With whitewater rafting season just around the corner, the waters near Golden, B.C., have become choppier.
CP Rail told rafting companies in the town, located 262 kilometres west of Calgary, that they can no longer access the lower canyon of the Kicking Horse River by crossing the railroad tracks, a path they’ve taken for more than 35 years.
“It is world famous whitewater rafting and the lower canyon is the jewel of that,” Mayor Ron Oszust told Yahoo Canada News. “It’s the portion of the river that gets your attention and gets that adrenaline flowing and makes you want to do it again.”
The rafting industry had discussed issues with the crossing over the winter and several options to make the crossing safer, such as installing a signal, had been discussed, said Ryan Johannesen from the Kicking Horse Outfitters Association, which represents the local rafting industry.
At a meeting in March they were told they couldn’t use the crossing anymore because it wasn’t safe.
“Rafting in that stretch is now shut down,” Johannesen said, noting that rafting season hasn’t started yet.
“It’s a big hit to the town. It’s big hit to the rafting industry. We’re fighting that one as best we can.”
No one from CP Rail responded to a request for comment, but a spokesman told the Calgary Herald there is no crossing at the location.
“The fact is, these rafting companies have been dangerously trespassing across the railway tracks for a number of years, potentially endangering their customers and guides.”
The place rafters cross the tracks is very straightforward, Johannesen said.
Johannesen, who also runs Glacier Rafting, explained that rafting groups drive down an access road and then walk a safe distance from the tracks until the need to cross, which he said takes about 15 seconds.
It’s not a straightaway, he said, but the sightlines are about 100 metres in one direction, and almost the same in the other. The sound of the train isn’t muffled by the river and echo in the canyon so it’s not hard to hear a train from a distance.
“That’s why we haven’t had incidents because it’s a very straightforward thing we take pretty seriously,” he said.
“We would still be happy to see some additional safety protocols like a signal maybe, or something where we can only cross at one area.”
If rafters can’t cross in the current area there’s no other safe place to enter the lower canyon waters, he said. In most places the canyon is too steep or the waters are too dangerous, Johannesen explained.
“It doesn’t mean rafting will end in Golden but it will be a big impact when there’s less people coming through town and less people in general coming rafting,” he said.
The lower canyon represents one-third of the rafting business for local operators Johannesen said, which is about 15,000 people per year.
“For us it potentially means a third less business as far as what people can book and what people can raft,” he said.
Johannesen said they’re still trying to work with CP Rail and the government to come up with a cost-effective solution so access to the lower canyon isn’t lost.
Mayor Oszust says closing access to the lower canyon is not an option.
The importance of that portion of the river goes beyond the financial impact, he said, which is estimated at between $3 and $5.8 million, not counting any possible job losses.
“It’s synonymous with Golden and that speaks to the impact that this would have,” Oszust said. “Ultimately, there is a solution here. At the end of the day the answer can’t be no.”
Oszust points out that even though CP Rail has said the rafting companies are trespassing, there have been written agreements dating back to 2003.
“We’re talking about companies that take people down some pretty amazing pretty challenging, dangerous whitewater and they’re being told they can’t safely cross a railway crossing.”
Of special importance to Oszust and Johannesen is the Golden Mountain Festival over the May long weekend, which this year is celebrating the rivers.
“When they raft the lower canyon they get through there to the float, which brings them right through the heart of our community,” Oszust said.
Oszust, Johannesen and the local tourism office are working with higher levels of government to find a solution. A petition on change.org has more than 5,800 signatures and letters of support have been pouring in from around the world.