Lake Cowichan to allow river tubing access this summer

The town will monitor numbers in parks but won’t restrict access, the acting mayor says.

The Town of Lake Cowichan has no intention of banning tubing on the Cowichan River this summer, despite previously indicating that it would in an effort to reduce risks of spreading the coronavirus.

On April 27, town council made an informal decision to work towards restricting tubing access and denying licenses to commercial tube rental businesses. That was based on the council’s understanding of the public health recommendations at the time, acting mayor Tim McGonigle tells The Discourse Cowichan by phone. McGonigle became acting mayor earlier this month after Mayor Rod Peters took a leave of absence for personal reasons. 

After further investigation, council understands that it has no authority over the river itself, McGonigle says. And allowing for recreational opportunities is consistent with Phase 2 of B.C.’s COVID-19 Restart Plan, where we are today, he says. “We certainly can’t stop people from coming to recreate. We are a recreational destination.” 

Lake Cowichan therefore has no intention to block access to tubers from river access points in town parks, he says. But the town will monitor parks to make sure they are not too crowded and people are respecting physical distancing guidance.

River tubing is a very popular summer recreational activity in Lake Cowichan. People rent, purchase or bring floatation tubes and spend a lazy few hours on the river, typically travelling a couple kilometres downstream before exiting and catching a shuttle or other ride back to town.

Phase 2 of the Restart Plan allows for more businesses to operate, with safety plans in place. Phase 3, anticipated to begin in June if COVID-19 numbers stay low, allows for non-essential travel throughout B.C. Some provincial parks opened up summer campground reservations to B.C. residents this week. Vancouver Island hasn’t seen a new positive test for COVID-19 in more than two weeks, although the risk of future outbreaks remains.

What about commercial tubing?

The April 27 council meeting minutes indicate that the town would deny a business licence to the Tube Shack, one of the tube rental and shuttle services in Lake Cowichan. Now, it appears likely that the Tube Shack’s summer season will go ahead. 

A Tube Shack van sits in the parking lot by Saywell Park in Lake Cowichan. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

“She’s not all-go yet, but I’m hoping it is,” owner Aaron Frisby tells The Discourse Cowichan. 

Frisby submitted a safety plan to the town, and the town asked for some points of clarification, which were provided to council. “I think that there’s no reason why it couldn’t go forward,” McGonigle says. ‘We certainly can’t hold back a business licence to a business that is zoned properly, and that has historically been used for that purpose.”

The Tube Shack typically renews its business licence every June. Employers operating during the COVID-19 pandemic are required to develop and implement a safety plan. Getting that safety plan approved is not typical, but Frisby says it’s a good thing that the town is reviewing it. “We’ll know for sure that we’re OK to open,” he says. The plan is to open on June 27.

The other tube rental company in Lake Cowichan, Outdoor Recreation and Kayaking Adventures (ORKA), at this point has no plans to operate this summer, says owner Ryan Maizis when reached by phone this week. Last weekend demolition began on the building ORKA used to occupy because the owners have other plans for it, Maizis says. ORKA has a tentative agreement to use a different space.

“At this time, we’re probably not planning on opening up the tubing this summer,” he says. “But time will tell. It’s a pretty volatile situation with COVID.” The company’s primary concern is the safety of its employees and the community, Maizis says. “There’s so many things, when it comes to tubing, that you just sometimes can’t control.”

What’s the Tube Shack’s safety plan?

The Tube Shack will take online bookings only, and customers will sign waivers and pay online, Frisby says. Their tubes will be waiting for them when they arrive, minimizing interaction with staff. The company will take a maximum of 20 bookings each half hour, he says. At that rate, if the company were fully booked, there would still be significantly fewer people coming through than in a normal year, he says. And on the shuttle buses, people who are not in the same household bubble will not sit together. 

McGonigle says the town’s decision on whether it will renew the Tube Shack’s business licence may come in the next week or two. “We have looked at the plan and dealt with some of the questions we had. We were satisfied with the answers, so it’s just going through the logistical process of staff reviewing and clarifying some of the answers.”

Tubing can attract large crowds on hot weekends in Lake Cowichan. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

The acting mayor says he still has reservations about allowing commercial tubing to go ahead this summer. “We just wanted to ensure that there is proper distancing, proper sanitization, that the employees are number one on the safety list, and the community is number one on the safety list.”

Ultimately, “I wish [Frisby] well and a safe operation if that’s the decision that [the town] comes to,” McGonigle says.

Will the community get on board?

Frisby says he anticipates some pushback from the community if the tubing season goes ahead. “We’re more than certain there is going to be times when we hear from it from the public,” he says. “If we even get close to that limit of 50 people in a bunch on the river, we know that there’s going to be backlash. It’s going to keep us honest and us on our toes.”

McGonigle says the town will keep an eye on the number of people gathering in public parks, and will report that to authorities if it gets out of hand. “I know I will be probably keeping a close eye on it for a while when the weather gets warmer, and my colleagues. Not to micromanage, but just to ensure that everyone stays safe.”

It’s been a relief to see an improved relationship with the Town of Lake Cowichan, Frisby says. “I feel now we’re kind of working with the town, whereas a couple months ago we were receiving communication from the town through media. I think it’s been a positive step as far as us communicating with the leaders in the town.” [end]

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