Ain’t no mountain

BC’s trails are as popular as ever, but what’s behind the latest trend is hurting the integrity of the outdoors

Carlo Javier // Editor-in-Chief
Cover illustration by Annie Chang

Luke Buehler first hiked Joffre Lakes in March 2012. The Capilano University second-year Outdoor Recreation Management (OREC) student was still in high school at the time of the hike. He had only just started to develop a liking for the outdoors after bonding with his dad’s new chocolate lab.

Like most new and eager hikers, Buehler was admittedly unprepared for the snowy trek, recalling his own surprise and embarrassment after seeing other hikers ascend the trails with their skis. Down in the Greater Vancouver area, the coming of March signals the end of winter and the bloom of spring. Up in the mountains, however, the cold weather tends to persist for a few more months.

Eventually, Buehler and his friends reached the end of the trail, having passed three majestic lakes and the rocky terrain that bookends Joffre. Describing the hike as “one of the coolest experiences” he’s ever had, Buehler returned to Joffre the following summer. During his second visit, the Provincial Park didn’t yet draw the volume of hikers and tourists that it beckons today. While there, Buehler was still able to enjoy the tranquility of the outdoors, even snapping a photo of the now-famous “middle lake log.”

In the middle lake of Joffre, there lies a fallen log that floats on turquoise waters. In recent years, this log has become one of the most iconic images associated with British Columbia’s beautiful outdoors and is among the most shared BC-based photos you will see on Instagram. While Buehler was able to capture a moment of peace on the increasingly famous log, hikers of Joffre today are lucky to get to the middle lake without encountering a lineup of people waiting for their chance to take a selfie on the hyper-popular spot.

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Photo by Bryce Evans
The dozens upon dozens of hikers and tourists who wait in line to take a photo with the middle lake log is representative of a fairly recent phenomenon in the province. Hiking, and various other backcountry activities are more popular than ever – business is booming and #beautifulbc has generated over two million public posts on Instagram. Not to mention the numerous other social tags regarding BC that Instagram users utilize.

Yet a dark cloud is casting a shadow on BC’s latest trend. More hikers are coming to mountains completely unprepared, challenging steep slopes with mere flip-flops on and often without an adequate supply of water. As much as clickbait marketing and Instagram has generated a buzz around the outdoors, it has also misled and misinformed people – hiking is not easy, and it was never supposed to be about getting the most likes on social media.

Fake News: How social media is misleading hikers

Having worked at Golden Ears Provincial Park for two years, Buehler has had his fair share of interactions with ill-prepared hikers – and he has some choice words for some of Vancouver’s most popular local websites and Instagram pages. “They have absolutely destroyed Garibaldi, and I would totally put Daily Hive and Narcity and places like that to blame, or Hikes Near Vancouver and all those Instagram pages like Discover Vancouver,” he said. “They post these professional looking, beautiful pictures of this place and all they tell you is exactly where it is, but not how to do it, how to get there and how to actually hike.”

Blog and Instagram posts regarding BC trails are often solely focused on a particular image, and for the most part, they tend to be barren of any information regarding the hike itself. While the aforementioned websites and pages have certainly played a contributing role in reinvigorating the general interest in BC’s natural wonders, they have also, undoubtedly, enabled the lack of education that the North Shore Rescue (NSR) and other outdoor advocates have tried to alleviate.

Mike Danks, team leader of the NSR revealed that their call volume has seen a 30 per cent increase in the past three years. Although he admits that the rise is only natural as the number of hikers continue to rise, he does believe that social media has played a major role.

“I think a lot of visitors to Vancouver and new people to Vancouver see a lot of social media postings about these beautiful destinations and they don’t really understand the skillsets that are required to get to these areas,” Danks said.

Misinformation and general unpreparedness are often the leading causes of outdoor emergencies. Danks stated that the backcountry – any trail and campground that’s inaccessible by car – is often underestimated by novice hikers. “A lot of people are very naïve to the conditions in the backcountry and they would typically go out with runners, a sporty shirt and shorts on, and think they’re going to just zip up to these remote peaks and come back and have no problems.”

Another common mistake that hikers can make is to believe that the weather in the Greater Vancouver area will prove to be consistent in the backcountry. “Most of the summer, we still had snow in the backcountry and that totally surprised people because in the city, there were no signs of snow, but in the areas where there wasn’t a lot of sunshine, the snow wasn’t melting,” said Danks.

Danks also cited name recognition and accessibility of North Shore trails as potential double-edged swords. “If you do an hour hike on the Grouse Grind, you can get into the backcountry very quickly and you can be very remote and without a cell signal incredibly fast,” he said. “The terrain, if you get off trail, even on the front side of Grouse Mountain can be very steep and treacherous.”

Location-wise, the key rescue spots for the NSR include the St. Mark’s area on the Howe Sound Crest Trail, the Coliseum Mountain and Norvan Falls in the Lynn Headwaters Regional Park, as well as the backside of Grouse Mountain.

