RAFT COVE—BC Parks made the decision to close Raft Cove Provincial Park Saturday at noon after a protest against a planned gathering erupted on Facebook last week.
Word spread Tuesday, August 6, of an Event page inviting members of the Rainbow Family — a leaderless band embracing many of the values of the ’60s counter-culture movement — to the remote North Island location for a monthlong gathering. The event had just over 1,800 “Going” with many more invited, the destination apparently an eleventh-hour change from a previously arranged location.
Soon after, a protest page was set up, urging BC Parks to take action against the gathering. The protest gained support at an astounding rate, with more than 1,400 joining in a 48-hour period.
The protesters argued the site was unsuited to such a large gathering, with many pointing to the lack of access to fresh water, toilet facilities, cell coverage and medical care as issues. Many more expressed concern over potential damage to the site, citing problems resulting from previous gatherings in other locations.
The rapid escalation of the protest led to widespread media attention Thursday, and erroneous early reports of hundreds of people on site and contraventions of a fire ban helped fuel the online outrage.
A release from BC Parks stating that it was aware of the concerns and monitoring the situation was met on its Facebook site with a barrage of comments urging the park’s closure.
BC Parks called an informational meeting Friday with the RDMW, RCMP, WFP and Quatsino First Nations among those in attendance.
“We had a good discussion,” said Port Hardy Mayor Bev Parnham. “As far as I’m concerned, the park is full at the minute. I don’t think people realize how difficult it will be.”
The situation at the park Saturday was somewhat tamer than what had been previously reported in the media.
Saturday morning, about 70 people were on the beach, with about two dozen tents in evidence. Those present welcomed visitors and many were eager to speak to locals.
Those on the ground blamed a communications breakdown for the situation. One member, Red Crow, explained that the Event page that sparked the furor originally pointed to a site on the mainland. A large gathering had been planned for that location but was cancelled due to a fuel spill.
After that gathering was cancelled and no clear consensus emerged for an alternate site, a small group from the West Coast made for Raft Cove. Red Crow explained that an unknown person in the World Rainbow Family changed the details on the page to point to Raft Cove, seemingly due to the lack of consensus.
Those interviewed were in agreement with locals that Raft Cove was completely unsuited to such large numbers touted, none expected anything like thousands of people to attend, nor for people to stay for a month. Indeed, the majority interviewed planned to stay for one to three nights.
Participants said while many gathering are truly huge, this one was unlikely to draw large numbers for a variety of reasons. First, the number of people “Going” on Facebook was seen as inflated to begin with. The site was not agreed by consensus and at least two other alternate sites were known. In addition, many would be unable or unwilling to foot the extra cost of traveling from the mainland to the North Island. The length of the journey would deter others.
“A lot of the Family have jobs and families — they can maybe go for the weekend if it’s in the Koots,” said Red Crow.
The attention garnered by the protest was also a factor. “There’s another Rainbow Gathering down near Port Alberni,” said Jai, a Rainbow veteran. “It’s on private land and they’re like ‘Welcome, we want you to come here.’ People getting off the ferry will be like, ‘Do we go over here where they’re saying ‘welcome home’ or do we drive all the way up there and take a chance?'”
“This is not how we do things,” said Red Crow. “Normally when we host a gathering we are in contact with (BC) Parks, the community, First Nations… That didn’t happen here and we’re really apologetic for that. We’d never hold a big gathering somewhere like this, it just wouldn’t work. Normally they’re held on private land, on big fields, and people would go out months in advance to prepare the site.”
He explained the group had wanted to hold a small, alcohol-free, family-friendly get-together and hadn’t expected to draw the attention they did. He said that they were trying to get in contact with the Quatsino First Nations and were hoping to have a telephone conference Monday, but had been in regular contact with BC Parks Rangers and were working to allay fears.
The group had arranged to bring in fresh water and food daily by boat down the Macjack River and to return on the tide to remove garbage.
The issue of feces was raised a number of times by protesters. Red Crow said, “We’ve been using the composting toilets and we’ve asked the Parks guys to keep an eye on it. If they think it’s getting close to capacity we’ve agreed that we’ll start using buckets and hauling them out with the garbage every day.”
The Ministry of the Environment confirmed reports that a latrine trench had been dug one metre above the vegetation line. The trench was not near any water source and, as of Tuesday morning was being covered over.
All of those interviewed were adamant that the group was very conscious of keeping their environmental impact to a minimum. The only garbage visible on a hike to the park Saturday were three long-discarded beer cans on the way in, and the campers’ garbage confined to a bag in the kitchen area. A single fire was lit in that area. Contrary to some reports, no fire ban is in effect for Raft Cove; the area is within the fog zone.
BC Parks Rangers were stationed at the trail head and informed hikers and campers of the park’s closure. The officers declined to answer questions from the Gazette, referring all inquiries to a media contact and stating that they were simply there to deliver message of the closure.
“BC Parks is closing Raft Cove Provincial Park in response to concerns arising from the World Rainbow Gathering that began August 7th,” said the release from the Ministry of Environment. “The closure was prompted over specific concerns that an increase in the number of visitors unprepared for such a remote and rugged location would significantly increase the risk to public health and safety, the protection of the natural environment and the preservation of park values. The closure takes effect at 12 p.m. (Saturday) and will last until further notice.
“BC Parks has been aware of concerns expressed by the public, and made the decision to close the park in consultation with other agencies including the Vancouver Island Health Authority and the provincial archaeology branch, local governments, the local forest industry, First Nations and the RCMP.
“BC Parks will be on site daily to manage the closure over the coming days and will reassess as necessary.”
The news was greeted stoically by those we spoke to. “I was heading out tomorrow anyway,” said one Rainbow member, Paloma. “Everyone’s been a bit disillusioned with all the protests.”
“It was really nice to be here, it’s beautiful,” said her colleague, “But if people don’t want us to be here we’ll go. We don’t want to be disrespectful. I just feel sad for people that are traveling a long way to get here and now they’ll have to go somewhere else.”
Locally, the news of the park’s closure was greeted with jubilation by protesters, with dozens praising the decision in comments on the site’s Facebook page.
“Hey friends,” said a post on the Raft Cove Rainbow Gathering Discussion Page from Terry Eissfeldt, a driving force behind the original protest event on Facebook. “We closed our page on protecting Raft Cove as we feel we’ve accomplished our goal. Although 100+ remain on the beach we are confident that BC Parks has the situation in hand. Thanks for everything! And Peace to those who are truly for Peace and brotherly love. We are known by our actions not our words.”
As of Tuesday, the Ministry of Environment said there were fewer than 50 people still at the park preparing to leave and the group was working with BC Parks to clean up the site. A full site assessment will be conducted after those remaining leave. While it was difficult to quantify what effect the closure and protests had on numbers, an estimated 20 had been turned away at the entrance since Saturday’s closure.
Red Crow saw irony in the uproar the gathering had sparked; “It’s funny in a way. The rednecks are protesting the hippies to protect the environment. We can go home now, our job is done.”