Campbell River gets its suspension bridge near John Hart project

Image of Elk Falls
Great views of Elk Falls near Campbell River have been hard to come by for visitors to Elk Falls Provincial Park. But all that changes in the coming months as a suspension bridge and viewing platform open up views expected to double visits to the park.

Rotary Club, BC Parks work closely with BC Hydro to deliver on a dream

Note: This story was updated in 2016

"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
– Lyric from Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi.

With apologies to Joni, sometimes a parking lot paves the way to paradise.

A few years ago, there was a pretty good temporary solution to the challenge presented by a John Hart Generating Station Replacement Project that — for 2 to 3 years during construction — would close road access to popular hiking trails through old growth forests near the stunning waterfall in Elk Falls Provincial Park.

But why build a temporary parking lot and trails when you can help realize a decades-old dream of a suspension bridge?

All it took was the hard work and fundraising savvy of the local Rotary Club, and a pivotal decision by BC Hydro to build a permanent parking lot and trails designed specifically to handle the expected doubling in the annual number of visitors to the park the bridge would generate. The 250-acre John Hart property is located in the middle of the Provincial Park.

"One of the first objections we had to the idea of this suspension bridge was: "Okay, if you build this bridge, where are people going to park?," recalls Lorrie Bewza, president of the Campbell River Noon Rotary Club and head of the project to build the bridge, which is now open. "The existing lower parking lot holds perhaps space for 15 people to park, and certainly not for motor homes.

"Currently there are about 70,000 visitors a year to the park, and I think with the new parking lot and the bridge, we'll double that."

According to one study, the $650,000 project will generate between $2.5 million and $5 million annually for the local economy. The bridge hangs from 50 to 60 metres above the Campbell River canyon floor, and together with a new viewing platform, offers an unprecedented top-to-bottom view of the falls.

"When you get close to the edge of the canyon, you really get an idea of how beautiful that canyon is," says Bewza. "Basically, when you have a visitor in town, you take them up there. You walk through some serious old-growth trees, but you also get a view of a pretty nice waterfall."

The bridge project received $75,000 from Rotary Club fundraising, while BC Hydro contributed $150,000, a federal grant added $86,500, public donations chipped in $700 and Rotary Club members donated another $14,000 worth of work and materials to the local Millennium Trail. Finally, the Island Coastal Economic Trust provided matching funds of $325,000.

"Purely from a long-term economic driver and a win-win-win, that suspension bridge is it," says BC Hydro stakeholder engagement manager Stephen Watson. "We had seven years of community engagement before the [John Hart] project construction started, and we were able to figure out which was the lowest-cost option.

"But it also enabled us to think about community partnerships like this. BC Parks has been supportive of the John Hart project and the Rotary Club. And the park will be better off than what it is today."

John Hart project will take penstocks out of the picture

The suspension bridge became an option because work on the estimated $1.1 billion John Hart Generating Station project requires that Brewster Lake Road, which goes across the John Hart dam and provides access to Elk Falls Provincial Park, be closed for up to three years starting in January 2015.

But aside from the suspension bridge, gains for the park and the community of Campbell River include:

  • Replacement of an existing generating station and pipelines that, built in 1947, are unlikely to withstand a low to moderate earthquake
  • A more efficient, reliable generating station, plus a new water bypass that will ensure that if the facility shuts down for any reason, water flow can be maintained to preserve fish and fish habitat
  • Reforestation of a 1.8-kilometre strip of land used for three penstocks — the pipes that deliver water from John Hart Reservoir to the generating station's turbines - that will be removed once the project is complete and a 2.1-kilometre underground tunnel through bedrock becomes operational.
  • A John Hart Project Interpretive Centre, staffed through an agreement with the Museum at Campbell River, located at the new parking lot and which tells the story of the project and the watershed's history.
  • Construction of the Station View Trail, which allows safe access through the John Hart construction site and continued hiking around Campbell River via connections to the Canyon View and Millennium Trails.
  • Once the John Hart project is complete, there will be a return of some lands no longer required for the project to Elk Falls Provincial Park.

BC Hydro's Watson has been involved in stakeholder engagement around the John Hart project since the spring of 2007, when discussions with local First Nations began. He points out that, not only does BC Hydro supply power to Campbell River, the city draws its domestic water supply for 35,000 people from the generating station's penstocks.

Local fisheries are also keenly interested in the river system. And with about 100 employees living in the city, BC Hydro is a big part of the community.

"We communicate constantly in Campbell River," he says. "People care, want to be engaged, and want to know what's going on.

"Whether it's the Rotary Club, First Nations, the Campbell River Salmon Foundation or the Tyee Club, the volunteerism and interest in the so-called Salmon Capital of the World is really high. I don't think I've seen a community like it."