Discussion Paper: Summer Management Options for Semaphore Lakes

July 4th, 2018
Submitted to:
- BC Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development and BC Rec Sites and Trails
- BC Minister of Environment & Climate Change Strategy and BC Parks
- St’át’imc Chiefs Council, Lillooet Tribal Council, and Lil’wat Nation
- Squamish Lillooet Regional District
- Federation of Mountain Clubs of BC, Alpine Club of Canada Whistler and Vancouver sections, British Columbia Mountaineering Club, Pemberton Wilderness Association and the Pemberton Valley Trail Association

Preamble:

Protecting subalpine meadows from damage by recreational users is not unreasonably expensive or complicated. An outhouse, food cache, and collection of well-placed tent pads is all that is needed to ensure that Semaphore Lakes can be enjoyed by future generations. My goal with this document is to facilitate discussion that will lead to widespread support for a handful of reasonable measures to be implemented in the near future at Semaphore Lakes.

I’d be grateful for the following feedback:

  • Please let me know if your organization is supportive of the proposed actions described in this document.
Locomotive Mountain rises above Semaphore Lakes

Introduction:

Semaphore Lakes is a spectacular subalpine meadow located approximately 35 km northwest of Pemberton as the bird flies. Partly due to promotion by government tourism agencies, visitation levels have increased dramatically in recent years. The sensitive subalpine meadows are being damaged with each passing weekend in the summer season because the trail and camping area is unsanctioned and has no trail improvements, outhouse, or tent pads. In 2018, I anticipate that visitation levels will grow even higher.

The Semaphore Lakes Area

This discussion paper provides an overview of the situation and potential solutions and was written by Steve Jones. I am an individual trail user and enjoy visiting Semaphore Lakes. I am one of many people who are ready and willing to contribute volunteer hours once a management direction has been chosen by the responsible authorities, approval for the work has been provided, and a budget has been allocated.

Location and Access:

The Semaphore Lakes trailhead is a 44km drive from Pemberton and is located at an elevation of 1360 meters along the Hurley Forest Service Road. The “Hurley” is a critical summer link to Gold Bridge and a number of other communities and so it is plowed each spring and maintained to a standard that is acceptable for travel by 2WD cars.

The Semaphore Lake area and trail is shown in blue in the upper left hand corner

The parking area can only fit a small handful of vehicles so visitors frequently parallel park along the side the road. This appears to be a workable situation given the low travel speeds at Railroad Pass and the width of the road.

The main parking area
Roadside parking in September of 2015. Source http://www.buntzenlake.ca/semaphore-lakes/

The ability to drive to a trailhead at over 1350 meters in a 2WD vehicle is a unique feature of Semaphore Lakes. For comparison, the Garibaldi Lake trailhead is at an elevation of 580 meters and the Elfin Lakes trailhead is at an elevation of 975 meters. Joffre Lakes is most similar to Semaphore Lakes with a trailhead at an elevation of 1240 meters.

In the winter, the Hurley remains unplowed and is a very popular snowmobile route. This discussion paper is focused on summer use.

Route:

It’s important to note that there is no sanctioned trail at Semaphore Lakes. There is a footpath that has become well-worn with increasing levels of use but there are no boardwalks or bridges and it will need upgrades to help control erosion and trail braiding.

Portions of the trail need re-routing or the installation of boardwalk

The route itself is much shorter than other hikes in Southwest BC that provide access to similar subalpine meadows. The heart of the meadows are reached after only 2.5 km of distance and 350 m of elevation gain.

The Semaphore Lakes Route

Camping and the Alpine Environment:

Semaphore Lakes is the most accessible subalpine meadow in Southwest BC for backcountry camping.

It is a unique area because it contains everything that visitors would want in an alpine environment:

  • Multiple lakes, tarns, and creeks

It is important for members of the public to be able to visit these alpine environments to gain a greater appreciation for the impact of climate change.

Unfortunately, the lack of a designated camping area leads to a negative impact on the meadow:

Some of the key issues are:

  1. There are no designated tent pad locations and so many areas across the meadow become damaged. Visitors are not always knowledgeable about which areas may be most sensitive to being covered by a tent.

