No longer a hidden gem: random camping sites on Abraham Lake get upgrades

·6 min read
Don Livingston is a director with Alberta Environment and Parks based in Rocky Mountain House.  (Dave Bajer/CBC News  - image credit)
Don Livingston is a director with Alberta Environment and Parks based in Rocky Mountain House. (Dave Bajer/CBC News - image credit)

You have to know where to turn off Highway 11 to get to the Preacher's Point campsite at the south end of Abraham Lake.

There are no signs or obvious entrance to the random camping spot.

Don Livingston carefully eases his truck into a ditch, which dips sharply to a dirt road marked with ruts and potholes. The road winds through a grove of aspen trees with camping sites scattered on either side. The sites boast a breathtaking view of the lake and snow-capped mountains.

Livingston, the southern director of recreation and ecosystem land management for Alberta Environment and Parks, points to tire tracks detouring through the grass, presumably to avoid the main road when it gets too muddy.

Soon, a blue Dodge Ram truck towing a boat inches its way down the trail, the trailer bumping and rocking as it hits potholes in the road.

The driver, a resident of nearby Rocky Mountain House who would only identify himself as Kyle, stops to chat with Livingston, who explains the Alberta government plans to grade the road and add gravel to the surface to level it out.

Kyle said he bought the government's annual random camping pass after it was introduced last year. He's happy to see the money making a difference.

"I think it's great," he said.

David Bajer/CBC News
David Bajer/CBC News

That statement is likely music to the ears of Alberta's United Conservative government and its environment and parks minister, Jason Nixon, who is the also the area MLA.

Random camping was free until June 2021, when the government introduced the $30 annual pass.  Since then, more than 50,000 passes have been sold, with $1.5 million in revenue going toward improvements in the David Thompson corridor.

Alberta Environment and Parks is spending $8.4 million over three years to install vault toilets, add bear-proof food lockers and grade roads at four popular spots along Abraham Lake.

Seven well-used trails along the highway will see enhanced parking and signage at their entrances. The department is also fixing roads, blocking illegal off-highway trails and adding toilets to the popular Bighorn Dam area.

TransAlta threat

The booming popularity of this area that stretches west of Nordegg to the Banff National Park boundary has prompted Environment and Parks to spend money there for the first time in a decade.

Visitors come to the area year-round. Winter visitors are drawn to the methane bubbles frozen in the ice of Abraham Lake. Summer visitors camp, rock climb, hike and ride off-highway vehicles (OHV).

Livingston, a 37-year veteran of the the province's forestry and environment ministries, said social media and pandemic-related restrictions on travel have been driving the crowds.

"The hidden gem of the David Thompson corridor has been dug up and it isn't hidden anymore," he said.

The area is considered a public land use zone (PLUZ), which has less restrictive rules than a provincial or wildland park. Random camping, where people set up a tent or park an RV anywhere on the land, is allowed under PLUZ rules.

Dave Bajer/CBC News
Dave Bajer/CBC News

The lack of amenities of traditional campgrounds and minimal enforcement of the rules have engendered what has been described as a "wild west" attitude among some campers.

In July 2020, Alberta Environment's Bighorn Backcountry Standing Committee found random camping numbers had gone through the roof. The report detailed garbage, piles of human waste and the cutting of live trees.

Areas had become damaged by ad-hoc OHV trails, some on adjacent land belonging to the Stoney Nakota First Nation.

In December 2020, TransAlta threatened to close the area to random camping due to safety concerns, Livingston said. The company operates the Bighorn Dam.

"This is an earthen dam and the dam safety engineers from TransAlta are really not thrilled with this kind of activity on here," he said.

"They've got monitors and and sensors and drains in the dam and they monitor the amount of water that's leaching through the dam. "

An OHV trail that ran down the side of the hill is now blocked by large boulders. TransAlta has blocked a site along the North Saskatchewan River to perform work related to the dam.

Environment and Parks has installed toilets and is fixing roads on the upper and lower Bighorn dam sites. New fencing blocks OHV access to the Stoney Nakota land, which is culturally significant to the First Nation.

"There's a little bit of a timeout right now for this area," Livingston said. "Until we can get things corralled this summer, we're going to be fixing some of the roads down below and kind of organizing the camping."

Bighorn setback 

The changes come three years after the United Conservative Party killed the Bighorn Country plan shortly after taking office. The previous NDP government wanted to spend $40 million over five years to create three provincial parks, four provincial recreation areas and a wildland provincial park in the area.

Nixon, then an opposition MLA, argued the plan would restrict Albertans from having full use of the area and accused the NDP of not consulting enough with stakeholders. He withdrew the plan in May 2019 shortly after becoming minister of environment and parks.

The move was a setback for environmentalists who have argued for decades about the need for stricter land use rules in Bighorn Country.

Craig Ryan/CBC News
Craig Ryan/CBC News

Devon Earl, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, said the government's enhancements are good news but need to be backed with enforcement.

She said the negative impacts seen in the area are due to a lack of people enforcing the rules.

"We really need to see an increased presence of officers on the ground," she said.

"And without that, all the improvements in the world aren't really going to make a difference because users in this area tend to have a mindset that they can do whatever they want."

Marlin Schmidt, NDP MLA for Edmonton-Gold Bar and opposition critic for Environment and Parks, said while the upgrades are a good start they feel like they are being done on an ad-hoc basis.

Schmidt said the changes do not address the larger and more significant impacts of increased recreational use on land and wildlife.

"We need to have some kind of recreational management plan for that area to try to make sure that we protect and conserve the area for future generations and don't lose what makes that area special for Albertans," he said.

David Bajer/CBC News
David Bajer/CBC News

The Alberta government announced in March that 19 new conservation officers had completed their training and will start work this season.

Funding for the officers comes from sales of the controversial Kananaskis access pass, implemented on June 1, 2021, which costs $15 per vehicle per day of $90 for an annual vehicle pass.

Four officers are assigned to the region but none of the new recruits are working there.

As for the David Thompson corridor, Livingston is happy to finally see money invested in the area.

"A lot of people come to enjoy this area and I would hate to see it shut down just because of a bit of misuse," he said. "So let's get it fixed up and everybody can still enjoy it."

Dave Bajer/CBC News
Dave Bajer/CBC News
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