Off-road driving training facility planned, as officials mull Hayward permits

Heavy usage forcing changes as thousands flock to Mission recreation areas

By Tyler Olsen | November 4, 2022 |5:00 am

The hills, forests, and lakes north of Mission have long been an outdoor playground for Lower Mainland residents.

But as the region’s population has grown, so too has competition for precious room outside. Amenities and parking space are increasingly hard to access, and age-old land use conflicts remain.

Change is in the air, though, as organizations, politicians, and community members try to address the problems.

At Hayward Lake, a jam-packed site just west of Mission, officials may create a permit system to try to get a handle on the parking chaos.

Meanwhile, at Stave Lake, to the north, a unique four-wheel drive training area is being built to give new drivers the tools they need to stay out of trouble—or get out of it when they find themselves stuck.

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A Hydro decision

Located just northwest of Mission, Hayward and Stave lakes are reservoirs created a century ago to help power a growing region. (The two lakes are connected at what was once Stave Falls—where there is now a dam and power generation facility. The original Stave Falls powerhouse is no longer in use but remains open as a tourist attraction.)

BC Hydro operates recreational facilities near many of its hydroelectric projects. And it does so at Hayward and Stave.

Hayward has a beach, a boat launch, and a dog use area, along with a beautiful hike around its perimeter. At Stave, the larger and more northern of the two lakes, BC Hydro also operates a popular boat launch, which is heavily used to access more remote parts of the massive waterbody.

During the pandemic, crowds turned to the outdoors for recreation opportunities. And although activity decreased a little this year, the usage numbers given to Mission staff remained staggering in their scope.

The Stave Lake boat launch saw an average usage of around 1,000 people each day. Even more people used the Hayward rec site, with around 1,400 users recorded each day. And the busiest weekends saw massive crowds. On one particularly nice weekend at the end of July, around 15,000 users were counted—about 7,500 each day.

And with a lack of parking for all those users, vehicles have ended up lined along Dewdney Trunk Road and a nearby forestry road. That, the city says, has created traffic and safety issues.

To address the problem, the city is urging BC Hydro to do two things:

First, it has pushed BC Hydro to expand the Stave Lake boat launch parking lot. Hydro has indicated a willingness to do so, but has suggested any such project will need to clear internal red tape and go through First Nation consultation. The city suggested it could help facilitate the consultation, with officials already working with local First Nations on other issues in the area. But city staff say the internal Hydro red tape is still “a sticking point” and that getting a boat launch built soon “will require significant political support.”

The other idea may create some pushback from users themselves. The city wants Hydro to implement a day use pass system for Hayward Lake. Such a system would put a cap on the number of users of the Hayward rec site.

Mission has requested such a permit system before but the city’s forestry manager, Chris Gruenwald, told council that Hydro officials “weren’t really liking the idea.”

This year the Crown corporation tried such a project at its Buntzen Lake rec site north of Coquitlam. A report on how that project fared has yet to be completed, but Mission is hoping the Buntzen experiment will convince Hydro to do the same at Hayward. To that end, council passed a resolution calling on Hydro to implement a day pass program.

The passes wouldn’t necessarily cost anything. For the Buntzen Lake program, all passes were free; users just had to register one day in advance ahead of time online. After Sept. 5, no passes were needed.

There were some challenges. Because passes could only be reserved the day before, at least one user complained online that it favoured those who could stay up until midnight to book a spot for the following day. Others complained that it left the parking lot half empty when users booked a spot for the whole day but left early in the afternoon.

BC Hydro is currently studying the use and capacity of the Hayward and Stave sites, a BC Hydro spokesperson wrote in an email to The Current.

“The information will give us a better idea on the volume of vehicles and visitors using each site. We’ll use that information to explore options for ways to improve managing access to the areas.”

The spokesperson said more information will be provided in the coming months.

