No excuse for Yukon’s campground shortage

There are some problems that a city just shouldn't have. A city like Whitehorse with trees and lakes for thousands of kilometres in every direction, for instance, should not have a problem with campground availability. 

There are some problems that a city just shouldn’t have. A city like Whitehorse with trees and lakes for thousands of kilometres in every direction, for instance, should not have a problem with campground availability. But surprisingly we do.

Any of the territorial campgrounds that are located within a reasonable driving distance of Whitehorse – Kusawa, Fox Lake, Pine Lake, Lake Laberge, and Marsh Lake in particular – can fill up fast and early on any given summer weekend. This is particularly true on long weekends and when the weather forecast calls for sun. I have left Whitehorse before 5 p.m. on a Friday and gotten one of the last sites available at Kusawa, then spent the evening watching vehicle after vehicle circle and depart in disappointment.

I am sure there are many Yukoners of the more “rugged” variety who don’t understand why this would be a problem. Just about anywhere can be a campground, and why would anyone want to stay in a campground to begin with? If you are one of those people, this column is not going to be for you.

There is clearly a demand among Whitehorse urbanites to be able to getaway to serviced campgrounds with firewood, outhouses, firepits, and picnic tables that are less than a tank of gas from the capital. And there are reasons why the government and the First Nations who co-manage their traditional territory would want to encourage camping in defined sites – reduced forest fire risk, less litter and human/bear interaction, etc.

With another summer camping season wrapping up, CBC North recently ran a piece about the growing number of conflicts that are taking place when campers attempt to reserve sites. The general rule in territorial campgrounds is that you are not allowed to save sites. But that doesn’t stop people from trying.

Some campers will try to save a site by simply putting one of those folding chairs at the entrance. This method is the most likely to lead to conflict as it is pretty obvious to latecomers that the site is not technically occupied.

Setting up a tent and scattering some items around the site will take you much further. If you have a trailer and are willing to invest the time and gas to drive out a few days early and leave it, it is more difficult for anyone to challenge your occupancy of the site. Some campers (or “glampers” if you prefer) monopolize popular spots by leaving their trailer unoccupied for up to two weeks.

The “first come first serve” rule has the benefit of simplicity. But when even the closest campgrounds are an hour’s drive from Whitehorse it can lead to disappointment. The fact that many of the campgrounds are in entirely different directions means that “backup plans” are unfeasible. The rule also puts those who lack the workplace flexibility to leave early at a distinct disadvantage and gives those of us who are self-employed a real leg up.

I had front row seats to witness one confrontation this past summer.

One group of campers was trying to save a couple of sites for some friends who couldn’t leave work until the end of the day by placing chairs at the entrance to those sites (their first mistake). They later found their chairs had somehow ended up in the woods, and were puzzled how this could have happened as there was little wind that day.

It turns out that another camper – a self-described “rule follower” with no particular interest in the sites but a desire to see that “Yukon fairness” (her words) was observed – had paid her children $5 to throw the chairs into the woods. An angry confrontation ensued, and the “rule follower” called in the parks officers, while the other campers physically stood guard over their saved sites. The parks officer arrived and settled the dispute – in favour of the campers trying to save the sites – with a look that said “is this really my life?” written on his face.

Again, this is not a problem we should have, and one that would appear to have a very simple solution – build more sites. Despite significant growth in the territorial population we haven’t seen any new sites in many years. Campgrounds are hardly the most expensive item in the territorial budget and some of the costs are recovered through annual passes and nightly fees. Campsites are relatively cheap to develop, and, when additional sites are placed at existing grounds, impose modest marginal maintenance costs.

The territorial government has taken some action to relieve the pressure. When he was environment minister, Currie Dixon set the process in motion to create two new campgrounds within a reasonable driving distance of Whitehorse at Conrad and Little Atlin Lake – a welcome and badly needed development. The former will open next year but the latter has been delayed indefinitely due to the objections of the First Nation on whose traditional territory the grounds would be situated.

But it is questionable whether these two new grounds will fix the problems encountered in popular spots like Kusawa and Fox Lake. The creation of some more sites is not a bad idea, and given the pace at which anything takes place here in the Yukon it is probably something they could get working on now.

Yukoners should not have to drive for an hour on a Friday night with a vehicle full of excited, hungry and near-tired kids only to find that an entire campground is full in one the most sparely populated territories on earth.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.