Promotion:

Despite the fact that there is no sanctioned trail or recreation site at Semaphore Lakes and no money has been invested in maintenance, signage or upgrades, it is actively promoted by multiple levels of government.

Semaphore Lakes was highlighted by Destination BC in a 2016 story titled “11 Places Locals Swim in BC” (http://blog.hellobc.com/11-places-locals-are-swimming-in-bc-this-week/) and was the HelloBC photo of the day on September 30th, 2016.

Semaphore Lakes was featured in the 2016–2017 Tourism Pemberton Visitor’s Guide:

“For the adrenaline lovers, a popular scramble is Locomotive Mountain, just off the Hurley in the Semaphore lakes area. It’s a great way to be in the alpine without being too far from town. A well travelled rooty trail ascends through trees for roughly an hour before opening into pleasant alpine meadows
of heather, with Locomotive rising in the distance. A small lake is an excellent place to set up camp or pause for a lunch and a photo before beginning the
three-hour scramble up Locomotive. Depending on the time of year and snow melt, glacier crampons or ice axes may be necessary to aid in parts of the ascent, though the expansive views of the entire valley at the summit will be well worth carrying the extra gear.” (http://www.tourismpembertonbc.com/2016-pemberton-visitors-guide-web.pdf)

Semaphore Lakes has also been featured in multiple guidebooks and the trail can be found on most or all of the websites that feature trail directories for Southwest BC.

In May of 2018, Explore Magazine listed it as one of the “10 of the Best Hiking Trails Near Whistler, British Columbia” (https://www.explore-mag.com/10-of-the-Best-Hiking-Trails-Near-Whistler-British-Columbia)

Increased Pressure:

None of the areas in the Sea to Sky area can be viewed in isolation because they are all visited by the same group of people. Unfortunately, recent changes to a number of similar areas may cause visitation levels at Semaphore Lakes to grow even more quickly than otherwise anticipated. Here are three examples:

Joffre Lakes trail improvements and the no-dogs rule
After improvements were made to the Joffre Lakes trail, visitation has skyrocketed which has likely already had a knock-on impact to Semaphore Lakes. To try to bring the situation at Joffre Lakes under control, it was announced in the spring of 2018 that visitors with dogs are no longer allowed. I expect that many of these visitors will now travel to Semaphore Lakes instead.

Reservations at Garibaldi Provincial Park
Just a few years ago you could show up to Garibaldi Provincial Park on any day of the year to go backcountry camping without a reservation. If the main campgrounds were full, there was an overflow area available. As visitation levels increased, BC Parks transitioned to a reservation system and 2018 is the first year that you will need a reservation to camp at any campground or wilderness area of the park at any time of the year. As of the writing of this article, the Elfin Lakes, Garibaldi Lake and Taylor Meadows campgrounds are fully booked for every Saturday night between now and the end of August. There are a lot of people that are looking for new areas to go backcountry camping.

The closure of Keyhole Falls Hot Springs:
In 2016, the Keyhole Falls Hot Springs Recreation Site was closed due to a number of bears that had become food habituated. That closure remains in place in 2018 and contributes to additional pressure on nearby areas. It also highlights the risk of continuing to allow backcountry camping to occur at such a high level at Semaphore Lakes without installing a food cache.

First Nations:

The Semaphore Lake area is in the territory of the St’át’imc Nation.

Source: http://www.statimc.net/

Local Government Boundaries and Existing Management Guidance:

Although the area in question is very small, it straddles Squamish-Lillooet Regional District electoral areas A and C which means that it also straddles the Sea to Sky and the Lillooet Land and Resource Management Plans. This boundary quirk is likely based on the watersheds. Two of lakes/tarns in the meadow drain south into Railroad Creek and the other drains north into Donelly Creek. It is my understanding that non-motorized non-commercial recreational use is consistent with both of the relevant Land and Resource Management Plans.

