People living in West Kelowna’s backcountry have been told they need to move on, and a group of volunteers have been tasked with removing the abandoned garbage.
The Okanagan Forest Task Force (OFTF), led by founder and president Kane Blake, has been removing trash from the backcountry since 2016. In addition to dumped garbage, Blake said that he has cleaned up many abandoned encampments, construction waste and vehicles left in the backcountry.
Since starting OFTF, Blake said that he has seen an increase in the number of people living in the backcountry.
A group of people living near MacDougall Rim hiking trail say that they have been told by law enforcement that they need to vacate the area by the end of February. Legally, people camping on crown land must move every 14 days, but for some that is difficult to accomplish.
A Capital News reporter joined OFTF on a recent trip into the backcountry to survey the extent of what they will be removing from the encampments after people move out.
There are approximately three currently vacant campers, two broken down vehicles, multiple piles of trash, bikes and junk and ever-growing stashes of construction waste in the area that OFTF will be removing in the coming weeks.
While on surveying missions, the volunteers have startled people living deep in the forest who were not expecting company and have encountered animals. In order to prevent dangerous incidents, they wear protective vests with body cameras and carry bear spray.
Capital News spoke to two of the approximately six people who call the MacDougall Rim encampment home.
While people have been reportedly living in the area for the past three years, the residents that were available for interviews said that they have been seeking refuge in the woods for no more than six months.
A resident of the encampment, who asked to remain anonymous, had been living in his trailer on a rented parcel of land in Kelowna for five years before it was suddenly sold and he, his partner and dog were forced to leave.
“We had nowhere. We couldn’t find a place to rent anywhere so we thought, ‘O.K. let’s go camping for a couple of weeks and maybe something good will happen.” Once the bad weather hit, he became snowed in and has now been living on the crown land off Bartley Road for three months.
Another man, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he only intended to spend a week or two in the woods. He said that he just needed some time away from people to get his feet back under him. Unfortunately, the area is a common target for thieves and his truck was stolen, stranding him with no way to move his trailer.
He said that he doesn’t like living in a trailer during the winter, but can’t afford rent and does not want to live in a shelter.
The residents explained that they work very hard to keep the area around their trailers clean, but seem to be fighting a losing battle.
“People come up here for a few days, make a mess and then leave,” said one resident who has been cleaning up after a particularly “problematic” man who spends occasional weekends at the encampment. He said that the full-time residents do their best to keep the area clean but people come in and disrespect the space by dumping garbage or leaving all their camping equipment behind after a rowdy weekend.
The volunteers at OFTF are working with bylaw to find a spot where people can live in their trailers for extended periods of time. Blake said that he will help people to organize the towing of licensed and inhabited trailers to a new location.
The task force has removed 580,485 lbs of garbage and metal waste from the Okanagan wilderness to date. To volunteer or donate, visit okanaganforesttaskforce.com.