While the safety and livelihoods of hikers are understandably deemed as the primary concern regarding BC’s trendiest past time, there is another figure in the equation that often finds itself disregarded and forgotten: the actual trail.

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Photo by Callistus Ndemo

BC’s hiking problem

Established in 1911, Strathcona Provincial Park on Vancouver Island is the oldest designated provincial park in BC. The massive space encompasses nearly 250,000 hectares of mountains and wilderness and there were times when Brigit Forssman would be the only park facility operator (PFO) in sight.

The second-year CapU OREC student has been associated with the outdoors her entire life, having worked in the industry for many years. She has done tours in several provincial parks on Vancouver Island, and has also worked as a naturalist interpreter – educating hikers about the ecosystems that exist in BC. Recently, Forssman wrapped up a summer contract with Tiderip Grizzly Tours and is now giving tours in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve as part of mushroom season.

While the root of BC’s hiking problem can be traced to misinformation and the lack of education and respect for the environment, blame cannot solely be placed on the shoulders of hikers and tourists. As with any governmental program, BC’s main bureau regarding the outdoors – BC Parks – has its own fair share of issues to overcome. Proper education simply cannot be disseminated without sufficient infrastructure, and BC’s trails simply cannot be maintained by a mere handful of park operators.

“I can tell you a lot of the time, when I was hiking out in the backcountry, I was the only park worker within many kilometres out there,” said Forssman. “There’s no way for me, as a single park worker, to keep eyes on everything that’s going on.”

According to both Forssman and Buehler, while BC Parks is technically “in charge” of the provincial parks, operation and maintenance of a respective park is actually handled by independent subcontractors.

At the start of every negotiation phase, BC Parks will put up management contracts and auction them out to companies. The auction, however, works in reverse fashion of your typical bidding war. Instead of picking the highest bidder, BC Parks selects the company that will cost them the least. As Forssman put it, “Whoever bids the cheapest, wins.”

This means that if a company were to claim that it can maintain Joffre Lakes Provincial Parks for $50,000 a year with a staff of 10 operators, and another were to bid with the price of $30,000 a year and a staff of five operators – the latter will win. “They’re trying to make it so that the operators want to spend less money and want to use less employees,” Buehler said.

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Illustration by Giammarco Boscaro
The irony baffles Forssman. While Canadian tourism continues to draw people in masses, the necessary programs to improve and adequately maintain natural tourist spots just aren’t enough. “A lot of the parks in Metro Van are about resource development and resource management and not necessarily about public use,” she said. “It means that we’re doing all this tourism development now, which again, I think has a positive side – it means that people get to interact with natural spaces and it brings awareness to beautiful British Columbia – but we are also not putting in the infrastructure that we need to actually develop those places.”

These infrastructures refer to proper maintenance of trails, achieved only by having sufficient staffing. Without consistent voices of authority to help educate tourists and other new hikers, Forssman believes that the trails and campgrounds themselves would further suffer.

One incident she can never forget occured in Cape Scott three years ago. A group of teenaged boys were camping in the park and for some reason decided to ruin the already limited water supply of Cape Scott. “They took dumps right next to the river that was people’s water source,” she recalled. “The water supply there is really limited and it was really limited that summer because we were having a major drought.” Once Forssman located the group, she saw that one of them had passed out before finishing his toast and beans. The barely eaten meal was carelessly left by the doorway of his tent – essentially creating a recipe for a bear attack.

The systemic flaw in the way BC Parks manages the province’s many outdoor spaces not only leads to incredible understaffing of operators, but also to the very hazards that the operators try to protect these parks from.

For his second year at Golden Ears, Buehler requested for his manager to move him from patrol officer to maintenance, so he could really see the inner workings of park operations. With his new position, Buehler was tasked with many janitorial duties, on top of beach, trail and campground maintenance. Some of the things he saw were nothing short of appalling.

Arguably most shocking, was the recycling system – one that Buehler bluntly described as a “façade”. “It is written in the contract with the operator that recycling isn’t required, so they don’t do it,” he said. “We have bins out all over the park, saying that you should separate your glass, cardboard and plastic, so people actually do it, we have full recycling bins every day. As maintenance, we are told to throw it in the garbage because it’s too expensive for them to actually hire recycling to pick it up.” This past summer alone, Buehler and a co-worker collected over 10,000 cans in Golden Ears’ premises.

“The beautiful curtain”

As much as clickbait marketing may be ruining the very essence of the outdoors, Forssman believes there are developments to take solace in. Granted, there is a considerable increase in rescue calls, foot traffic and litter volume and governmental funding can seem hopeless, but at least people are going outside – regardless of the nature of their motives.

Forssman admits that ultimately, the increase in usership in backcountry areas is a “net positive” and could very well help the development and protection of BC’s treasured parks. “The increase in usership also means that we get a better chance of people actually feeling strongly enough about these spaces [to] take care of them,” she said.

