

Pure hokum, but a terrific vehicle for a treasure hunt. Propelling the hunt was a list of clues that came in a kit. The kit included a grid map dividing the search area into 156 sections, a tape retelling the legend and a poster that contained the clues. It sold for $20.

And sell it did. Searchers came from across Canada, from all 50 U.S. states, Germany, France and New Zealand. The promoters sold so many kits they broke even by 1995.

First 16 of 32 clues.
First 16 of 32 clues.
One problem:

After six years, nobody had found the skull.

The clues were impenetrable. Like:

“Kidala looked past Rizma and saw it.” And, “Be he living or if he’s Near the dead, he’ll mind what I, Bill, Cain and everyone said!” And, “845ngksx285nxnsz- .zjcg97c48j.9759v85”. No one could make sense of them.

So in 1999, Ritcey decided to publish a series of explicit directions once a week in the local paper, directions that narrowed the search down geographically.

The final clue was, “The skull is in a creek that is close, or runs into Third Canyon.”

Third Canyon was north of Kamloops and near the small town of Clearwater. There, a couple named Wayne and Sandy Sunderman lived. Wayne worked at the local supermarket, Sandy at the Dairy Queen. They had a mortgage and three daughters going into college. They needed the money the skull could bring, and had bought a clue kit. Their half-dozen attempts to find the skull had failed.

Then one night, in bed, Sandy was thinking about the tape of the legend included in the kit, and remembered it said the legend had taken place in “1630.” She had an epiphany. She decided the skull was in a creek 16 kilometres from Clearwater at the 3,000-foot level.

She and Wayne went out the next morning, and found the place she had thought of crawling with other searchers. They left, crestfallen, after somebody told them the skull had been found. They found out later that it was a ruse, so they returned later in the day to the creek.

There, 60 feet from its mouth, Sandy saw a patch of white in the bank. It was a plastic bag. She dug the bag out, opened it, and saw teeth. Some plastic rubies fell out of the bag.

“When I pulled it out,” Sandy said, “my hands were shaking. I wasn’t sure what we had at first because it had been in the water for so long.”

They hid it in a backpack, hurried back to their car and told no one. There had been talk of threats and searchers making claims on certain areas, and the Sundermans didn’t want any trouble.

Bronze replica of the Golden Skull.
Bronze replica of the Golden Skull.
When they got back to their car, they opened up the bag. It was the replica skull. And later that week, they were presented with the gold skull. It was then they found out about their interpretation of the crucial clue.

“The whole thing was crazy,” Sandy said. “I had interpreted the whole thing wrong. The ‘1630’ had nothing to do with anything. It was sheer luck that we found it.”

And what of the skull, now that they had it?

“Well,” Sandy said, "we got this golden skull, and it was like, ‘Okay, now what are we supposed to do?’

“It was a skull, eh. Kinda creepy. I wouldn’t display it. So we put it in a safety deposit box.”

They ended up selling it. It was 22-karat gold, and they sold it to a gold scrap dealer in Montreal. They got about $37,000 for it, Sandy said, and kept the rubies, returning them to the safety deposit box.

With the money, they paid off some bills and took out some RRSPs. They still have the same jobs they did in 1999. The price of gold has tripled since they sold the skull. It causes some pangs of regret in hindsight.

“But it was a lot of fun,” Sandy said, “and a fluke that we found it.”

As for Wayne, he said he was looking forward to seeing the movie. or 604-605-2905
©CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

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