Central Okanagan park caretakers are seeing the end to a way of life

“Sometimes I feel like I can feel the ghosts of old Joan and Jim Burbridge,” she said.

Lori Mairs is one of the last Central Okanagan park caretakers.

Lori Mairs is part of Woodhaven park’s delicate ecosystem.

Living for more than 14 years in a caretaker’s cabin set among the trees has given her unique insight into the park and, in turn, she’s become as native to it as the woodland creatures strolling past her door.

“I’ve walked these trails thousands of times,” she said, gesturing toward the window of the tiny cottage that’s been at the mouth of the Kelowna park for more than 100 years.

“I keep an eye on the western screech owl, which is a protected species. There are only 200 mating pairs in B.C. and two of them live here.”

Just past her back deck, there’s a pond where 200 salamanders are born in the early spring. She makes sure it’s secured until they feast on the mosquito larvae that have built up in the placid stretch of water, and move on.

Living at the nature conservancy park in the lower mission allows Mairs to also interact with its human visitors.

Sometimes that means answering questions and on others it requires a firmer hand. She’s regularly told cyclists to park their bikes in an effort to save the underbrush damage from their tires.

Dog-walkers are also turned around so they don’t leave scents that unsettle the wildlife. She and her neighbours have a watch system set up for bear season.

And, at least three times a year, she closes the park down when the wind picks up enough to blow over trees.

“Then I walk the trails from finish-to-start in case anyone is inside and I escort them back to their cars and let them out,” she said. “it’s what we do, we’re the guardians of the park.”

Just like she cares for the park, it’s done its part to inspire her —the two both contributing to each other’s well-being.

When she was completing her master’s Mairs installed 27 sculptures in the woods and toured 400 people through.

Her research, which dealt in some part with the intersection between nature and art, was presented in Cornwall, England, twice. Now she’s working on a book about the park’s history and collaborating on a musical piece pulled from the sounds in the park.

Living at Woodhaven is an all-encompassing experience and not the type of thing that would suit everyone.

It’s wild, and her quarters are small and old. But she says, shrugging her shoulders and raising her hands in the air, it’s perfect for an artist.

“It’s amazing how well-suited each of us (caretakers) are to the park we live in,” she said.

There are only seven parks in the Central Okanagan that still have a live-in caretaker.

The Regional District of the Central Okanagan runs the parks and its official stance is that these men and women are contractors who are expected to do a series of tasks in exchange for deeply reduced rents.

Top of that list, said district representatives, is opening and closing the gates. It’s a job they say can be done just as well by commissionaires and at the end of this month that’s what will happen.

It’s a change in policy many have taken umbrage with.

Thus far neighbours to regional parks that have live-in contractors have collected 1,400 signatures of support to stop the evictions.

At the very least, they’d like a chance to speak with the RDCO board to air their concerns.

That plea has fallen on deaf ears and Mairs and her peers have been told little more than to pack up. Mairs doesn’t believe that is in the best interest to the park or its neighbours. History, she pointed out, says as much.

“Sometimes I feel like I can feel the ghosts of old Joan and Jim Burbridge,” she said.

“They used to sleep outside (on the caretaker deck), year-round. They were the ones who saved the park.”

The cabin at Woodhaven has a rich history.  It was  Kelowna pioneer Harry Raymer’s summer home over 100 years ago.

When he died, he passed it down to his daughter, who in 1968 rented it out to Jim and Joan Burbridge.

In around 1972, Raymer got ready to sell it to Okanagan Land Development.

“Joan and Jim heard the bulldozers come in and they said — ‘Stop,’” Mairs said. You can still see several stumps where the first few trees were cut down before they stopped them.

The couple then went about securing funds: $7,000 from the then provincial government, $40,000 from the federal government and $10,000 from the Nature Trust. And then they bought the park.

They held fundraising drives for other maintenance costs.

The Burbridges stayed at the park as resident caretakers for 30 years, leading interpretive tours through the park and writing a field guide called Wildflowers of the Southern Interior of British Columbia.

“Joan held on to the history of this place,” said Mairs.

“Now I feel like it’s my responsibility to do that. This park has been occupied by a human since it was Harry Raymer’s summer home. It’s meant to stay like that”

The deadline for moving out is set for the end of the month and the effort to reverse that eviction is ongoing.

Petitioning for a change

The effort to keep park contractors on site is continuing, although not with a lot of help from local politicians.

Nancy Holmes started a petition calling to keep caretakers in parks a month ago and hundreds of signatures have been collected in an effort to reverse the parks’ department’s decision.

She’s asked to make a presentation to the Regional District of Central Okanagan board on multiple occassions and the issue has yet to make the agenda. Hopes that one of the board members would raise the issue on their own have also fallen flat. In an effort to keep pushing the movement ahead, they held a meeting Oct. 23 at the Woodhaven Eco Culture Centre and 80 people attended, three of which being caretakers from other parks.

“Coming hard on the heels of the rejection of our request to be a delegate to present our petition to the RDCO Board, it was important to have a conversation about the issue and talk about what to do next,” said Holmes in the petition.

“People who attended were very concerned that our council representatives on the RDCO Board are not asking hard questions of the Parks Director and Chief Administrative Officer and are extremely frustrated that the petitioners cannot present their perspective publicly at a board meeting.

“There seems to be a massive disconnect between the public’s expectations of a process of civic engagement and the board’s unwillingness to engage in public consultation and conversation.”

To learn more check out the keep caretakers in parks Facebook page.