The Clearwater River Road suffered a washout July 2, 2020, about 12 kilometres up the road. (Submitted photo)

The Clearwater River Road suffered a washout July 2, 2020, about 12 kilometres up the road. (Submitted photo)

Unstable ground leaves Clearwater River Road impassible

The road provides access to hiking, camping and waterfalls in Wells Gray Provincial Park.

A project aimed at providing a temporary fix to the Clearwater River Road washout area came to a halt this month due to slope instability.

For the past 10 months, a group of professionals – from engineering and geo-technical design to forestry consulting and logging construction – volunteered their time and expertise to find a temporary fix for the road, which was washed out last July as a result of high water levels and lots of rain.

However, the proposed repairs were very technical and required a specific type of terrain stability, said Hans Wadlegger, co-owner of Wadlegger Logging & Construction Ltd. They were hoping to find solid rock to act as a support, but instead encountered rock and dirt. It meant no matter what the contractors did, because of the condition, the entire slope would just continue to fall.

“It’s kind of like taking all the bottom pieces out of the stack of Jenga,” said Wadlegger, one of the volunteers on the river road project.

The washout, roughly 12 kilometres up the road into Wells Gray Provincial Park, cut off access to popular sites such as Sylvia and Goodwin Falls and remote camping on the Mahood and Clearwater Rivers, as well as whitewater rafting and kayaking, which are all major economic drivers for the area.

“Obviously we’re all very disappointed,” Wadlegger told The Times. “Those (volunteers) had spent a lot of time, a lot of effort and then we weren’t able to accomplish that…What’s disappointing isn’t so much that we put the work in, it’s that we weren’t able to accomplish what we were hoping to do, which is get access for the rafting companies.”

The river road is a “business lifeline” for many, he added, and a hit to a massive industry in Clearwater like rafting can create a ripple effect, when it comes to other businesses, such as hotels and restaurants.

Rafting major economic driver in Clearwater

Interior Whitewater Expeditions has been operating in Clearwater for almost 40 years. A handful of their adventure trips start in the upper canyon, beyond the river road washout. Without a temporary fix, those trips are not possible this season.

In the last two weeks, IWE has cancelled more than 100 overnight trips and laid off half of their workforce, said Doug Trotter, owner-operator of IWE.

At the moment, the only access to white water off the river road is the lower canyon, about seven kilometres up. But seasonal high water means the canyon is unusable.

“At high water, we don’t want anything to do with it,” said Trotter. “When that river comes up to a certain level, we just wash our hands of the lower canyon and we take all those trips up to Sabretooth Canyon…it was always a great option, and for training our guides too.”

The lack of access to the upper canyons could mean a late start to the season for rafting, or no season at all. In 2020, water levels were so high, IWE couldn’t safely use the lower canyon for adult groups until the end of July, and couldn’t take kids out on their family runs until Sept. 2, said Trotter. By that time, the season was over.

Mayor Merlin Blackwell said the washout is another hit to the local rafting industry, which potentially brings in well over $1 million to the community per season. After being forced to shut their doors due to COVID-19 last year, rafting companies were gearing up for a short season when restrictions eased, only to be met with the news of the washout days later.

As the provincial government brings in more restrictions on travel and gatherings, the focus on local tourism is that much more important, said Blackwell.

“With another COVID summer and the high value of European tourists and Albertan tourists that spend a lot of money on rafting, we really do need to recruit out of B.C., people who are willing to do those trips at the half-day — it’s still a fantastic trip,” he said.

What happens next

With the temporary fix unavailable, it’s now up to BC Parks and the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy to find a possible, long-term solution, if one exists, to repair or even replace the Clearwater River Road.

“We have engaged an engineering firm to evaluate and propose what alternative routes might be available,” said David Kern, spokesperson for the Ministry in an email to The Times. “This may include repairing and/or utilizing portions of the existing road. BC Parks appreciates the impact the road washout will have on the local community and will continue to work with the community to find solutions while recognizing this (as) a complex project.”

Wadlegger said the professional volunteers are at the limit of what they’re able to contribute. The number of hours and effort already put into the almost 10 months of planning, any solution to the river road now could potentially cost millions of dollars.

“We’ve offered to BC Parks any place that they would see us being able to help, that our offer still stands, but the reality is that if there is a rebuild of that road, it is of a sizeable project,” he said. “It would be well outside the limits of what a volunteer group could do.”

Meanwhile, Trotter is focusing on getting through the upcoming season, utilizing the white water that’s available to them, while brainstorming possible next steps.

Many community members have continued to offer potential ideas that could return the rafting industry to its former location in the park, or even revamp the industry altogether. Trotter said he wants to see foot suspension bridges built in the park. It would provide access to the popular Sylvia and Goodwin falls, and could potentially create a 10-day adventure trip of canoeing and hiking.

“We need to somehow make lemonade out of a lemon and this is an opportunity to do it,” he said.

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