Sarah Cox: A tale of two parks
My story about the decline of B.C. parks involves a concussion, a rifle, an empty park ranger station, and a four-by-four.
Three years ago, during a sunny week in early August, I went on a backpacking trip in B.C.’s Flathead River Valley with some colleagues. We began our five-day hike in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and crossed into B.C. less than an hour later. Once we stepped across the provincial border, Waterton gave way to a small but strikingly beautiful B.C. park called Akamina-Kishinena, snuggled into the narrowest point of the Rocky Mountain chain.
Few British Columbians have even heard of Akamina-Kishinena. It’s a remote alpine park in B.C.’s southeast corner that excludes valley bottoms slated for logging, and it’s only a few hundred metres wide in places. I’d definitely nominate it for the Most Badly Neglected B.C. Park Award, if there were such a thing. The contrast between Akamina-Kishinena, run by B.C. Parks, and Waterton, managed by Parks Canada, was mind-boggling.
Waterton’s impeccable trails were well-used by people of all ages, including families with young children. Helpful park rangers were on hand throughout the national park, which happens also to be a World Heritage Site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. We spoke with one seasoned Waterton ranger about our route and trail conditions, and witnessed another ranger quickly shooing a young Japanese couple back into their car after they leapt out to pose for photographs in front of a grizzly bear grazing on sedges. Waterton was like a Planet Earth movie in real life. In no time at all we saw a black bear with two cubs, a coyote loping along beside our vehicle with the sun glinting off its shiny grey and brown coat, a young black bear that stood on its hind legs and amused us by looking both ways before crossing the road, and a dozen Rocky Mountain big horned sheep thundering past, wild-eyed, their babies swept along in the current of the herd.
Akamina-Kishinena’s tiny ranger station was silent and closed, even though it was the August long weekend and peak park use season. We didn’t really expect to see a ranger at our park campsite that evening, and none appeared. There wasn’t a single B.C. Parks staff person to be found anywhere at all in this provincial park, even though it was just a hop, skip, and a jump down the trail from world-famous Waterton.
But it was the next day that I discovered just how neglected and downright dangerous B.C. parks have become following a decade of budget cuts that have reduced our parks budget by $10 million and left only one full-time ranger for every 1.3 million hectares of B.C. parks and protected areas. Soon after we left the official park campsite, conditions abruptly changed. Fallen trees crisscrossed the park trail, blocking our route. Dense foliage grew everywhere, making detours treacherous. When we couldn’t climb over or under the toppled trees, we bushwhacked around them. Sometimes we would lose sight of the park trail altogether and the four of us would fan out in search of tell-tale signs, bashing our way through the undergrowth, snarling our ankles in tangled bushes, until someone finally called out “Found it!” I wondered how many years it had been since the trail had been checked and cleared by B.C. Parks staff; surely this abundance of windfall, debris, and growth was not just the product of one ferocious winter?
Climbing over one shoulder-high tree blocking the trail, I fell. I still don’t know why; perhaps my pack snagged momentarily on a branch, knocking me off balance as I stood on top of the log looking for purchase on the way down the other side. My pack dragged me down, and I hit the left side of my head on the tree. My leg scraped along the rough bark, with all the force of extra body weight from my pack. I sat up, then briefly lost consciousness. I had been at the front of our little quartet and have a memory of the other three peering down at me from on top of the fallen tree, looking worried.
I still have the scar from the worst of that fall, a thin two-inch line just below my left knee. I joke that it’s my Flathead tattoo. It reminds me of why the Flathead needs to be permanently protected as a national park; B.C. simply does not manage its parks to a global standard. Our provincial trails are in disrepair. Our ranger stations are empty. Those very same animals I saw in Waterton, fully protected, can step across the provincial border during hunting season and be shot for a trophy because B.C. allows hunting in provincial parks. B.C.’s Flathead, described by Canadian Geographic magazine as a “nursery” for wildlife, deserves the same high level of permanent protection as the adjoining Waterton and Glacier national parks.
As for the concussion, I was lucky. After a day of rest, and with no more serious injury than bruising and a slight headache that soon went away, I continued on the trip. I did notice that my short-term memory for plant names seemed diminished, and when I got home I couldn’t remember the gym locker combination that I’d had for 10 years, but those things seemed minor when I thought of how serious that accident might have been. Back at home, after several days of spinning my gym lock dial, hoping my jiggled brain would put together the small puzzle of a combination, I finally threw the lock out and bought another one.
We spotted the rifle and the four-by-four on the second last day of the trip. We had spent some time in the lush Flathead valley bottoms adjacent to Akamina-Kishinena, and we were just about to cross back over into the provincial park when we suddenly heard other voices for the first time in days. Two young men appeared on mountain bikes, riding out of Akamina-Kishinena. One carried a rifle, although it wasn’t hunting season. Their dark green four-by-four was parked on an overgrown old logging road, even though the road had been closed to motorized vehicles to protect wildlife. But with no B.C. Parks staff keeping watch, former logging roads in the Flathead that are closed to motorized vehicles are regularly encroached upon by trucks and all-terrain vehicles (you can see any number of tire marks on off-limits roads and trails in the Flathead). Those young men could have shot a grizzly, coyote, or any other animal out of season without anyone taking a bit of notice.
We stopped to talk to them. They were cagey but cordial; they must have known it was illegal to take a rifle into Akamina-Kishinena park at that time of year. But, more importantly, they also knew that 10 years of cuts to B.C. parks mean there is hardly anyone left to watch over our wilderness. It’s open season on B.C. parks.
Sarah Cox is the Flathead campaign manager for Sierra Club B.C. The environmental organization is calling for permanent protection for B.C.’s Flathead River Valley, with a national park in the southeastern one-third of the valley and a wildlife management area in the rest of the valley and adjoining habitat. Sierra Club B.C. is collecting stories about the decline of B.C. parks for the system’s 100th anniversary. People can send stories to Nori Sinclair at firstname.lastname@example.org.