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Duncan UFO sighting depicted on new coin was a 'party trick'

Dan Hughes says his friends created the ‘spaceship’ out of wood, candles and a dry-cleaning bag and let it float into the sky in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 1970.
A silver glow-in-the-dark coin depicting the Duncan incident is part of a series of coins released by the Royal Canadian Mint highlighting unexplained phenomena in Canada. VIA THE ROYAL CANADIAN MINT

A “UFO encounter” at Cowichan District Hospital more than 50 years ago that’s now the subject of a collector coin from the Royal Canadian Mint was an elaborate “party trick” that took on a life of its own, says a Duncan man.

Dan Hughes said he knew the couple who created the so-called spaceship out of lightweight wood, candles and a dry-cleaning bag and let it float into the sky during a gathering of friends in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 1970.

“There was no malice whatsoever … it was a playful party trick that got out of hand and created a kind of hysteria,” said Hughes.

Hughes, who turns 82 next month, said he’s coming clean on the story because Les and Renee Palmer — longtime friends and fellow musicians — have both since died, and he believes the nurse and other witnesses who described seeing the strange craft have also passed away.

So when the Royal Canadian Mint released the coin depicting the Duncan UFO sighting — the sixth in a series highlighting Canada’s tales of unexplained phenomena — to a national audience last week, Hughes figured it was time to tell the real story.

The Palmers were living in a house on Baker Road near the hospital when they let their contraption loose. A strong wind carried it to the hospital just as a nurse working on the fourth floor — the psychiatric ward — opened the curtains of a room while making her rounds.

She described seeing a large saucer-shaped craft with a glass-like dome top. Inside the object — estimated to be 15 metres in diameter and illuminated from the bottom — she saw two male-like figures clad in dark cloth standing in front of a large panel.

In information accompanying the coin’s release, the Royal Canadian Mint said the nurse was “absorbed by the sight,” and studied the craft and its occupants. She noticed one of the figures slowly turning to face in her direction. The other figure then reached down to grab a lever, and the tilted craft began to spin in a counter-clockwise direction.

She called over another nurse to witness the hovering object as it silently and swiftly moved away, though its lights were still visible to two more witnesses who joined them at the window.

A few years after the hospital sighting, Hughes said, the Palmers replayed their prank on Cowichan Bay while he and other friends watched. “I think there were UFO reports that night, too,” he said.

He said the Palmers’ “UFO” was a simple design — a cross of lightweight wood taped together with strings attached to four ends. Each end of the wooden cross had small candles and it was covered with a plastic dry-cleaner bag tied at the top where the hanger came through.

He said dry-cleaning bags at the time had images and other patterns that someone might mistake for aliens from a distance.

Hughes said the Palmers used a portable hair dryer to fill the bag with hot air, lit the small candles and let it go. “It worked very well … it just sailed higher and higher,” he said.

Hughes, a resident of Duncan for 54 years who built his own animal-control business and continues to play the trumpet in bands, had some reservations about letting the cat out of the proverbial bag, noting the Duncan UFO story has been mentioned in several books and other publications and has become folklore on the Island and fact among UFO believers.

But knowing the truth isn’t stopping him from getting one of the Royal Canadian Mint coins.

“I ordered a coin yesterday,” he said with a laugh. “A hundred and fifty bucks with shipping. You never know — they might stop making them when they hear the story now.”

The mint said about 6,500 of the glow-in-the-dark coins, which come with a black light, were made and it expects a quick sellout.

The one-ounce silver rectangular coin — with a face value of $20 — was designed by Gabriola Island artist Patrick Bélanger.