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River Access Concerns Cloud Kicking Horse Paddle Fest

RIVER ACCESS CONCERNS CLOUD
KICKING HORSE PADDLE FEST

By Nia Williams

Scores of kayakers converged on Golden, BC, last weekend to celebrate the mighty Kicking Horse river’s second annual paddle festival. This year, however, the event was tinged with concerns about the battle between the whitewater community and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) over access to the iconic Lower Canyon.


 

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Photo: Ron Hilton, 567399 – Shutterstock

 

Most kayaking festivals kick off with some kind of safety briefing, encouraging paddlers to look out for each other on the water and not take any crazy risks. Very few also start with a legal disclaimer that participants could be prosecuted for trespassing if they choose to run the most popular section of river.

But that’s exactly how the second annual Kicking Horse Paddle Festival opened on Saturday morning. Approximately 70 kayakers gathered at the takeout in downtown Golden before loading into shuttles to head upstream for a day of running Class 3-4 whitewater on one of BC’s best-loved rivers.

The silty Kicking Horse, which descends swiftly from the glaciers and icefields of the Rocky Mountains, attracts up to 30,000 rafters each year and supports six raft operators in Golden. Kayakers also flock to the river, which runs all summer and offers numerous sections of varying difficulty. The jewel in the crown is the Lower Canyon, where steep rock walls tower hundreds of feet above punchy, continuous Class 4 rapids.

Since rafting started in 1982, access to the Lower Canyon for rafters and kayakers has involved driving down a steep gravel road and crossing the CPR tracks that snake alongside the river. Raft operators say there has never been an issue with clients traversing the tracks, but last year Transport Canada inspectors spotted a group doing just that, and told CPR they would have to install a controlled crossing.

Since then both sides have been wrangling over solutions that will allow rafting to continue on the Lower Canyon. At the heart of the issue is who pays for the cost of installing a crossing and who accepts liability for injuries. After an apparent breakthrough in April, talks fell apart and culminated in CPR installing a gate at the top of the road the day before rafting season opened.

“The Kicking Horse is a special river and the festival is our way of celebrating it,” said organizer and raft guide Kris King. “It really affects me personally because the river is my employment and I’m being stopped from working by a piece of paper that just says, ‘No’.”

Rafting companies can still access the upper sections of the Kicking Horse, but the legendary Lower Canyon is what draws most people to the river and tourist dollars into Golden. The guides get paid per section of river, meaning losing access to the Lower Canyon cuts their wages by a third, making a further dent in the local economy.

We are unbelievably lucky here in Golden to have such an amazing stretch of whitewater that leads right into downtown,” said Lisa Roddick, a local paddler who taught a skills clinic at the festival. “The issue is important not only for the raft companies and recreational kayakers, but for the entire community. Golden relies on the tourism industry.”

KICKING HORSE PADDLE FESTIVAL

What is it?

The festival brings together kayakers from across western Canada for a weekend of paddling, camping and partying.

What did I miss?

Group paddling, water sports, shuttles, demo kayaks, boatercross race, whitewater skills clinics, and a riverside BBQ in the day. In the evening kayakers and locals piled into the Rockwater Grill and Bar for prizes and a party, with a spectacular set from “psychobilly rock n roll” band the Raygun Cowboys. Group camping was at the beautiful Golden Eco Adventure Ranch down the road in Nicholson.

TIMELINE: ACCESSING
THE LOWER CANYON

September 2015

Raft operators are informed Transport Canada has told CPR it needs to install a controlled crossing at the tracks. CPR says it will work with rafting companies to find a solution.

March 2016

CPR says it will not allow access to the river via the rail crossing. The whitewater community, locals and politicians rally support to challenge the decision.

April 22, 2016

An agreement in principle is laid out between the BC provincial government, raft operators and CPR to allow temporary access and find a permanent solution. The provincial government agrees to provide $250,000 to install a safe crossing.

May 20, 2016

CPR installs a gate and blames the provincial government for reversing its position on the deal.

June 3, 2016

Two BC government ministers release an open letter saying CPR were “totally unreasonable” and asked the province to assume unlimited liability and full financial responsibility for any direct or indirect incidents related to the permitted crossing by rafters.

June 13, 2016

Kayakers and rafters hold a rally in Golden in support of access to the Lower Canyon and vow to continue the fight.

 


Originally from Wales, Nia Williams moved to Calgary in 2013 and immediately fell in love with the Rockies on her doorstep and countless opportunities for outdoor adventuring.

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