Almost every day Steve Thurber goes out to walk the beaches on Vancouver Island hoping to find a treasure cast up by the tides.
His friends have always joked that his collection of found objects – old whisky bottles, fishing floats, crab pots and even a loonie floating in a basket – are worthless.
But Mr. Thurber, who works as a driver on the island, said they aren't laughing now that he's got what may be the oldest message in a bottle ever found.
"Suddenly everybody in the world is phoning me," Mr. Thurber said Friday of his sudden notoriety after making what he calls a "one in a billion" find.
He was walking on the beach at Schooner Cove, near Tofino, last Monday when he saw a small green bottle sitting in the sand where a Parks Canada crew had been restoring native plants in sand dunes.
The bottle appeared to have been brought to the surface by an excavator. It was obviously old, so he stooped to pick it up – and only then did he realize it had a note inside. Handwriting on the outside of a small envelope was dated Sept. 29, 1906. It was signed by Earl Willard, who wrote that he was a passenger on the ship Rainier and had been out for 76 hours. The Rainier was steaming from San Francisco to Bellingham, Wash.
Mr. Thurber couldn't see what was written inside the envelope – and that part of the message remains a mystery, at least for now.
"I just thought it was really, really wild that I found something that old just lying on the beach," Mr. Thurber said. "Everybody thinks about finding a message in a bottle but … you know, that's the first one I've ever found … and then when I read it's 1906 it was just, wow, like that's really old."
At first he thought he'd just add it to his old bottle collection, as "the neatest thing I ever found." But then he did some research on the Internet and discovered just how special it is.
"It comes up that the oldest one found was just under 98 years old," he said. "And I'm going, well, this is like almost 107. This could be a world record."
The oldest message in a bottle until now, according to Guinness World Records, was a 1914 message found by a Scottish fisherman last year.
Mr. Thurber has been carefully guarding the bottle, which he has so far refused to open, hoping that by keeping it sealed he's increasing its value.
"It got on the Internet and people are mad because I'm not opening it," he said. "I mean it's been around for 107 years and it survived that. I'm not just going to break it open, just to see what else might be inside."
Mr. Thurber said his friends have suggested he might one day open the bottle on network TV.
"People have had dreams that I went on Jay Leno and he opened it up on the air … you never know," he said, laughing.
Mr. Thurber said he's done some research on Mr. Willard and believes he was born in 1888 in Michigan, which would have made him 18 when he dropped the bottle from the deck of the Rainier, probably while passing through Juan de Fuca Strait.
Mr. Thurber said he is keeping the bottle in a cool, dry place but is worried about humidity and might ask Parks Canada to store it for him.
"We have a visitor centre here in the park. We'd be interested in displaying the bottle, certainly," said Renee Wissink, research conservation manager at Pacific Rim National Park.
He said people can't take artifacts out of parks, but the bottle "clearly falls in a bit of a grey area" because members of the public are encouraged to pick up any garbage they see washed ashore.
"This one is a little funny," he said. "It's like flotsam and jetsam that shows up regularly on our beaches … the unique thing about this is the time element."