Search and rescue sounds alarm over rising number of incidents

Search & rescue worries

Coquitlam Search and Rescue is raising the alarm over the future of rescues in Metro Vancouver after 17 campers needed to be pulled out of a remote site when a scheduled floatplane pickup was scuttled due to bad weather.

The rescue took place on the western shores of Widgeon Lake, a remote body of water 20 kilometres north of Coquitlam in Pinecone Burke Provincial Park. 

Since its opening 25 years ago, it has lacked a plan that would regulate the use of the park, something that has contributed to a kind of free-for-all where snowmobilers and mountain bikers, as well as hikers and mountaineers, carve out their own routes through its forests, peaks and valleys.

The pandemic has only accelerated the arrival of park visitors unaccustomed to the dangers of the backcountry, said Coquitlam Search and Rescue president Tom Zajac. 

“The pressure is increasing everywhere,” he said. “Already this year, we’ve seen people exploring into new areas that don’t see a lot of traffic.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, which oversees BC Parks, said the latest rescue was a “unique situation” but that they would be in contact with the floatplane operator to review the incident.

For others, however, the latest rescue is a perfect example of what can go wrong as large, ill-prepared groups strike out into the remote areas of Pinecone Burke. 

“In days gone by, I was on expeditions where we were waiting days and weeks for an evacuation. The level of preparedness of that group was pretty shocking. They didn’t have a plan B to walk out. They didn’t even have a day’s extra food,” said Steve Chapman, who in addition to his work with Coquitlam Search and Rescue, is both an active member of Pinecone Burke Stewards and the leading mapmaker of the area’s trails. 

“This thing, that Search and Rescue is your ‘get out of jail free card’ — as things get more busy, it’s getting more problematic.”

But both Chapman and Zajac said the bigger problem lies in the region’s growing population and appetite for the outdoors, especially among those without the know-how or training to handle the park’s rugged terrain. 

Most concerning, they said, is the transformation of Widgeon Slough into a regional park run by Metro Vancouver. The massive tract of marshland adjacent to Pinecone Burke is expected to see a large influx of visitors when it opens over the next year or two.

As the largest freshwater marsh in southwestern B.C., it’s currently only accessible by boat. But even when it’s opened to road access, a large portion of the land will remain hived off as a reserve and inaccessible to the public. Instead, both Zajac and Chapman predict Pinecone Burke will absorb the massive influx of visitors as people go looking for adventure away from the saturated North Shore. 

“People are going to want to explore further than Widgeon Lake. Then you’re in really remote terrain,” said Chapman. “It’s the perfect combination of difficulty and accessibility. That’s a sweet spot for incidents to happen.” 

The pandemic and the recent rescue of 17 campers, he said, has offered a glimpse into that future.

“COVID thing has just acted as a tipping point. Even though we haven’t got that access now, what I’m seeing is there’s been closures that have pushed people into more remote areas,” he said.

“When [Widgeon] is open, that’s going to open the floodgates.” 

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