Heffley Lake stakeholders grapple with increased popularity

 | August 31, 2020

As heat waves settled in Kamloops and Sun Peaks earlier this month, crowds of people at Heffley Lake exposed challenges faced by property owners, the public wanting to cool off and those who manage the area. The situation has prompted both the local community association and the Kamloops Recreation District to consider future changes to manage the increased traffic. 

One afternoon on the B.C. day long weekend saw more than 60 cars parked at Heffley Lake’s boat launch. A few trucks and trailers were surrounded by other vehicles, dogs were running loose and more than 60 people including kids playing, floaters just offshore and sunbathers laid out across the relatively small area. The launch, in its current state, can comfortably and safely host around a dozen vehicles, depending on how many have trailers. 

The scene isn’t unique to the boat launch. Down the road seven cars were parked with more than 20 people enjoying the lake from Fisher Rd., and another eight cars were parked alongside the highway at Little Heffley Lake, bringing more than 20 people to the dock.

The higher-than-normal crowds haven’t gone unnoticed by those who live on the lake. 

Ben VanZijtveld, who has lived above the Fisher Rd. access for 21 years, was one of at least three people who had paddleboards, kayaks and other equipment stolen off their docks and shore this summer. 

While some have since been found by police and returned, others remain missing.  VanZijtveld said he believed the thefts were due to someone accessing the lake from Fisher Rd. 

He said in addition to the thefts the access has caused issues from noise and environmental impacts. 

He added he goes down weekly to clean up the site.

“I go down there once a week and pick up crap but I don’t pick up human feces and stuff like that. It’s just gross what they do there,” he said. “There is a sign that there is no vehicle access and no parking down there but if you see what they have demolished since summer has gone on there’s just no words.

“Everybody has a right to the lake, it’s not our lake. But you know everybody is coming home from work and wants some peace and then they’re partying down there.”

Mike Pontinen, whose family has lived adjacent to the access for more than 40 years, added the number of people using the area has trended upwards over the past decade, with the most significant increase this year. 

He said one of the bigger problems, in addition to the litter, human waste, campfires and visitors bothering the wildlife, is music blasting from the area at any time of the day and late into the night. 

“The music is one of the consistent loud spots, you know how sound travels over water. We have people five lots down which are complaining about the music,” he said. “We’re seeing eight or nine vehicles parked down that road by the lake…and we’re seeing crowds of people a dozen, two dozen sometimes, and for that space it’s barely two car widths wide.

“The vast majority of people that use that road use it responsibly,” he said. “They’re going over to just fish or put a boat in the water, going in for a swim…nobody wants to turn off that. But I think what it’s turning into, and this season has been worse than years past by a long shot, is a party site.” 

Pontinen explained he and other neighbours were unsure of which agency had jurisdiction over the land. A spokesperson for the ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRO) said the area is vacant crown land under provincial jurisdiction so public access is permissible. They added they don’t manage enforcement for public behaviour and residents should call RCMP with concerns about things like parties and noise. 

Campbell Bryk, owner and operator of Elevated Fishing Adventures, has used the lake to fish recreationally for six years and professionally for the last five. He said in the last two or three years he has also noticed a significant increase in the amount of people accessing the lake both onshore and on the water. 

“It’s definitely become a lot more popular,” Bryk said. “Getting a parking spot on a weekend these days is nearly impossible unless you’re there first thing in the morning. And its become a different use, it used to be the rec site would just be people launching their boats and getting out on the water to go fishing. But it’s the recreational use of paddle boarders, kayakers, people going to hang out at the beach, even though there isn’t a beach…it’s definitely a change of who uses the lake.

“It’s good to see that even there’s more people fishing on the lake because that’s the idea of these programs, Go Fish BC stocks these lakes. Heffley Lake gets 5,000 fish a year, non-reproducing fish a year so they put them in for people to catch and eat. 

“It’s just definitely a big shift in the use like the boat launch being super busy.”

The crowds haven’t been limited to Heffley Lake. Residents at nearby Little Heffley Lake said they have noticed an increase over the last few years, but especially in 2020 as the pandemic keeps people closer to home and limits recreation activities. 

Sarah Forester, who has lived on Little Heffley Lake for more than eight years, said since the installation of a dock a few years ago more people are coming to the lake. 

Though the dock was installed through the Fisheries Society of B.C. to increase freshwater fishing, Forester said they’ve noticed fewer people fishing from shore or dock or coming with boats to fish. Instead crowds of people take to the small dock each weekend to swim and spend time at the lake. During this year’s B.C. day long weekend she said she counted more than 32 people at one time. 

She said her family is happy to see others enjoying the water and area but have been disappointed by some visitors who leave feces, toilet paper and litter behind. 

A garbage can installed by the Thompson Nicola Regional District has helped contain some of the garbage, but is the responsibility of a lake resident to empty as needed. 

Forester added that since the dock was installed they have also seen campers, campfires, lewd behaviour and visitors bothering resident loons. Other visitors have been confronted after swimming across the small lake to use homeowner’s docks or toys in the water. 

“We love seeing people come and enjoy the lake, that’s great,” she said. “I feel for people because they want to go somewhere.” 

