Local residents are outraged by the disruption of wildlife and peace, and fear the introduction of COVID-19 from the revellers.
RETIRED HOUSEHOLDERS, some of whom have lived on the Cowichan River for half a century, say intoxicated recreational tubers who don’t practice social-distancing are turning their quiet, rural gardens into a rowdy carnival midway from hell.
“They seem to think the river is a roller coaster ride on which they can get drunk because it doesn’t hurt to fall off,” says Joe Saysell, a retired logger and fishing guide. “It’s getting really out of hand. They are getting more and more brazen all the time.”
Rosemary Danaher calls it “the Booze Cruise.”
She says up to 3,000 people, many with tubes rafted together, boom boxes blaring music and riders consuming large quantities of alcohol, will drift past her deck on a sunny weekend day.
“The traffic is so heavy I can’t even swim—I wouldn’t want to, so many of them are drunk and wee-ing in the river. They’ve really got to do something about the complete lack of toilets.”
Last Sunday, she said, one large group of tubers came ashore on her neighbour’s property and treated the householders to the spectacle of young women squatting, pulling aside their bikini bottoms and urinating on their lawn. Other residents complain of finding human feces in their shrubbery.
Mavis Smith, who lives near Little Beach where tubers pull out after drifting about two-and-a-half hours downstream from Cowichan Lake, just says: “ARRRGHH!!!”
She says neighbours are plagued by people leaving garbage and cutting through their yards to get back to the narrow stretch of Greendale Road where they’ve parked their cars.
Chris Morley, a retired biologist who moved to what he thought was blissful rural solitude 30 years ago, says the parking so congests the narrow, winding road that it’s often blocked to emergency vehicles. “Last week an ambulance was called and it couldn’t get through. One of my neighbours was blocked and they couldn’t get into or out of their home. About 5 pm on Sunday [July 26] I walked to a neighbour’s place a little less than half a kilometre up Greendale Road. It was jammed with cars parked on both sides. It was to the point where no vehicles could get through at all.”
Aaron Frisby, who rents out tubes at Cowichan Lake, runs a shuttle bus service so that people who want to drift the river don’t have to park near the pull-out point. He concurs that parking along Greendale Road is “absolutely a problem.”
Frisby says his tube rental company has provided a shuttle service for tubers, even those who don’t rent from him, but the congestion is even restricting his company’s ability to responsibly operate its minibuses. “In the past we have had a shuttle-only service for people bringing their own tubes and due to COVID-19 we have had to heavily restrict that because of shuttle capacity. What this has caused is people to find their own transport and park at Little Beach. It’s affecting our service too as we are struggling to get our buses in and out.”
Frisby says his tube rentals are limited to a maximum of 20 leaving every half hour in order to maintain proper social distancing but householders downstream complain that once on the river, tubers raft-up to drink and party as they float downstream.
“Social distancing is not occurring,” Danaher complains. “They get on the water [at Cowichan Lake] and start roping tubes together to make rafts of 15, 20, 25 people, then they start drinking as they float down the river.” So far this year, she says the biggest raft observed consisted of 53 tubes tied together.
She says the on-river congestion scares off wildlife like the blue herons and kingfishers which vanish from her stretch of river during tubing season. Saysell and Morley concur.
They point out that the Cowichan is one of only three rivers in BC designated a Canadian Heritage River of national historic and environmental significance, is a BC Heritage River and is the core of Cowichan River Provincial Park.
For more than a century it’s been a destination revered by anglers who came from around the world to fly fish for prized brown trout and steelhead. Daily catches on the river were once posted in the major newspapers in New York and London.
“There’s now virtually no wildlife from my place to Cowichan Lake, it’s all been driven off,” says Saysell. “And cans that litter the river bottom are death traps for crayfish which are crucial for the large trout.”
Morley says he’s observed tubers taking buckets of crayfish from the river and says the noise and congestion are stressing the larger game fish, which are already stressed by warm water conditions and seek refuge in the cold water in a few deep pools on the tubing route.
“We are still seeing wildlife and fish right up to the weir [at the river’s mouth in Cowichan Lake]. Lots of activity up at our dock and morning runs see lots of wildlife on the way down,” counters Frisby of the tube rental firm.
