July 9, 2014 | LXXIV No. 15

Not a happy camper at Steamboat Rock State Park

Letter to the Editor

I am the outdoor recreation journalist with the Okanagan Valley Newspaper Group based in Kelowna, British Columbia, responsible for a Making Tracks column and outdoor recreation features in valley-wide publications, The Okanagan Saturday and The Okanagan Sunday, each with a circulation of 25,000.

As part of my coverage of outdoor recreation in Canada and the U.S., I often visit provincial, national, state and federal parks to encourage my readers to explore the outdoors, from Banff to Whistler, from the Olympic Peninsula to the Grand Canyon.

Based on the high praise from hiking friends that week, two couples, including myself, decided at the last minute to spend the weekend at Steamboat Rock State Park. A telephone call to reserve two sites proved too late as the computer system doesn't take reservations for arrival day.

So we arrived at Steamboat Rock State Park after 10 p.m. on Friday, May 16 without reservations, found the park booth closed, a registration box there with numerous unsharpened pencils and one sharpened pencil but no registration forms/envelopes, and the main gate open. So we found two vacant campsites with no 'Reserved' signs with the intention of paying $40 for sites no. 65 and 66 the following morning.

When we awoke, there were no notes on our truck-camper or camper-van windshields saying these were reserved sites and no one was waiting to occupy the sites. So we walked to the park booth, twice, between 10:30 and 11 a.m., but found no one there and no note saying when someone would return even though the posted hours are 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. We even walked over to the camp host who was aware that we had arrived without reservations, but she did not inform us that we were not allowed in the park without one. She told us she didn't collect camping fees; we would have to pay park staff. There were also registration boxes with sharpened pencils at the bulletin boards of the two washrooms of the two loops but again, no registration forms. Campers in our far loop told us that it was common practice for park staff to come around and collect fees for sites and any extra vehicles, that they would no doubt come around that afternoon to collect our fees for Friday and Saturday nights.

So we hiked to the top of Steamboat Rock but on returning to our vehicles in pouring rain about 4 p.m. I found an Attention Notice with a time of 15:05 from park staff 379 stating in handwriting: "Must vacate immediately - site reserved" and in bold print: "Failure to comply may result in a citation being issued to the registered owner." There was also Non-Traffic Infraction ticket no. 503121 issued at 15:05 by park staff 379 with a fine of $138 ($162 Cdn). The other couple received similar notices.

We immediately drove to the park booth where there were now four park staff including park ranger Jared Liening. We explained there were no 'Reserved' signs at the sites, no registration forms in the boxes, no one at the booth between 10:30 and 11 a.m. on Saturday and we had every intention of paying our camping fees.

Our explanation fell on deaf ears. Apparently, Steamboat Rock no longer offers drop-in registration (despite the boxes) and that staff don't put ‘Reserved’ signs on sites. Liening asked what time we arrived on Friday night, then stated we were not only occupying two reserved sites but were actually in the park illegally. He stated a sign attached to the main gate (which he said is never closed) stipulates that only registered campers are allowed into the park after 10 p.m. On inspecting that entrance, we found that when the gate is open, the sign faces the side of entering vehicles and would never be seen at night.

We believe the Steamboat Park staff were negligent:

* In not posting a sign in the booth, clearly visible, advising no drop-in camping is allowed after the booth is closed for the night;

* In not removing the registration boxes (with their pencils) from the booth and washroom bulletin boards;

* In not attaching a ‘Reserved’ sign to site posts when a site is booked;

* In not posting a sign at the booth advising when they would return whenever it is unattended between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.;

* In not conducting a camper check first thing in the morning (using a computer printout) and issuing an Attention Notice when someone is occupying a reserved site;

* In issuing an Attention Notice and moments later, an infraction ticket, without giving campers allegedly in a reserved site a reasonable opportunity to vacate;

* In not giving the camp host information for campers without reservations.

By comparison, Dry Falls State Park - only a short drive away - has a pegboard at the park booth with green and red pegs denoting which sites are open and which are reserved for that night only (for information when the booth is closed), a registration box for fees stocked with envelopes and pencils, reserved signs on reserved sites and there was only one employee on duty when we arrived on Saturday afternoon.

We believe we took every reasonable step not to occupy a reserved site and had every intention of paying for not only Friday but also Saturday night but were stymied by park staff who were unapologetic, defensive and rude.

There were comments such as: “We’re not going to agree on this" and "I can’t be responsible for what other campers say.”

As you receive this, I am writing my Making Tracks column for the weekend papers with the working title Four Angry Campers. I am advising my readers to avoid Steamboat Rock State Park until these administrative and operational issues are resolved.

J.P. Squire

(Editor’s note: Squire did get responses from State Parks officials indicating most of his concerns had been addressed, but that the citations written were out of the hands of Parks and in the court system. Those were paid “under protest,” but State Parks did provide two $75 packets of gift certificates.)

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