The COVID-19 outbreak has lured many people with time on their hands to Alberta’s backcountry.
It’s created a new demographic of recreationists unfamiliar with dangers such as sudden weather changes, wildlife encounters or tricky terrain.
Avid hiker Jimmy Cameron was beginning his ascent of Mount Yamnuska during a summer squall when he spotted a group of teens struggling in the snow. The women wore tank tops and shorts, the two men had t-shirts and sandals. Nobody wore actual hiking gear.
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“I asked what the hell were they doing on a serious hike like that,” said the Calgary man.
“I could not believe they were that unprepared.”
Cameron says he urged the group to reconsider the challenging hike near Canmore.
“They turned back right away, thankfully,” he said.
“It’s not a good place for rookies. They had no idea that it’s a pretty significant hike.”
The modern hiking adventure?
Experienced outdoor enthusiasts say some of the newcomers blare music while others take risks such as posing on cliffs for selfies.
“We’ve been seeing it all summer,” said Andy Dragt, who runs a local meetup chapter of Slow and Steady Hikers, which has 11,000 members.
“There are a lot of people who are grossly unprepared.”
Dragt, a travel agent and outdoor enthusiast, says he’s seen a surge of younger people playing music on their phones or social media influencers looking for photo opps.
“It can be quite annoying.”
Waiparous and ‘Cityots’
The COVID summer has been particularly tough on residents of the village of Waiparous, west of Cochrane in the Ghost River region. The wilderness area – which is particularly popular with Off Highway Vehicles (OHV) because of its large tracts of public lands – has been overrun by what locals call ‘Cityots’.
“COVID has caused a lot of issues,” said resident Melody Long, a retired EMT. Long said it’s not unusual for hundreds of vehicles to pass through the village on Hwy 40 in a few hours. Many motorists do not adhere to the 30 km/hour speed limit.
“The traffic has increased exponentially. It’s like they have cabin fever. I can hear the highway in my basement – it’s a solid wall of noise.”
Dagmar Kuril said the situation has become dangerous.
“There’s random camping, people dumping sewage in the creek. It’s the Wild West with guns. They’re target shooting out there. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so unsafe out here.”
Trash, guns and wildfires
Residents said areas such as Black Rock Mountain on the eastern edge of the Rockies can see a dumpster’s worth of trash left behind such as furniture, used condoms and gun casings discarded over a weekend.
A wildfire currently burning in the area was caused by an abandoned campfire, fire officials said. It had burned more than 700 hectares of forest. Last year, the province upped fines for failing to extinguish campfires. The penalty can be between $600 and $840.
Resident Libby Graham says frustrations have been mounting through the summer. She stressed it’s not just the OHV community to blame.
“It’s people who have no respect. I’ve chosen to drive the speed limit through the length of the village with a guy in a pickup gesturing at me the whole way,” she said.
“I experienced a pickup dragging a huge RV swerve closer to me on the highway as I walked with my walking stick extended beside me in an attempt to determine my safety zone. The police have limited resources and aren’t able to provide the support we need.”
Cochrane RCMP Cpl. Troy Savinkoff says COVID has presented additional challenges for police, both in the backcountry where there’s been an increase in missing persons and in communities such as Waiparous due to sheer volume of people.
“There’s been a large influx of people enjoying our more rural communities,” he said.
“Some of them are people who are not used to being in these areas.”