Coquitlam Search and Rescue is raising the alarm over the future of rescues in Metro Vancouver after 17 campers needed to be pulled out of a remote site when a scheduled floatplane pickup was scuttled due to bad weather.
The rescue took place on the western shores of Widgeon Lake, a remote body of water 20 kilometres north of Coquitlam in Pinecone Burke Provincial Park.
First designated a park 25 years ago, the 380-square-kilometre park occupies an area nearly half the size of the Kingdom of Bahrain. Since its opening, it has lacked a plan that would regulate the use of the park, something that has contributed to a kind of free-for-all where snowmobilers and mountain bikers, as well as hikers and mountaineers, carve out their own routes through its forests, peaks and valleys.
The pandemic has only accelerated the arrival of park visitors unaccustomed to the dangers of the backcountry, said Coquitlam Search and Rescue president Tom Zajac.
“The pressure is increasing everywhere,” he said. “Already this year, we’ve seen people exploring into new areas that don’t see a lot of traffic.”
LEVEL OF PREPAREDNESS IS ‘SHOCKING’
In an email to the Tri-City News, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, which oversees BC Parks, said the latest rescue was a “unique situation” but that they would be in contact with the floatplane operator to review the incident.
For others, however, the latest rescue is a perfect example of what can go wrong as large, ill-prepared groups strike out into the remote areas of Pinecone Burke.
“In days gone by, I was on expeditions where we were waiting days and weeks for an evacuation. The level of preparedness of that group was pretty shocking. They didn’t have a plan B to walk out. They didn’t even have a day’s extra food,” said Steve Chapman, who in addition to his work with Coquitlam Search and Rescue, is both an active member of Pinecone Burke Stewards and the leading mapmaker of the area’s trails.
“This thing, that Search and Rescue is your ‘get out of jail free card’ — as things get more busy, it’s getting more problematic.”
Chapman was part of an early group of park users who consulted BC Parks on the future of Pinecone Burke. But in the intervening six years, he said that the rollout of the plan has faced numerous delays.
“It’s been in a holding pattern for a long time,” he said, putting part of the blame on a lack of funding for the provincial agency. “And then COVID came along and that puts it on hold again. BC Parks has been overrun.”
A ministry spokesperson told the Tri-City News the management plan will continue to be under external public engagement until at least 2021 and will include a review of aviation in the park.
But both Chapman and Zajac said the bigger problem lies in the region’s growing population and appetite for the outdoors, especially among those without the know-how or training to handle the park’s rugged terrain.
My "I made it to the top" pose! A 3 km kayak and 10 km hike up a mountain but we made it to our own private lake! And it was gorgeous! . This is also my "I live here now" pose. Because there was no way I was going to hike another 10 km back down the mountain to our campsite. ♀️ . Spoiler alert: I hiked the 10 km back down the mountain - I can't feel my legs.
Most concerning, they said, is the transformation of Widgeon Slough into a regional park run by Metro Vancouver. The massive tract of marshland adjacent to Pinecone Burke is expected to see a large influx of visitors when it opens over the next year or two.
As the largest freshwater marsh in southwestern B.C., it’s currently only accessible by boat. But even when it’s opened to road access, a large portion of the land will remain hived off as a reserve and inaccessible to the public. Instead, both Zajac and Chapman predict Pinecone Burke will absorb the massive influx of visitors as people go looking for adventure away from the saturated North Shore.
“People are going to want to explore further than Widgeon Lake. Then you’re in really remote terrain,” said Chapman. “It’s the perfect combination of difficulty and accessibility. That’s a sweet spot for incidents to happen.”
The pandemic and the recent rescue of 17 campers, he said, has offered a glimpse into that future.
“COVID thing has just acted as a tipping point. Even though we haven’t got that access now, what I’m seeing is there’s been closures that have pushed people into more remote areas,” he said.
“When [Widgeon] is open, that’s going to open the floodgates.”
WHATEVER IT TAKES
Coquitlam Search and Rescue has been pushing deeper into the surrounding mountains during the last few years, training for an uptick in inexperienced backcountry enthusiasts.
Zajac said the rescue organization is working with BC Parks and Metro Vancouver park officials to pre-plan helicopter landing spots and work out the best ways to respond to calls to far-flung corners of the park.
“It’s quite challenging,” he said. “We’re anticipating a huge increase in people and associated rescues.”
But Zajac said the organization will work with whatever the province and Metro come up with. And while the latest round of rescues and increased park visitors paint an ominous sign of things to come, Zajac said there’s real hope that all sides will help to effectively manage risks in the park — as much for the volunteers of Coquitlam Search and Rescue as for others.
“As backcountry enthusiasts ourselves, we’re also excited about the chance for more access,” he said. “It’s an absolutely beautiful part of the province.”