The District of Clearwater (DOC) received yet another blow to its tourism industry when Clearwater River Road was washed out recently, inside Wells Gray Provincial Park.
The road is now completely impassable, essentially barring tourists from activities such as whitewater rafting and kayaking, a large economic driver in the DOC.
“We’ve got a lot of different trips that we do and so that road is access for all of our trips,” said Doug Trotter, owner of Interior Whitewater Expeditions (IWE). “Every one of those trips starts above that washout so, yeah, it’s pretty important.”
The road washout is just the latest in a string of events directly affecting the community over the past year: the Canfor mill shut down last year; the tenure transfer to Interfor; and the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the province gave the go-ahead for many businesses to re-open, and people began to show interest, Trotter and the IWE team got ready to start up on July 1, but the high water level forced them to cancel bookings — again.
“We’ve had three levels of the Clearwater River…all within 30 days that will go down in the top 10 or 15 levels of the last 100 years,” said Trotter. “That’s how serious the level was this year.”
He added that if circumstances have changed for the better closer to August 15, they’ll continue the season, but for now, they’ve shut their doors.
Trotter has been in conversations with Mayor Merlin Blackwell and Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Peter Milobar and one big question that everyone is asking is when repairs can start happening.
Trotter said discussions are in their infancy and it’s a long journey to the other side of the tunnel. But he wants decision-makers to look at what the area means for Clearwater.
“There isn’t activity in Wells Gray Park that brings more people to this town than the rafting on Clearwater River,” he said. “Everybody knows how many people we bring into town, you just have to see our parking lot on any given day in the summertime.”
Trotter and Blackwell both hope that the tourism and economic benefits of repairing the road will assist in getting a plan underway. But, if a plan isn’t announced in a timely matter, said Blackwell, tourists start to question whether the road is open and if it’s worth the trip.
He also said he has a letter ready for Minister George Heyman, environment and climate change strategy, about the issues, as well as the need for improvements to road systems in Wells Gray as most of the routes are one way in and one way out.
“Once you’re past Spahats [Creek] that’s pretty much the case and sooner or later it’s got to be part of a larger strategy of maybe loop road networks that allow us to not run into this problem again,” he said.
Improvements like this haven’t been suggested to government yet, said Milobar, but they are on the docket for his meeting with Minister Heyman.
“It’s going to be one of those projects, I think, that both the mayor and myself are going to have to keep pressing and making sure the government stays aware of it and the importance of it,” said Milobar.
There are some hurdles ahead, however, as the damage needs to be evaluated and costs to be approved by the treasury board before any plans are set in stone. But Milobar did receive a commitment from the Minister that they are trying to expedite the evaluations and are working with Forests, Land, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.
The condition of the road, the area surrounding the damage, the salmon population in the river and the river itself are all items that need extensive planning to ensure it doesn’t become a yearly event.
“You want to make sure it’s done properly and done to last so that you don’t have the same problem next year or the next time there’s a very fast-moving freshet,” said Milobar. “That’s really going to be the engineering piece of it and that’s where I intend to follow up with the Minister again when we continue estimates to find out why this wouldn’t be considered emergency works and why we’d have to go to the treasury board which can be a much longer process than if they go in with emergency works and get it done and fund it that way.”
While the road won’t be fixed by the end of the season, Trotter believes the road should be repaired and remain open because of the benefits to the district the amenities and landmarks provide.
He said while many “hardcore hikers” may still be able to access areas of the park, if the road isn’t fixed, many of Wells Gray Park’s “gems” will be gone forever from the tourist’s eyes.
“Nobody will ever see Sylvia and Goodwin Falls again, because it’s just too big of a hike to get in there,” said Trotter. “Nobody will ever see White Horse Bluff again, nobody will ever see Sabretooth Canyon again…if we don’t come up with a solution, those are gone forever.”