SLRD Electoral Area A in blue and C in red with the yellow outline showing Semaphore Lakes area and trail

The area in question falls just outside of the region that was considered in the Sea to Sky corridor trail strategy. I have edited the following map from the Sea to Sky Corridor Recreation Trail Strategy with a blue dot to show the approximate location of Semaphore Lakes.

Source: http://www.sitesandtrailsbc.ca/documents/sea-to-sky-trail-strategy.pdf

Volunteers and Community Support:

There are currently no opportunities for volunteers to provide help at Semaphore Lakes because the trail and camping area are unsanctioned. I believe that many volunteers will make themselves available once volunteer opportunities exist. I initiated a petition in 2016 to encourage the government to convert the area into a park (which is one of the options discussed below,) and during the period of time during which it was open it gathered over 200 signatures.

Here is a sample of some of the messages on the petition that demonstrate the high level of support in the community:

“I’m signing because I care about the environment. This is a beautiful place but last weekend I found live trees in the alpine were cut down and burnt. This fragile environment needs to be protected. Let’s keep this place pristine for future visitors and our children.”
- Vincent Chan-Ying

“This is a beautiful alpine area with ultra easy access. If we don’t make it a park soon, I fear it much of the area will deteriorate with the increased hiking / camping traffic.”

- Clint Landrock

“Protecting ecologically sensitive areas and providing quality outdoor recreation opportunities can go hand in hand with foresight and a small investment in BC Parks — designating new parks, expanding existing parks, and improving infrastructure to reduce the impact of visitors.”
- Jennifer Pelletier

The Semaphore Lakes area provides easy access to incredible backcountry activities including skiing, hiking, camping, and mountaineering. Because of this, it has become increasingly popular in recent years. The effects of the high traffic to this area can already be seen on the sensitive alpine ecosystem, and I fear that it will continue to be degraded without the facilities that a park would provide.
- Breanne Johnson

This is a great area that should be protected for all to enjoy into the future. With the other local parks (Garibaldi and Joffre) at capacity it is time for us to create some more and manage trails and camping.
- Ben Singleton-Polster

I was a BC Parks Ranger at one time and with a small amount of effort from the responsible Ministry and the BC Legislature this area could be declared a Class A Provincial Park and as well a small amount of money directed towards building basic structures, such as pit toilets and tent pads. Lets make it work, its worth it!
- Wayne Lloyd

I’m signing because it’s a beautiful area that won’t stay beautiful for long with the amount of people heading up there and no resources like outhouse/camping plots that would limit the human impact on the meadows.
- Vera Khramova

The pressure on easily-accessible alpine areas such as Semaphore Lakes has increased dramatically in recent years. The area needs official protection and addition of facilities to prevent further damage, and would make a spectacular BC park.
- Andy Gibb

The government must acknowledge that volunteers are not a limitless resource. The Alpine Club of Canada is currently building a world-class hut system on the Spearhead Traverse, the British Columbia Mountaineering Club is deeply involved in the development of recreation opportunities at Watersprite Lake, and the Pemberton Wildlife Association has responsibility for the 730 hectare Tenquille-Owl Lakes recreation site. As the tourism industry has grown, volunteer organizations have contributed in a significant way while funding for the BC Parks and BC Recreation Sites and Trails system has remained relatively static.

I do believe that a volunteer organization and individual volunteers will help at Semaphore Lakes but the government must ensure that the volunteers have the resources they need to be properly supported and that the management direction is supported by stakeholders.

Management Options:

One of the most significant challenges in considering management options is capacity planning.

There are two reasons for this:

  1. Knowledge of current visitation levels is based on anecdotal observations and social media images. Even if accurate baseline numbers existed, the trajectory of continued growth would be difficult to predict. In the entire Sea to Sky region, it has proven difficult to predict use patterns in recent history.

Given the small size of the alpine meadow, a dramatic increase in visitor numbers would change the nature of the experience in a negative way. I suggest that the emphasis of management actions should be to reduce the impact of visitors without trying to increase the number of visitors. Given that any improvements will likely increase visitor numbers to some extent, I feel strongly that it is important to do-it-right the first time and that any half-measures may cause more harm than good. For example, installing an outhouse without also providing a designated camping area and tent pads could result in a reduction of human waste but an increase in damage associated with dispersed camping.

