At the bottom edge of Vedder Mountain, where the meandering Majuba Hill Road passes by rock faces and farmland, around six families have taken advantage of the acreage and views to carve out a home. While initially drawn to the peaceful setting, their low profile is one factor enabling the misuse of the mountain.
Mother of two Kelly Hawes used to live on the Cultus Lake side of the mountain, in her native Chilliwack, but moved to the western side four years ago. She lives in a beautiful home sandwiched between the mountain, the farms below, and her 32 acres that stretch up the mountain, with her two teenage children, husband, pets, and livestock.
Most weekends, Hawes hears gunshots coming from the mountain top. People come for target practice to the area, which most believe is uninhabited and allows for safe shooting. Some use the informal shooting range halfway up, while others shoot from within the woods down the hill, not realizing that there are residents a few hundred metres below.
Hawes has had bullets ricochet through the trees in her yard, 10 metres from her front door.
“Those bullets could have hit any of us,” she says.
Discharging firearms on much of the mountain, explains Chilliwack recreation officer Mike Peters, is legal because it is crown land, but there is room for more regulation to ensure that people play safe.
Hawes has gone up to inform respectful recreational trail users and illegal dumpers alike that the land is private property. While some appreciate the information, others ignore it.
“Some of them are rude, and say, ‘go ahead, try to gate (the trail), we’ll pull it down,'” she says. The several times that Tony Penner, the owner of the forest access road on the West side, has put up gates, people quickly tore them out. Now only moss-covered stone posts remain.
On hot summer weekends, Hawes sees 50 vehicles pass her house to climb up the mountain, carrying all types of off-roading toys. She has stopped trying to explain to visitors that this is private property.
“I’m afraid of the people that go up there,” she says.
Residents regularly call police to the area, and the authorities have confiscated guns, and on one occasion, arrested a wanted criminal. But the area is at the very edge of town, and often by the time police arrive, the partyers have left.
Hawes has sent letters to the City of Abbotsford, to the police department, and to the Ministry of Forests. Her efforts rallied a large stakeholder meeting last June. Attendees included TV companies that have towers on the mountain, B.C. hydro, which has power lines snaking up the side, and various government officials. Since then, nothing has happened, she says.
Even higher up the mountain, 50 metres or so directly below a common shooting and party area, are two brand new homes where residents have never gone up to confront the visitors.
“You don’t know what direction they’re shooting in,” says landowner James Vallance. “You never know who’s up there.”
Vallance has four-year-old triplets, and another six-year-old child. Father-in-law Rod McKinnon, who lives in the other house on the property, has found whole deer carcasses, despite the hunting ban.
McKinnon hears the parties nearly every summer weekend, and looks out his window as convoys of cars come up his driveway, lost and searching for the party road.
The area is a well-known destination. Penner once went undercover to a local off-road vehicle dealer, asking about locations to ride, and received a map to his property. Hawes once met a person coming in from North Vancouver for a party on the mountain.
Residents say the partying has gotten worse since Penner started preparing some of the land for housing development in 2005. By clearing the roadways, and installing drainage systems, some residents feel this made the area more accessible for recreational users. Since the City of Abbotsford again rejected Penner’s re-zoning application in Nov. 2011, the land has stood idle and open.
As landowner, Penner is responsible for removing garbage from his own property. But dumping on his 113-acre lot is extensive. Last year, when the Vedder Mountain Trails Association conducted its annual cleanup on the East side, the three Western side landowners collected nine pick-up trucks of trash — not even half of the total on their side, says Hawes — and hauled it to the Eastern effort, where sponsors helped with disposal. When Penner found whole dead cows on the property a while back, with the ears cut off where the i.d. tags used to be, he realized he wouldn’t be able to lift them into his pick-up for disposal on his own. He called the department of agriculture for help, and was told it wasn’t their responsibility.
“It’s a site where people like doing stuff that they wouldn’t get away with doing anywhere else, it seems,” he says.
Penner owns the access road that goes up the mountain from Majuba Hill Road. There is no legal right-of-way, and anyone who uses the road without permission — including respectful recreational groups — is trespassing. At one point he put up about 20 “no trespassing” signs. People took them down within weeks.
Penner was assaulted on one trip he took to explain to off-road vehicle riders that the land they were driving over and destroying was a $120,000 water catchment design. He called the police, but it was three hours before the local unit arrived.
“It’s been just a nightmare trying to deal with these people,” he says. “I know that a lot of them are locals that have said, ‘Well, we’ve been doing this for years. Who are you to tell us that we can’t go through your property?'” says Penner.
Dejected, he has considered putting up cameras, but they would be expensive because there is no power on site. Most incidents happen at night anyway, when visibility from any camera is low.
“It is so disheartening when I go up there,” says Penner, who wants to try again with a gate this spring, but is skeptical it will remain standing for long.
The landowners on the mountain are putting a lot of hope into the development of an interpretive forest on Vedder Mountain’s Western crown land, a project that local conservation officer Peters is working on.
In response to local concerns about illegal dumping, the B. C. Conservation Officers Service of Chilliwack is hosting a forum at Yarrow Elementary School on Wed. March 13, 2013, 6-8 p.m.