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BC Parks reacts to 'driver anarchy' at Joffre Lakes

RCMP letter warns that someone will be struck if 'drastic action is not immediately taken'
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Cpl. Mike Hamilton was overwhelmed by the crowds at Joffre Lakes Provincial Park when he tried to regulate parking on a chaotic morning in early August.

For many Sea-to-Sky residents, trading horror stories about the overcrowding at Joffre Lakes Provincial Park is a form of sport.

Few stories, however, measure up to the account given by Cpl. Mike Hamilton of the Pemberton RCMP in an Aug. 13, 2018 letter emailed to road contractor Mainroad Group, and shared with BC Parks.

(The letter was made public thanks to a Freedom of Information request by local outdoor enthusiast Steve Jones.)

In the letter, Hamilton recalled a visit to Joffre in August when his efforts to stop hikers from illegally parking on the shoulder of the highway were no match for the volume of visitors.

"After approximately 2-3 hours, I was forced to completely abandoned this endeavor," wrote Hamilton. "I experienced what I can only describe as driver anarchy and mass crowds."

Hamilton witnessed hikers standing and sitting in the "middle of the highway" snapping photos, and holding up traffic as they waited for parking spots to open up.

His attempts tao turn away people from the park were met with "anger and frustration," and at one point he was "nearly struck head-on by an inattentive motorist."

Hamilton finished his letter on a foreboding note, saying that he is deeply concerned for the safety of park's visitors. "If drastic action is not immediately taken, I believe that a hiker and/or several parked (attended or unattended) cars ... will be struck on this busy roadway."

According to Jennie Aikman, BC Parks' regional director for the south coast, the agency is responding to the safety concerns raised in the letter.

"We are diligently working on developing some strategies, including some strategies that we can implement in the short term, for this coming season," said Aikman. "We want to ensure the public is safe when they're coming and recreating in BC Parks."

Though unable to provide examples of any forthcoming management plans, Aikman said that there has been some "discussion" around setting up a shuttle system to service the park. "All concepts like that would be on the table, and it seems like that might be a reasonable option," she said.

Aikman added that BC Parks worked closely with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) and Pemberton RCMP on a coordinated new approach to crowd management during the Labour Day long weekend last year.

Anticipating heavy crowds, a flagging company was hired to tape off both shoulders of the highway and direct traffic, and BC Parks increased its communications efforts, placing electronic signs near Whistler and Mount Currie that told the public when parking was full. RCMP also set up an "information post" on the holiday Monday of that weekend to stop people from parking alongside the highway, she added.

Aikman added that while some elements of the effort—which was referred to as an "enforcement blitz" among the agencies—were successful, others "highlighted the need for some improvement."

A tow-truck contractor was also hired, but Aikman said that to her knowledge no vehicles were actually towed. "People don't have a recourse to call in the event that their vehicle (is) towed, so we need to look at measures to address that going forward," said Aikman, explaining there is no cell-phone service in the location.

Local MLA Jordan Sturdy said that the situation at Joffre is emblematic of a growing demand for recreation throughout the Sea to Sky corridor. "Managing demand in the Sea to Sky is something we have to grapple with on a large-scale," he said, adding that while there are no easy solutions, he doesn't see the September 2018 enforcement blitz as an effective option in the long term.

"That was something that was highly labour intensive," he said. "It's clearly not something that's sustainable throughout the year."

Sturdy would like to see BC Parks improve its communications strategy with visitors and highlight AdventureSmart and Leave No Trace principles.

"We all have an obligation to steward our province and region," said Sturdy, adding that programming should be offered in multiple languages.

Aikman said that there is room for BC Parks to improve its communication strategy and signage, noting that Joffre Lakes has seen an influx of newbie hikers that might not "necessarily have the same awareness of backcountry ethics and stewardship" as longtime parks users.

That said, she believes that the littering issues that many associate with Joffre are overblown.

"There is garbage being left from time to time at the campground and on the trails, but (in) my experience, that it's not as serious an issue as it's made out to be in the media," said Aikman.

Moving forward, she hopes that forthcoming changes improve the visitor experience.

"We want people to come to the park, but we want to ensure that it's a quality visitor experience and that they're safe," said Aikman. "Those are the two things we're really focused on."

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