Dennis Gray and his tow trucks were called out two to three times every Saturday and Sunday last summer to haul out vehicles stuck in the mud at Abraham Lake west of Rocky Mountain House.
Every spring, when the water levels are low, large expanses of the lake’s flat bottom are exposed and prove too tempting to many West Country visitors, who find their vehicles stranded in the deep silt.
Gray, who owns Rocky Mountain House’s Gray’s Towing, said he shakes his head at the witless antics he has seen played out every year.
“If you walk out there in rubber boots, pretty soon you can hardly walk because your feet are the size of snowshoes. It’s very stick and gooey.”
“Guys are still going out there expecting to drive these trucks weighing 8,000 pounds. I weigh 200 pounds and I still sink up to my knees. People are stupid.”
The bottom of the lake is covered in a thick layer of silt that has come down from the mountains and is two metres or more deep in some places.
Alberta Environment has banned vehicles from driving past the high water mark (where the vegetation begins) at the lake from April 1 to December 1.
“It is dangerous to drive onto the lake bottom as water levels can change quickly, leading to vehicles getting stuck, trapped and flooded over,” warns the province.
Photos of vehicles mired in the mud are posted on the government website to reinforce their message.
Those who break the rules, could face a $300 fine, as well as a towing bill that averages around $1,500.
Stuck vehicles and irresponsible camping also cause problems. Fluids can leak into the water and garbage and other debris left by campers can affect the water quality and fish habitats.
Gray said too often litter-covered campsites are swept up when water levels rise.
“It’s the mess they leave behind that’s ruining it for everybody,” he said, adding tents, lawn chairs and other camping leftovers get drawn into the Bighorn Dam.
The dam has become another problem. From May 1 to June 30, the province is prohibiting off-highway vehicles from the area because of safety concerns and erosion issues. A map of the restricted area is on Alberta Environment’s website.
Random camping is allowed but quads and other off-highway vehicles should remain loaded on their pickups or trailers.
Alberta Environment says high recreational use of the area has eroded slopes and sensitive areas around the dam.
“The erosion has been caused by vehicles creating their own trails up and down the slopes, along the power line, at the hoodoos,” says a statement.
“Some of these places contain infrastructure and sensors of the Bighorn Dam which can impact operation and safety of the dam and reservoir.”
Water levels can also change dramatically in the lake, which is actually a reservoir for the dam and its power generators. Downstream water levels can rise as much as one metre without warning and reservoir levels can rise 30 to 80 centimetres in a day.
Gray, who is the fourth generation of his family to live in the area, is not surprised that restrictions were introduced.
“It’s erosion. Mother Nature needs time to heal,” he said.
The changing nature of off-highway vehicles is also playing a role in creating more damage.
“People are buying bigger units, bigger motors with more aggressive tires.”
Gray said more people need to be aware of the damage they can cause. If natural areas continue to be damaged, people will eventually be barred from using them.
“That’s what scares me. I’d like to see that West Country be there for my kids, my grandkids, for everybody.
“It’s not your right to go there and use it. It’s a privilege.”