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Petition calls for ban of commercial boats on River of Golden Dreams—but are they the real problem?

Exploding user numbers on popular waterway speak to age-old Whistler tension between nature and tourism
N-River of Golden Dreams 29(1)
The hourly user rate on the River of Golden Dreams doubled between 2015 and 2020.

A new online petition calls for a ban of commercial operators on Whistler’s River of Golden Dreams to help stem the explosion of users on the popular waterway.  

Launched Aug. 3 by longtime Alta Lake resident Lawrence Keith, the petition pointed to a doubling in river users since 2015, noting there is “absolutely no way the ecosystem can endure this traffic down the fragile river bed” and called for an end to commercial operations—“the obvious solution”—on both the River of Golden Dreams and Alta Lake. 

The petition has so far garnered more than 820 signatures. 

“There are a number of people very concerned by the fact that the number of boats commercially going down there is increasing substantially over the years and it hasn’t really been analyzed as to the damage it might be doing to the creekbed and the sensitive ecosystem around it,” said Keith when reached by phone. 

The surge in use has led to a number of environmental concerns, according to a recent report by the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), including damaged streambeds, sediment imbalance, and increased turbidity, all of which can be detrimental to native fish populations, particularly during spawning periods.  

There are two commercial operators on the river: Backroads Whistler and Whistler EcoTours, both offering canoe and kayak tours of Alta Lake and its tributary. Backroads owner Eric Wight has been working on the river for close to 20 years, and argued that he and his staff play a crucial role in ensuring its protection, both through educating guests and ongoing monitoring of the waterway. 

“Are the commercial boats the problem? Or are they actually part of the solution?” he asked. “We provide orientation talks to river users. There’s environmental work [through] volunteer hours. There’s picking up garbage. We’re working with the municipality on signage for safety and safety enhancements. The commercial guides are there every day and see what’s going on.” 

Whistler EcoTours owner Keenan Moses posited that commercial operators are actually incentivized to combat the river’s degradation. 

“We continue to be river stewards,” he said. “We pick up all the garbage. We look at all the hazards and contact [Fisheries and Oceans Canada]. We’re very much a part of this river, because we understand we need a proper functioning river for our business to do well.” 

While they didn’t have hard numbers on hand, both Wight and Moses said their client numbers have stayed relatively steady in recent years, as wider public use of the busy river has soared. 

Floatie frustrations 

Councillor Cathy Jewett, who was quoted at a council meeting last month warning that “we’re loving that river to death,” acknowledged it would likely be easier to regulate the commercial operators, but she questioned whether they are really at the root of the problem.  

“I think that if we only allowed commercial operators, it would probably be better. They can at least brief people on the river, make sure they’re wearing life-jackets, make sure they’re sober when they start,” she said. “Whereas if I just got an Explorer 200 from Fresh Street and I’m going to the put-in, that’s a different story.” 

Single-use plastic floaties like the Explorer 200 and Kondor 2000 are a regular sight on the River of Golden Dreams, and it’s not unusual to find the cheap floatation devices discarded on nearby banks or in the river itself.

“When those things puncture, and they always puncture, whatever is in that boat is now in the river. So those guys, as much fun as they’re having, when it’s freezing cold and their boat doesn’t float, they aren’t going to try to pull out any extra beer cans or flip-flops or whatever, so we constantly clean up after them in a canoe,” Moses said. 

“For the proper functioning condition of the river, the floaties don’t really work. It’s not meant for them and that’s where the numbers are really increasing. That’s what should be addressed.”

Whistler Hardware, one of several resort shops that stock the floaties, told Pique the store has seen a slight uptick in sales from last year.    

Without a ban on single-use floaties in place, Moses would like to see them treated for what they are: boating vessels. 

“Let’s see some enforcement of boating rules: no drinking, a life-jacket or [personal floatation device], a throw rope, a bailer,” Moses added. “It is classified as a vessel, and that’s where the attention should be drawn to.” 

Environmental enhancements 

At the July 19 council meeting, Whistler’s elected officials heard a report on potential enhancements to the River of Golden Dreams meant to minimize the impacts of overuse. 

The main area of concern is a congested section of river known as “the canal” at the end of Lorimer Road, near the Catholic church, that stretches from the fish weir along the rail line to 21 Mile. The shallow canal becomes impassable when water levels are low, forcing paddlers to portage approximately 400 metres downstream. 

The RMOW tapped engineering consultants Kerr Wood Leidal to look at options for improving river habitat, with the firm landing on two recommendations: remove the existing log weirs that were installed in the ’90s, as they are believed to impede the spawning channel through sediment build-up; and install a weir upstream of the 21 Mile confluence to raise water levels throughout the canal. 

Both Moses and Wight called for the enhancements to go a step further by removing all gravel from the river, thereby deepening the waterway. 

“The river is a clay-based river, so there’s very little gravel in there, historically,” said Wight, noting that years of development and vehicle traffic upstream has led to gravel runoff into the river. 

Removing the gravel would, in the operators’ minds, also help with the ongoing flood risk at Tapley’s Farm

“There’s been quite a bit of discussion on how to deal with flood issues … and one of the easiest ways is to take out all the gravel, put the riverbed back to its historic elevation and then rebuild an actual dedicated spawning channel,” Wight added. 

The RMOW has earmarked $40,000 for improvements to the river this year, most of which will be used for research, study and design work. A further $150,000 will be requested for the enhancement work next year, which is expected to go ahead in August 2023. 

Demand management 

The rampant use of the resort’s favourite lazy river begs a question that has dogged many of the region’s—and B.C.’s—beloved natural destinations: should access be formalized, either through a ticketing or day-pass system similar to what’s in place at Joffre Lakes, north of Pemberton, that would limit capacity? 

“It’s not just the River of Golden Dreams. Demand management is something that we spoke about in the Balance Model. Demand management is something we’re going to have to think about on a much broader scale than just the river,” Jewett said. “That was something that happened during COVID in our provincial parks, which I think was actually quite successful. But how do we enforce it? It’s the same thing with the Valley Trail getting really busy, too. What do we do there? It’s just exponential. How do we figure out the mechanisms that will make it work so that our carrying capacity is realized versus just taking all comers?”  

It’s an age-old dilemma that Whistler has wrestled with before, and is sure to continue grappling with, especially with modelling projections forecasting “unconstrained growth” into the future if left unchecked. 

“It’s very difficult to see the intensive use of the river and think about the long-term effects. We do have to consider it,” Jewett said. “As an asset, is it worth more to support habitat for wildlife, or are we just going to use it as a tourist amenity? This is something we really have to balance in so many ways, the way we use our terrain.” 

- With files from Robert Wisla