Intriguing find renews hope for family of Travis Thomas following massive coordinated search

Denise Titian, August 30, 2019

Family items were recently found in a remote cave near Ahousaht during a search for Travis Thomas, who went missing more than a year ago. (Submitted video still)

Ahousaht, BC — 

A recent coordinated search of Bartlett Island has turned up no sign of Ahousaht’s Travis Thomas, who was last seen on the island Aug. 7, 2018.

But the search, arranged by Ahousaht members, led to the discovery of sentimental items found deep inside a cave near Bartlett Island. Searchers found items that went missing from a tent that the Thomas family had set up on Bartlett Island in the hopes of tempting Travis to come home. Among the items were family photos sealed in plastic bags.

Travis Thomas, who would now be 41, is one of Ahousaht’s leading athletes and youth mentors. The father of four was hit with family tragedy when his wife died suddenly in late 2017 and he struggled with the loss, turning to alcohol. The family has indicated that he also suffered from mental health issues, other than depression, leading them to believe that he is hiding somewhere on the island.

According to a recently published First Nations Health Authority news release, Thomas, who was 40 when he went missing, was "banished" to the island due to an addictions problem. Banishment from the community is a form of traditional correction aimed to keep the community safe and to help the banished person recover through introspection, free from the distractions of modern conveniences and the influences of others.

In Ahousaht, people struggling with personal problems may spend time in solitude in the wilderness. With the support of their families, they are provided with food, supplies and equipment for their stay, which can range from a few days to a few months. Family members check on them regularly, restocking supplies.

It was on one of these family checks that people noticed Thomas was gone. He was reported missing to the RCMP on Aug. 9, 2018.

Bartlett Island is located northwest of Tofino and is about a 20-minute boat ride southwest of Ahousaht. It is small, about 1.5 kilometres long and less than a kilometer wide. Its main feature is rock – towering stone walls jutting out of the open ocean. The rocks are covered at the top with dense shrubs and coniferous forest. At each end of the island are two sand beaches that small boats can approach in fair weather. There are no landing docks, no formal trails, no modern conveniences. It is uninhabited and wild.

The family has pinned their hopes on Travis’ athleticism and known survival skills to keep him alive. Bartlett Island has no fresh water source but can provide sustenance in the form of berries, sea weed, and the sea creatures that cling to the rocky intertidal areas.

In the twelve months that he’s been missing, the Thomas family has been at the island almost daily, in the hope of bringing Travis home. Bartlett Island is exposed to the open ocean so landing on it during a storm is impossible – and there were severe windstorms in the region in late 2018.

Never to be deterred, Jean Thomas brings comfort for her son in the form of shelter, warmth and food. The family set up a tent and stocked it with a sleeping bag, clothing, food and water. Jean posted some of her searches on social media as she hiked through the forest looking for her son. Sometimes she leaves a fire on the beach when the weather is cold.

There have been unconfirmed reports that searchers have spotted him at a distance, or heard him making noises. The family has posted a ghostly image of a man dressed in sweats; it’s Travis, they say, caught on an infrared trail cam at night.

But two searches by RCMP with the assistance of search/cadaver dogs have turned up nothing. According to Ahousaht’s search and rescue coordinator Curtis Dick, the RCMP searched the island again over the weekend of Aug. 23 and found nothing to indicate that Travis was there. The RCMP has not returned calls from Ha-Shilth-Sa.

Following the RCMP search, Ahousaht, with support from other agencies carried out their own search over three days in late August.

Curtis Dick helped coordinate the massive search, which saw up to 60 volunteers combing both the main island and the dozens of smaller islets just offshore from Bartlett.

It was on a search of one of the smaller islands that an exciting discovery was made. On Wednesday, Aug. 28, a small cave was searched. The cave was on a tiny island that, according to Dick, could only be reached by water from Bartlett Island, meaning one would have to swim to it if they didn’t have a boat.

Some of the nearby islands are accessible by land at low tide but this one is a little further offshore.

The cave is narrow but searchers could see items at the back of the cave, about 10 feet in. Video footage shows that the cave tapers to a point at the back. On the floor, propped up against the back corner is a small brown cross. To the side of the cross is a red Catholic prayer candle standing upright. Scattered on the floor of the cave are Thomas family photos, each enveloped in plastic sandwich bags.

According to Dick, the Thomas family left the photos and religious items on Bartlett Island; at the place they call family camp. They leave things like these there in the hope that Travis will come to them.

A boy recording the video can be heard describing what he was seeing, relaying the information to an adult behind him. Near the candle is a pile of long bones. The boy can be heard saying, “…and there’s bones, holy crap, BIG bones!”

The bones are long, like leg bones, possibly from an animal. Dick says he will seek permission to have the bones removed for analysis.

How the trinkets got into this cave is unknown. There are people searching the area all the time and there are recreational visitors…kayakers that have been known to disturb items at Family Camp.

But for the Thomas’ and Ahousaht, this find rekindles hope that Travis Thomas is indeed alive. The Thomas family is convinced Travis is there and they will continue to visit Bartlett Island for as long as it takes.

They are asking for financial donations to continue the search. Donations may be made to Julia Atleo at Ahousaht’s Chah Chum Hii Yup Tiic Miss, the local holistic health centre. The phone number is 1-955-670-9558, and email address is accounting@ahousaht.ca.