Of equal concern for householders, though, is fear that the heavy tourist traffic and what they perceive as inadequate attention to social distancing protocols will bring the COVID-19 pandemic into the heart of their rural community of mostly vulnerable seniors. “I believe there is a high probability that tourism locations like ours will be the root cause of the second wave of COVID this summer,” Danaher says.
In late July, provincial public health authorities confirmed that a cluster of COVID-19 cases linked to parties in Kelowna led to broad community transmission of the virus and that there are now 130 new cases linked to the partying, half of all active cases in the province as of the BC Day long weekend. “We now know the situation has shifted to a more broad community transmission beyond these initial cases in downtown Kelowna,” an official from Interior Health confirmed to media on July 29.
Danaher says she has a right to enjoy the tranquility, privacy and safety of her property but that it’s being compromised by the economics of tourism and that there seems to be a double standard for urban and rural residents. “If I were to descend en masse [into town] with a group of irate river homeowners and we were to trespass, urinate on people’s lawns and flash genitals in the process; if females were to take off their bathing suit tops, scream at the slightest opportunity, throw beer cans and garbage around and use the F-Bomb after every third word, we would no doubt be faced with a series of fines for unacceptable public behaviour and hauled off to jail. However, our ever-increasing Booze Cruise visitors seem to think this sort of gross behaviour is perfectly fine in the country.”
Morley says he noticed a big change this year. “Until this year it was mostly families, very quiet, very little alcohol. This year it seems to be mostly young people, late teens to early 30s, and lots of alcohol. The yelling and screaming is just unbelievable.”
Danaher points out that it’s a small, rural community and many of the householders are retired people who fall into high risk groups. “We really don’t need hordes of young people bringing the virus into a high risk area just because they think it won’t affect them. We simply do not know where these folk have been, who they’ve been with and what they’ve been doing, so the chance of COVID-19 being introduced into our high seniors population is real and alarming,” Danaher says.
Morley agrees. “Social distancing? Totally out the window,” he says. “I can see big implications going forward with COVID-19.”
That’s a correlation that makes Frisby wince. “My concern is that some are going to attack this issue as a COVID-19 issue. There are absolutely issues with idiots on the river but this is not a social distancing problem.
“Tubers are outside and keeping away from each other, he says. “There aren’t many activities you can do during a pandemic, but tubing is a safe one, which is why it is so popular. We just have to find a way to get everyone to respect the river and residents.”
But the social distancing issue for outdoor recreation is clearly a concern for public health officials as well as worried residents. Sharp upticks in reports of new daily infections appears to be related to outdoor partying in BC, Alberta and Ontario.
BC’s Provincial Public Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry confirmed in her official briefing that most of BC’s current surge originated in Canada Day events at Kelowna. And elsewhere, from Hong Kong and Australia to Europe, infections appear to be increasing again where social distancing was relaxed after new cases had almost vanished, a reminder that the risk is far from over.
Meanwhile in Lake Cowichan, in what looks a bit like barring the barn door after the horses have bolted, at least as far as complaining residents are concerned, Acting Mayor Tim McGonigle issued a warning in a media release July 27:
“The town is working with the local RCMP to get a handle on the inappropriate activities of a few unruly visitors who are ruining the enjoyment of many visitors and residents,” he said. “If you are looking to come here and rowdily let off steam, so to speak, don’t bother.”
He urged visitors to not gather in large groups and expressed concern for the safety of citizens. “Their lives should not be put at risk simply because of your desire to have fun with little regard for following required COVID-19 protocols.”
Frisby agrees that a stronger police presence would help curb a lot of the behaviour associated with alcohol consumption on the river. “Ten years ago, there was this exact same issue on the river, where there was a party culture to tubing,” he says. “The RCMP did a great job curbing this by ticketing those with open alcohol and even going to the lengths of having a human chain on the river confiscating alcohol from tubers.”
Which raises a question: If the activity on the river that concerns residents has been a subject of vigorous community discussion and provincial, regional and municipal authorities have a well-established kit of tools for managing the problem, why weren’t the alcohol, parking, littering, trespassing and crowds in a vulnerable residential district dealt with weeks ago at the beginning of the season rather than in the middle of it?
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.