Cheakamus rafters targetted by MoTH
By Amy Fendley
River rafting has become Whistler’s most popular summer tour activity, with six local companies guiding more than 10,000 tourists along the Cheakamus River last summer. The river itself, has become the busiest rafting river in Whistler and the third busiest in B.C., after the Thomson River and the Kicking Horse River near Golden.
But the province wants to shut down commercial rafting on the Cheakamus.
The Provincial Emergency Program had been trying to curtail any unnecessary human activity in the Garibaldi Civil Defense Zone below The Barrier, the unstable natural wall which dams Garibaldi Lake.
In an August letter to the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks a representative of the Ministry of Transportation and Highways writes that MELP is to stop issuing commercial rafting permits in the zone, including amending and cancelling permits already issued.
"I am surprised and dismayed to find that your Ministry has been issuing permits for rafting within the Garibaldi Defense Zone in contravention of provincial legislation and policies," writes Howard Hunter, provincial approving officer for the Ministry of Transportation and Highways.
The Garibaldi Civil Defense Zone is unique in its geological and hydrological features and, according to the province, presents a potential hazard to life and property.
But that hasn’t halted traffic on Highway 99, the BC Rail line or led to any prohibition of hikers and bikers in the area.
Mike Sadan, owner of Wedge Rafting in Whistler, is dismayed that MoTH is trying to deny Wedge Rafting and the five other companies which now offer tours on the Cheakamus the right to do so.
"We all operate under permits issued by the Ministry of Environment, the Registrar of Rafting," said Sadan. "But apparently it was unknown to the registrar that the Ministry of Transportation deemed it illegal to raft there.
"Suddenly B.C. Hydro is releasing water (from the Daisy Lake Dam) all the time and an area that was limited in 1997, was full-on in 1998. Suddenly thousands of people are rafting the river, six companies are operating and about 50 people are employed. The reality of this is that a few companies here depend on it completely. The problem with the defense zone is that the highway runs through it, the highway runs parallel to the river, and the railway runs parallel to it."
A few of the rafting companies that offer tours on the Cheakamus were started as a result of the increase in water flows on the river, which began when B.C. Hydro started releasing water on a regular basis in 1997. Some of those companies are now completely reliant on the river, according to Sadan.
The section of the Cheakamus from Rubble Creek to the Salt Sheds, is the area of debate. The area has been deemed to offer tourists the best rafting white water in the region, superior to other local rivers because it has less objective hazards than the Birkenhead River and it offers a longer season than the Green River. Sadan says guests and guides acknowledge there may be hazards on the river, not unlike others who use the hazard zone.
"Out guests are risk takers," said Sadan. "What about the millions of people who travel through the zone in cars, buses and railway cars?"
Rafters sign a waiver acknowledging the risks before heading out onto the river. Sadan says he would add a clause to the list of risks to include "the possibility of death due to a natural catastrophe as a result of a flood caused by the descending of Garibaldi Lake upon us as we raft by Highway 99," if that would satisfy MoTH.
"The Cheakamus is by far the best rafting river in the area," said Sadan. "A lot of people are employed by the river... there are a lot of jobs involved. There are operators who want to run the river, employees who want to guide the river and guests who want to raft the river."
MoTH has already exempted commercial operators such as Maverick Coach Lines, Capilano Highway Services, B.C. Rail, and others.
"Considering the level of traffic out there, it makes the idea of us leaving preposterous," said Sadan. "We want to travel from point A to B, just like everybody else."
Ted Nebbeling, MLA for West Vancouver-Garibaldi, said the river rafting situation is part of a bureaucracy out of control, and he warned other recreational uses of the area could also be undermined.
"I couldn’t find anything anywhere that the use of the river for rafting is in violation," said Nebbeling. "The assistant deputy minister and myself discussed the matter and we concluded that this was ridiculous, and foresee that this approach is in no way comprehensible. Legally, they don’t have a foot to stand on. Morally, this will affect businesses and tourism.
"Here we are, constantly trying to fund these projects, and what’s next, will it be bike trails? It’s ludicrous and unacceptable. I have the order in council and nothing says the river can’t be used for rafting. To use our natural resources for recreational uses is the basis of Whistler activities."
Mayor Hugh O’Reilly said last week he would ask the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District to champion the cause of rafting on the Cheakamus.