Sea to Sky non-motorized area update

On March 12, 2009, the Sea to Sky LRMP was amended to include Non-Commercial Winter Recreation Zones. One of those zones was the Rainbow Lake Twenty-One Mile Creek drainage. Intending to take advantage of this newly created non-motorized area and enjoy some good skiing on April 18, 2009, two of us skinned up from the biathlon range in the Whistler Olympic Park to Hanging Lake.

When we arrived at Hanging Lake, the Lake and surrounding slopes were totally covered in snowmobile tracks. Realizing that Hanging Lake is in the motorized zone, we headed for the divide that leads to Rainbow Lake and the non-motorized zone. When we crested the ridge above Rainbow Lake we were greeted by the sight of 17 snowmobiles on Rainbow Lake and many other sleds visible on the slopes above the lake. The noise from the sleds was unbelievably loud and the smell of exhaust fumes was nauseating. As we watched, two snowmobilers on steeper slopes lost control of their sleds and were thrown off them. The sleds continued to fall downhill without the riders.

The atmosphere for skiing was so unappealing that my partner asked if we should turn around and go home. Ultimately, we decided that since we had spent 2.5 hours skinning up to that point we may as well continue to our destination of Rainbow Mountain. At the area where the route goes between 2 rock ridges, the sound of the snowmobiles reverberating off the rocks was deafening. As the angle of the slope decreases as you gain elevation, it became apparent to us that snowmobilers descending from the upper snowfields would not be able to see us skinning up below them. This was a very unnerving situation to be in. We got to the top of the upper snow field near the summit of Rainbow and despite the extensive snowmobile tracks we had good skiing back to Hanging Lake.

(Photo: Bryce Leigh)

In the car on the way back from the ski trip, our conversation focused on the large number of snowmobiles in the non-motorized zone and how they had almost completely tracked out the area, making it a very unpleasant environment for skiing. We agreed that as the non-motorized zone had been recently created, the snowmobilers would need a little time to adapt. Probably a few weeks but definitely by the start of the next winter ski touring season they would be complying with the non-motorized zone. How naive we were. For the next nine years, snowmobilers would blatantly disregard the non-motorized zone with complete immunity.

After years of increasing complaints from non-motorized users, on December 6, 2017, Alistair McCrone, from Recreation Sites and Trails BC, told me that resolving this issue was his number one priority for the coming year. On May 18, 2018 there was a stakeholder meeting (representatives from public snowmobilers and backcountry skiers, Canadian Wilderness Adventures and RMOW) to “discuss options to protect the non-motorized recreation experience” in the Rainbow Lake non-motorized zone. This was basically a meeting to summarize the current situation from which potential solutions would be derived. There was to be a follow up meeting in the fall of 2018.

In August 2018, I notified Alistair McCrone and Robert Van der Zalm, his superior, that I would be away for 56 days returning on October 31, 2018 and to ensure that Monika Bittel (FMCBC) was included in any correspondence regarding this issue to ensure that the non-motorized backcountry skiers were represented. On my return, I learned that a meeting had been scheduled for the morning of October 31, 2018, despite not a single non-motorized representative being able to make the meeting.

A plan was presented at the meeting to ensure compliance with the non-motorized zone. The plan involved a staged implementation. During the initial stage, signage would be put up at the sledders’ parking area explaining which area was non-motorized. The next stage would see the sledders’ parking access road gated and closed during good weather days and open during bad weather days. If compliance wasn’t achieved through stage two, the entire area between the Callaghan River and the ridge along Sproatt would be closed to snowmobiling. For the first time in nearly ten years, non-motorized ski tourers were optimistic that with this plan, there would finally be a resolution to the issue.

(Photo: Bryce Leigh)

Needless to say, the snowmobilers were not happy with this proposal, although the area that could have been closed to motorized users representing less than 1% of the total area available for snowmobiling in the Sea to Sky area. Their opposition to the proposed plan was so intense that it was never implemented. The snowmobilers mounted a well-orchestrated campaign to prevent closure of the area. A major part of their energy went into educating snowmobilers about where the non-motorized zone boundary is and not to go past it. To the snowmobilers’ credit, compliance with the non-motorized zone this winter has increased dramatically over past seasons.

On March 7, 2019 Alistair McCrone held another stakeholder meeting, which I and Monika Bittel attended, to discuss compliance with the non-motorized zone this winter season. It was agreed by all that compliance was much better this winter, with very few instances of snowmobiles being in the non-motorized zone. There are still frequent conflicts reported with snowmobiles in the Hanging Lake area, which is motorized. Hanging Lake is one of the prime ski touring destinations within the Rainbow Lake- Sproatt area. Efforts to resolve this issue at the meeting were rebuffed by Alistair McCrone, who appears to have backed off any action to limit snowmobiling in the area, despite his previous statements. A follow up meeting to summarize this winter and discuss future actions will be held in June or July 2019.

While compliance has been much improved this winter, it is still a very short time (3 months) on which to base success. There is still an underlying resentment in the ski touring community that it took almost ten years for this to occur. A great deal of this frustration is aimed at the government for failing to take any meaningful enforcement action for the first nine years. Clearly one of the best ways to get compliance is to threaten the snowmobilers with the potential of making an area non-motorized. This appears to have been the catalyst to make them comply this winter.

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