Having lived in East Vancouver for many years, Forssman used to refer to BC’s mountains as “the beautiful curtain.” Her friends would often comment about the allure of the mountains that surrounded the city, but would never actually peek behind the curtains. With the surge in popularity of backcountry activities, Forssman is finally seeing that curtain be pulled back.

You could bet that most of Capilano University’s community members are familiar with Deep Cove’s Quarry Rock. While the initial lookout of the popular hike can often get very crowded, the upper viewpoint, where the power lines rest, tend to err towards the tranquility that most hikers seek. However, this viewpoint is also littered with hundreds to thousands of nails and shards of broken glass – likely from years’ worth of mountaintop parties, and little to no cleanup.

This summer, Buehler took it upon himself to hike up with a rake, a pair of industrial gloves and a giant biodegradable yard waste bag with the aim of cleaning up the viewpoint. Anyone familiar with the spot would know that it would take more than one trip to clean up the area. Buehler, with the help of some friends, eventually started regular hikes to maintain the integrity of Quarry Rock. He would even use the Seymour entrance of the hike, with the hopes of encouraging people to use the alternate – but longer – route, to lessen the abuse that the main staircase gets.

Any hiker who ascends to the second viewpoint of Quarry Rock today will see waste bags under the power poles. Anyone can help clean and when those bags are full, Buehler will happily go back up the mountain, replace it with a new one and hike the loaded bag back down. It’s a collective effort, one that isn’t bound by any legislated responsibility. BC is home – and paying respects to its natural wonders should be second nature.

 

For more information on preparing for a safe hike, visit: NorthShoreRescue.com/education/what-to-bring/

7 Comments
  1. Wonderful article, thanks for trying to bring so many issues to light. The previous provincial government turned a blind eye to many of the problems–likely because few if any MLA (or their staffs) have ever hiked a single BC Parks trail or gone to a campground. The lack of maintenance and supervision is a travesty, and I feel bad for the poor staff (if you ever find any, they’re spread so thin) who lack any support. I used to write hiking articles for one of the Vancouver weeklies, and I often wonder if I’ve contributed to the problem (although I did advise on proper preparation and attire). But I’ve watched the explosion of ill-prepared people flocking to the mountains, despite constant reminders from NSR and other awesome safety groups. Unfortunately, short of having an NSR member or BC Parks staff posted at each trailhead or at dangerous points, it’s not going to get better. Too many people have insufficient respect for the mountains and the alpine terrain. They treat it like a local playground where a city worker will be around in an hour to clean up the mess. Great article, and I will be sharing it.

  2. Check out an interview with me done by the Whistler Pique on this very topic! https://www.piquenewsmagazine.com/whistler/backcountry-at-the-breaking-point-says-one-enthusiast/Content?oid=2805083

    More articles like this are desperately needed! I won’t hike Joffre Lakes in summer anymore as it’s a gong show with many ill-prepared people and disgusting heaps of garbage and unsanitary conditions.

    It’s not just social media promoting the gorgeous parks; a big part of the problem has been caused by providing accessibility without sustainability and stewardship. Joffre used to be a challenging 4-hour or so hike with several rock slopes to cross and root scrambling. A few years ago, the government had the trail bulldozed and covered in gravel making it accessible to thousands needing nothing more than sneakers seeking the perfect photo opp. Access is fine but only when it is partnered with a sustainablity and stewardship plan.

    I have written to the past government asking for more funding for park rangers so we are able to sustain and protect the parks, and advising some simple solutions like requiring hikers to “pull a day use permit” that would be free but would limit the number of hikers on the trail per hour. Nothing done.

    Respectful hikers like me will have to go further and deeper to seek solace and nature.

    1. Thank you for your article as well and trying to change the publics perspective. I completely agree that in trying to better, we’ve make hiking too accessible in some areas and the lack of proper knowledge and education is completely altering the landscape. If change doesn’t come we are going to be victims of our own repercussions. Clearly getting people outside isn’t the problem anymore; and more emphasis really does need to be put back on stewardship and environmental sustainability

  3. Excellent article!!! My wife and I are not going to some of the trails (Joffre Lakes, Garibaldi lake, Elfin Lakes, etc) for reasons already mentioned. Last time when we went to Garibaldi lake and camped in Taylor Meadows campsite (in 2015), we were disgusted by the behavior of tourists (I refuse to call them mountain hikers because real hikers don’t do that) – garbage could be found all along the trail and piles of coffee cups near toilets (parking at the trail head) was more than a meter high (garbage can was just along the way but only few used it). That says a lot about people who were and still are going to some of southern BC’s best areas. They don’t care about the nature and the beauty of places, they don’t think about preservation of trails and safety, and the fact that they have to share them with other people. The only goal is to make the best selfie and get more likes and popularity on social media. Pathetic…

  4. Awesome article touching on so many points. Well written and much thanks to Brigit Forssman and Luke Buehler for all their passion and efforts to keep our backcountry beautiful. Stewardship isn’t glamorous and often goes without praise and accolade so thank-you. If we all do our part from education, awareness and even picking up a piece of trash it will make a difference.

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