In addition to crowds on the shoreline, the Heffley Lake Community Association (HLCA) is dealing with an increase in boats on the lake. This year more shoreline erosion has taken place due to a higher than average water level and boats creating large wakes. 

“As more and more people discover the recreation activities located close to Sun Peaks and Kamloops, the resulting increase in lake usage is causing concern to HLCA members,”  HLCA board member Anne Terwiel told SPIN in a statement. “The two main concerns expressed relate to user safety and shoreline erosion. Many new boaters to the lake appear unaware that the boat launch area, the East Bay and the entire West Bay have a speed restriction and a no-tow restriction. In the centre portion of the lake, the mix of boats travelling at high speeds, and the slower fishing boats, kayaks, canoes and SUPs, plus swimmers, is a cause for concern. The universal lake rule stipulating 10 km/hr within 30 meters of shore is also being ignored. All these factors contribute to increased conflict with the numerous recreational users trying to safely enjoy the lake.”

Terwiel added signage has been added at access points to educate users and the HLCA is taking member’s concerns to FLNRO to address congestion at the boat launch. 

“The HLCA is not advocating for restricting public access, but for additional and separate access for day users to increase their safety,” she wrote.

To manage boats once they’re on the water, Terwiel said the association is beginning the process of using the Local Authorities Act to restrict ballasted boats. Non ballasted boats would not be impacted. 

“This is due scientific data that the HLCA has obtained from the LARRATT Study done at Kalamalka Lake. Ballasted boats require a 300 metre area for wave dissipation, which Heffley Lake cannot offer. As a result, the wave action caused by ballasted boats would have severe consequences to the shoreline of Heffley Lake. The operation of these crafts impacts all other lake users as well as the natural environment. They are also are more likely to transport invasive species, such Zebra and Quagga Mussels, which are not yet in B.C. but are making their way west across North America. If these mussels were to get into the lake, the resulting destruction would be devastating.”

Their concerns have been echoed in other areas across the province as the COVID-19 pandemic has been attributed to skyrocketing numbers of people getting outside, sometimes in ways that are disruptive and damaging. 

Johnson Lake, which has been plagued by overuse since a viral social media post a few years ago, has seen another surge in visitors. The owners of Johnson Lake Resort told CBC Kamloops they are seeing more tourists than ever this year. 

Noelle Kekula, recreation officer for the Kamloops Recreation District of Recreation Sites and Trails BC, said many of the 65 sites she oversees in the Kamloops District have seen unprecedented amounts of visitors.

“During COVID and the state we’re in right now, use provincially and locally is at levels that we have never seen. Rec sites are seeing numbers like we have never seen, ever. We are seeing use conflicts all over the place. It definitely is becoming more of an issue,” she said. “You look at use patterns and you try to build a place that can sustain the use and carrying capacity for that area but never in our time, I’ve been with the program for 25 plus years, and I’ve never seen this kind of use ever and I don’t think we could have predicted it.” 

Kekula said as they work to develop and change sites they must balance a number of factors including carrying capacity, sustainability and what else is available locally and provincially. 

“In the Kamloops district we manage 65 recreation sites. With that comes, you’re always looking at use, opportunity, variety of opportunity, I have to look at it from all sides…It’s a juggling act for sure, you’re always very, very, very cognizant of providing that opportunity for the people of British Columbia.” 

At Heffley Lake, balancing the use may mean the creation of another boat launch or public access site. The current site can’t be expanded any further as it’s neighboured by private property. Kekula said the intention of the growth wouldn’t be to increase visitor numbers but to disperse the current amount of visitors to avoid conflict. 

“We need to look at somehow taking pressure off that current boat launch because this has been happening for quite a few years. This year is I think more of an exception but still it has been something that we have been talking about for a few years.

“I have put a plea call out to Heffley residents saying I know that there are other public easements onto the lake, are those opportunities that we could look at for development of an additional boat launch to get the pressure off of the one that we currently have? I’ve been talking with one or two of them so far and some good ideas are actually starting to come. That will take time but we definitely are looking at dispersing the use.” 

In the meantime Kekula is focused on education to reduce conflict. She explained all rec sites have an issue with visitors who don’t consider how their use impacts others. 

“Quoting Dr. Henry, be kind, be considerate, be aware.” 

Fishing guide Bryk agreed that education could play an integral role in improving all user’s experiences. 

“A lot of people who it may be their first time going out don’t know what the rules are or guidelines or how to do things properly,” he said. “The education is the big part when there’s a huge shift in who’s using the lake. People don’t know what they don’t know, and that’s fine, that’s nothing against them.” 

Kekula also encouraged visitors who arrive at Heffley Lake, or any other site, and find it’s busy to drive a short distance further to one of the many lakes in the area. Those who do visit any rec sites should be aware of things like their wake, noise and litter to respectfully visit and coexist with neighbouring properties.

Ultimately, she said, her role is meant to provide public access and encourage B.C. residents to explore outside. 

“I get that there are private landowners but we also have to provide recreation opportunities for the public. My mandate will always be to provide for the public, the public has a right to that resource just as much as a landowner.”