Many of us have spent too much time over the winter pondering what it is that impels many outdoors people into the high back country in one of the more hazardous avalanche seasons we have ever experienced, even as the list of deaths by suffocation grew weekly.
Skiers and snowshoers are easier to understand, because the scenery is gorgeous, pristine, and the quiet can be intoxicating to these people who are generally seeking the exhilarations of their sports in challenging terrain and on unmarked snow.
But even their quiet presence can trigger avalanches.
Harder to comprehend are the snowmobilers who fundamentally defile the pristine, the quiet, with the toxic fumes and howl of their powerful machines.
Late in the “season” we heard about “highmarking,” where operators compete to see who can get highest up a steep, snow-covered slope before their machine stalls, a practice so sure to trigger avalanches that the awful word “suicide” comes to mind.
Amidst the moaning and mourning over the deaths of too many young family men who allegedly lived for the high-country outdoors, came the musings of psychologists with an explanation that makes considerable sense: it is an addiction — akin to a substance addiction — this rush to defying gravity and death, and nothing else matters but that rush, that high, certainly not the great outdoors, except for the gravity it provides, not even spouses, children, family and friends.
Perhaps that theory has application to the mass of Albertans with their ATVs, their weapons of mass destruction, who, for most of every year now, starting with the May long weekend, invade Alberta’s public lands to tear up the outdoors they also all profess to love.
Some of them defy — and achieve — death, mainly through drunkenness and/or stupidity, but most are simply bent on testing their machines and dubious skills by going wherever they please, without getting bogged down. Unfortunately, the most rigourous tests are provided by the most fragile and vulnerable places: wetlands, marshes, the beds and banks and shores of rivers, lakes and streams, and the steepest of the exposed slopes.
The big tire ruts in such places start everlasting erosion; in the streams, spawning beds are churned up and lost.
Certainly, this last May Long, during a massive and expensive enforcement “sting” at McLean Creek Recreation Area, near Calgary, hundreds of tickets were handed out, most of which will have to do with drugs, booze, illegal or messy camps, etc. and probably none for tearing up the land that belongs to all of us and for which the machines could be seized and forfeited to the Crown under The Public Lands Act.
We seem to have this strange concept that no matter how destructive some well-intentioned new device can be when turned into a toy, the kids have a “right” to a place to play with them.
Rest assured huge damage to our public land will have been inflicted on the May Long by ATVs in hundreds of Alberta locations where there was no enforcement whatever.
What, really, is to be done?
We need only look at the fact that no private owner in his right mind would allow an ATV on his own land, except the one or two he and his hands use to round up and herd cattle, or to fix fences.
If we insist on permitting these tin horses on public land, there should at least be designated routes and trails and severe consequences — huge fines and equipment confiscations — for riding elsewhere.
Frankly, I do not believe the spokespersons for the ATV lobby who do go on about the few making things bad for responsible users. It is the majority of ATV users who use their machines as weapons of mass destruction of the outdoors they profess to love, but I will concede their behaviour might be based in the total ignorance of so many people today of how things work in the natural world.
You should have to be licensed to operate an ATV anywhere in Alberta, especially on our public land and, before you could get that licence, you should have to take and pass a course on safe ATV operation, with regard not only to yourself, but to the general public and to the environment, especially the land we all own in common.
Then there must be an annual licence to operate an ATV on public land. Why should hunters and anglers be the only recreationists who have to pay licence fees to engage in their recreations on both public and private land where they cause no damage at all compared to that inflicted by those infernal machines, those ATVs and their owners?
The hoops modern hunters have to jump through, the courses, exams and expense for those, plus the licences, are a large factor in declining hunter numbers. But the surviving hunters are better behaved than ever before in our history.
We should try similar weeding and cultivation with ATV users.
Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.