Rather than a camp of vandals cavorting in a domestic watershed over the weekend, the 4×4 ‘snow wheelers’ who were caught in action by the local water utility, say they are actually responsible outdoor winter recreation enthusiasts with more than $1 million worth of toys.
A local group called the Okanagan Backcountry Association held its annual winter camp in five feet of snow last weekend in the watershed of the Black Mountain Irrigation District.
But they never thought to let the district know of their plans, admits Mark Turton, a member of the group.
He explained that driving a truck over deep snow without sinking in requires special 46-inch tires with just two pounds of pressure in them so they leave less impression on the environment than a man would walking.
They are driven slowly so the tires compact the snow enough to hold the truck up on top of the deep snow, rather than digging it up.
“It’s the technical challenge of making the machine go in a variety of snow conditions that is fun, and it’s generally at five or 10 miles an hour,” explained Turton.
Drivers watch for details around them such as shadow and snow drifts where the snow will be firmer. Most have modified suspensions and some have far more done to them. Some vehicles are worth $250,000 each.
The club has rules its members must abide by, including no garbage being burned in the fires, no green trees being cut, no ripping through creeks or mud and nothing left behind.
In fact, he says members go back in summer into areas they enjoy in the winter, to make sure nothing was left behind during their winter recreational activities.
However, Black Mountain Irrigation District staff spotted the camp last Friday and were concerned they might cause damage in the domestic watershed.
Manager Bob Hrasko said their concern was that the big trucks could tear up the landscape, which causes siltation in waterways that lead to the utility’s intake.
He also said some 4×4 vehicles were driven through Belgo Creek over the weekend, just above the domestic water intake.
Turton said the members of his group actually drove miles up the creek to a forest service road where there was a bridge over the creek to ensure they did not drive through the creek.
And, that’s the problem, he added.
“It only takes one person tearing up a meadow to tarnish us all, yet we’re responsible users of the watershed and don’t do that sort of thing,” Turton said.
In fact, he said their group was formed just in the past couple of years, with discussions with forests ministry staff, to act as mentors for other off-road enthusiasts who are not responsible now in how they play in the bush.
“We’ve been snow wheeling for 37 years in that area. We were in Graystokes Provincial Park before it became a park,” he said.
Graystokes Park was created in 2001 to protect a complex of swamps and streams and preserve them as wildlife habitat.
It’s closed to all motorized vehicles except snowmobiles.
The group of 25 camped over the weekend adjacent to the park, leading Hrasko to express concerns they might be planning to use the parkland.
However, Turton said “tread lightly” is today’s mantra among responsible 4×4 enthusiasts.
He says the group welcomes new members interested in learning more about their sport, but willing to meet the expectations of responsible off-road behaviour.
Turton has also met with Hrasko to talk about their activities.
“We’re pleased they cleaned up their camp so well,” commented Hrasko, but groups who want to be active in the watershed should talk to the local water utility so both sides are clear on the type of activities and behaviour that are appropriate and permitted in a domestic watershed.
Most of the Okanagan is domestic watershed.
“It’s our job to watch what’s going on in our watershed. We’ll work with other stakeholders if they are willing to be aware of our needs,” commented Hrasko.
“Some people out there do their share; some do more; and others don’t. We haul out bags of garbage from our watershed all the time,” he commented.
It’s illegal to destroy grasslands, wetlands and riparian areas and fines range from $500 to $600.