In preparing a plan of action, these are the required decisions:

Trail Routing:
A) The most obvious option is to keep the current trailhead location and trail routing. The path up the side of the creek is very aesthetic and starts from the high point of the road.

B) Another possible option is to fully decommission the existing route, to make it illegal to park at the top of the pass, and to build a new trail from the south or north of the pass that would have a larger amount of elevation gain and distance. A motivation for this could be that it may easier to increase parking capacity at those alternate locations and a longer trail may help to limit visitor numbers to more reasonable levels. Downsides are that there will be significant pushback, it will be hard to enforce, and construction of an entirely new trail would be expensive. This would also create issues for parties that wish to engage in scrambling or mountaineering trips within a two-day weekend and require easy access to the meadow area so that they have ample time to push further into the mountains.

Trail Difficulty:
A) The minimum that should be done is minor re-routing, improved marking, and the installation of boardwalks and stairs in sensitive areas to prevent trail erosion.

B) The trail could also be upgraded to a higher standard (wider path, smoother surface, smaller vertical steps, etc.) Various formal standards exist for classifying trails. I prefer to describe backcountry trails using the following scale:

  • Suitable for adults in good physical condition

There is no doubt that if the trail were upgraded, usage would increase and more visitors would be able to experience the area. That would necessitate much larger investments in the parking area and the alpine meadow area and also a much larger budget for ongoing maintenance.

Camping Area:
There are a large number of options for establishing an area for tents. I strongly suspect that wooden tent pads will need to be constructed although it may be possible to create flat tent pads in the moraine area with small machinery or a large quantity of human labour.

A) The Foot of the Moraine
When conditions allow, many visitors camp near the foot of the moraine. This general location has the advantage of access to a freshwater creek from from melting snowfields below Lomocotive Mountain. Another advantage of establishing a camping area on the rocks is that it is more robust and so the trails, cooking areas, and tent pads will not damage the meadows.

Source: Instagram — robncampbell
The foot of the moraine could be used as a designated camping area

B) The Upper Meadows
The upper meadows are currently a popular location for campers. They are close to the upper lake and the location provides excellent views of the Train Glacier. This location is also the first area of meadow that visitors reach along the trail.

Camping in the upper meadows. Source: Instagram — user creeks.and.peaks

Below are three diagrams from three different perspectives that show these two options. Option A (moraine) is shown in blue and Option B (upper meadows) is shown in red.

Looking from the North into the Pemberton Valley
Looking from the South
North is up in this map

Other Amenities and Rules:
There are optional additional amenities/rules that should be considered.

Possible Rules:
A) No camping outside of the designated area. Any overflow camping must occur on gravel.
B) No fires in the entire area.
C) Restrictions on group sizes.
D) No dogs (given that dogs are already banned from all of Garibaldi Provincial Park and Joffre Lakes Park, I do think that efforts should be made to accommodate dogs at this location.)

Possible Amenities:
A) A food cache of an appropriate size (hang style or locker).
B) One or more outhouses.

Management and Funding:
The two most obvious options are for the area to be established as a Recreation Site and Trail or as a Provincial Park. That said, there are other mechanisms that are available to facilitate the management and protection of the area.

In November of 2016, there was an announcement that 1900 new campsites would be created and I believe that this site would be an excellent use of funding.

My opinion:

In considering all of the above, I suggest the following:

  1. All promotion of Semaphore Lake by government agencies should be put on hold.

Conclusion

Although it is the responsibility of the provincial government to make progress on this issue, a wide base of support from stakeholder organizations may help to accelerate the process. It seems inevitable that something will have to be done and it will be easier and more affordable if we tackle this problem sooner than later.

Respectfully,

Steve Jones
stevejoneshikes@gmail.com

Steve does a lot of hiking, skiing, biking and photography in British Columbia and beyond. https://www.facebook.com/stevenjonesmountainphotography/