Stave Lake's mud flats are loved by off-road vehicle drivers—but also an active archeological site. 📷 Rose Sauquillo/Shutterstock
Stave Lake’s mud flats are loved by off-road vehicle drivers—but also an active archeological site. 📷 Rose Sauquillo/Shutterstock

Stave challenges—and progress

The Stave Lake boat launch is a gateway into one of the Lower Mainland’s most remote—some would say lawless—areas.

The area is loved by off-roaders, shooters, campers, anglers, and boaters.

On busy days, as many as 700 vehicles use the road. Gruenwald told Mission council that makes it “definitely one of, if not the, busiest forest service roads in the province.”

But the sprawling size of the area and its remoteness has also brought with it concerns over safety, environmental degradation, wildfires, and violence.

Most of that terrain is overseen by the Ministry of Forests and the City of Mission. The city’s boundaries include much of the western section of the lake and surrounding forest, Mission also has a tree farm licence and oversees logging operations across the area. For years, officials found it difficult to enforce order across the western area, a problem compounded by the lack of cell service and prevalence of firearms, drugs, and alcohol.

Since 2015, when Mission completed a 2015 master plan for the area, “things have improved considerably since 2015,” Gruenwald said.

(Conditions on the east side of the lake, outside the city’s jurisdiction, remain poor, he added. “There are no clear lines of responsibility or management in that area.”)

A gravel quarry near Stave Lake will be an official training site for new off-roaders. 📷 Matt Ion
A gravel quarry near Stave Lake will be an official training site for new off-roaders. 📷 Matt Ion

New amenities

In recent years, Mission has used cash from its forestry operations to add trails and camping amenities its community forest area. Those have included a new loop around Devils Lake.

But one ongoing challenge has been striking a balance by the huge number of four-wheelers who use the area, its forest service roads, and the mud flats along Stave Lake.

When the city completed its master plan for the area, the Four Wheel Drive Association of BC (4WDABC) was involved and, like many other groups, pointed to a lack of enforcement of dangerous and illegal activity in the area. They also cited their own members’ involvement in cleaning trails and removing garbage. But the mud flats beloved by off-roaders were also once inhabited and have archeological value.

The off-roaders said that while “regulation is necessary to mitigate potential damage to historical areas,” they would oppose the complete closure of the mud flats.

Since the 2015 plan was adopted by the city, the focus has been on gradual improvement.

This fall, another step looks likely to move forward.

In the coming weeks, a gate will go up at an old gravel quarry near Sayres Lake.

The quarry has long been used by four-wheelers—and also for bush fires and garbage disposals. And soon it will officially be a four-wheel-drive training facility operated and overseen by the 4WDABC. The association will use the site to teach drivers both general off-roading fundamentals, and strategies for recovering a truck after it gets stuck.

The 4WDABC has been running courses for three years, including some at the quarry.

Tom Blackbird, with Sites and Trails BC, said the new facility is one way to bring more order to the area, while also reducing the impact on the environment.

“This way we’ve got an area where we don’t have a creek running through it, we don’t have trees being cut.”

One of the programs is a foundational course.

“It’s designed primarily for, you know, the soccer mom who just bought a brand new Jeep and wants to get it dirty,” said Matt Ion, the association’s communications director.

The other course is focused on using a winch and other techniques to get unstuck (and how to not get stuck in the first place).

The quarry has been configured to deter camping, and the new gate will further aim to reduce conflicts between different uses.

Some training occurs on forest service roads that can conflict with other uses.

“We’ve run into a couple of times when there’s people camping in that area and we had to go somewhere else. So having this designated area with limited access, we won’t presumably have that problem,” Ion said

The training programs go beyond just how not to mess up your ride. Ion said the pandemic and the flood of newcomers into the outdoors has increased the need for education.

“You’ve got a lot of people that are going out for the first time and they don’t understand the etiquette,” he said. Ion pointed to a recent garbage cleanup near Jones Lake, outside of Hope.

“We found bags of garbage that had been packed up and put beside the road,” he said. “BC Hydro has campsites just down the road and there’s garbage pickup there and people just assume, maybe they’re used to provincial parks where somebody comes around and cleans up.”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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