Alberta climbers conquer mountain of trash in David Thompson Country

Longtime users of the natural areas in the David Thompson corridor say they’re seeing more people and more garbage than ever before.

'We gave out probably about 170 garbage bags and they all came back full'

Rock guide Andrew Abel likes to keep his views pristine. (Nathaniel Johnson)

 An influx of visitors to the David Thompson corridor in central Alberta is leaving behind much more than footprints, say longtime users.

With vacation options limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more Albertans are venturing on to public lands for their recreational activities.

Unfortunately, not all are leaving the area the way they found it, says Jordyn Hansen. 

Hansen, 28, lives in Red Deer and has been frequenting the natural areas west of her hometown since she was a child. In recent years she's started rock climbing which takes her visits to new heights, but the view on one outing in June wasn't so pretty. 

"I was just so sad to see the area have so much garbage and so much toilet paper around," Hansen said Thursday.

"It seems specifically bad this year and I think that's partly because we have a lot more people who are staying home in Alberta."

Jordyn Hansen enjoys the Hoodoo Creek area in the David Thompson corridor. (Jordyn Hansen)

Hansen decided to do something about it. She found inspiration from the Yosemite Facelift, a popular and successful annual cleanup of the famous California climbing centre organized by the Yosemite Climbing Association.

Hansen messaged friend and Red Deer-based rock guide Andrew Abel saying, "Hey dude, we've got to do something about this."

Abel, 29, has been climbing in Alberta for 10 years. He also noticed the increased pressure on the Abraham Lake area west of Nordegg.

"Especially this year with everything that's been going on, it's been crazy busy down there," he said. 

"I think for Jordyn and I, we just felt a responsibility that if this area matters to us, then we should just take it upon ourselves to clean it up."

The pair put the word out to the climbing community and even managed to get several sponsors on board who pitched in with a few prizes for the volunteers.

About 80 people responded after the pair of Red Deer climbers put out a call for help to cleanup the Abraham Lake area west of Nordegg. (Nathaniel Johnson)

Despite short notice and limited exposure, they were surprised with the turnout for the first ever David Thompson Corridor Cleanup on July 5.

"To see this thing blow up and all these people show up is pretty humbling," Abel said. "Super exciting that people are actually interested in helping take care of these areas."

They had anticipated up to 40 people, but the head count was estimated to be close to 80. Even better was the amount of trash they were able to remove.

 "We gave out probably about 170 garbage bags and they all came back full," Hansen said. "I was surprised at how much we were able to collect in two hours."

The trash, ranging from old camp chairs and oil drums to food wrappers and beer cans, filled two trailers.

Volunteers picked up enough trash to fill more that 150 garbage bags and two trailers in two hours on July 5. (Nathaniel Johnson)

Jerry Pratt was happy to see it hauled off to the dump.

The economic development officer with Clearwater County and lead for David Thompson Country Tourism has also witnessed the growing number of outdoor enthusiasts in his neck of the woods.

"We've had a huge surge in people coming out," he said. "Hikers, climbers, but in particular random campers because of various parks being closed or not having access earlier in the year."

Pratt thinks the word is out about the area and it's drawing a lot of first timers.

"The reality is most people are very good, most people try to leave a place better than they found it," he said, noting litterers are the exception. 

"It only takes a small percentage of consistent large numbers every weekend for unfortunately, a mess to accumulate." 

Pratt believes part of the problem is that new users are accustomed to having the resources typically found in provincial and national parks, like garbage bins and toilets.

"When they finish cooking or they finish unboxing their camping gear they think that they shouldn't have to take it home," Pratt said. "So some, they try to burn it and others, they just leave it behind."

The garbage also draws wildlife creating an even bigger problem in bear country. 

Public land falls under the purview of provincial conservation officers, but Pratt thinks enforcement in the region is difficult.

"They are out and about but we are a very large area," he said. "I know that they do pursue fines and they actually have a program set up under the Report A Poacher phone line."

Pratt, Hansen and Abel would rather it not get to that point. They'd prefer people to do the right thing and leave no trace.

"It is user maintained, if it's not maintained we're going to lose it," Hansen said. "We're going to lose this incredible access to this beautiful mountain range and I'm not willing to sacrifice that."

That's why Hansen and Abel are already putting plans in place for a second cleanup this fall, with hopes of making the event an annual or biannual tradition.

Jordyn Hansen and Andrew Abel hand out sponsor-supplied prizes to volunteers of the first ever David Thompson Corridor Cleanup. (Nathaniel Johnson)


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