Just forget the words and sing along

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Tubes and Tourists

I originally come from a little town called Entwistle.  It's a nice little town.  Former Prime Minister Joe Clark once called it a "flyspeck on the map."  During the railway boom at the turn of the century, it was rumored to have the biggest brothel west of Winnipeg.  I've always felt that Entwistle, though, was a town of opportunity.  It lays right along the Yellowhead Highway...exactly halfway between Edmonton and Edson.  It also lies at the intersection of the Yellowhead and Highway 22, bringing lots of traffic north from Drayton Valley.  Back in the 1990s, Transportation and Travel Alberta gave a lot of highways in the province cute nicknames to bolster tourism.  Highway 22 became the Cowboy Trail.  At the intersection of the Yellowhead and the Cowboy Trail is Entwistle...my home.

And it was that talk of tourism where I first began to see the opportunity in Entwistle.  At the crossing of such two major highways, and all that traffic coming through, all Entwistle needed was a good tourism hook to get people to pull off the road for an hour or so and spend some money.  Around 20 years ago, the provincial government was nuts for tourism projects.  You might recall that, it was 20 years ago, that lots of communities across the province began building the world's largest such-and-such to be their tourist attraction.  I used to see all those "world's biggests" being built on the news and started daydreaming about what Entwistle could build to be tourist attraction.  Little did I know that the proper tourism opportunity was always there, right in front of me.

Flowing through Entwistle is the majestic Pembina River.  Entwistle sits on the border with Pembina River Provincial Park.  The park and its campground was always rather popular.  It has this wonderful little beach at a bend in the river, and it was the perfect place for cooling your feet on a hot day.  But for as long as I could remember, it was a very popular spot.  It was always crowded, and my earliest memories of the park are of cars parked along the highway because there was no room left in the park.  And floating down the river was a multitude of tubes.

The Pembina as it winds through Entwistle has always been popular with tubers.  Get yourself an old inner tube, and just lazily float down the river.  You can even do it completely within the park.  When my brother and I would do it, we'd start at the beach and then float down to the campground's "E" loop.  It was fun.  But, there were always those braver than us, who would venture further up the river, to the massive railway trestles, and set out from there.  One of the most popular places to start your journey was a patch of Crown land behind the Entwistle Cemetery.

In about the past five years or so, knowledge of the Pembina River in Entwistle and how great it is for tubing has exploded into the mainstream.  A few locals decided to take advantage of it.  They opened up a business called Pembina River Tubing.  They rent tubes to the tourists and run a shuttle bus out to that patch of Crown land.  Their business is on an old lot in Entwistle that used to house a junkyard.  Business is good, and it's good to see.  Finally, someone found a tourism hook for Entwistle and how to make some money off it.

"Damn you, Mark!" you might be saying.  "You haven't been to Entwistle in years!  You don't know how bad it is."  Granted, my view of the tubing company is biased.  For you see, Pembina River Tubing is located, literally, right across the street from my parents' house.  So most of what I know about the comes from my parents.  And my parents have long shared my desire for Entwistle to find its tourism hook.  They love having the tubing company there.  In a small town, where growth is rare, this new business offering new employment opportunities is a breath of fresh air.  And when it comes to have such a busy business for neighbours, my parents will say never will you find nicer neighbours.  The owners are always dropping in to make sure that everything is fine and they're not disturbing the neighbourhood too much.

And they know that the Pembina River is their lifeblood.  They routinely patrol the Pembina River, looking for those who may have fallen behind.  They even formed a group called Friends of the Pembina, who patrol the river and clean up the trash.  Yup.  As far as my parents are concerned - a couple of lifelong Entwistle locals - Pembina River Tubing is doing everything right.

But there are those who don't think so.  My mother always says nothing gets her blood boiling like reading a little Facebook group called the Pembina Interest Group.

The Pembina Interest Group is dedicated to trying to keep the tubers out of Entwistle.  When the locals opposed to the tourists first rallied together under this banner, their goal was to shut down Pembina River Tubing.  They blame Pembina River Tubing for bringing the tubers to town.  I don't think that's how it happened.  I personally believe the mass influx of tourists began further back that that.  I believe it was the one-two punch of the Wabamun Lake oil spill, followed by Wabamun Lake Provincial Park being closed for renovations.  Wabamun Lake is very popular as a weekend getaway for Edmontonians, and with their lake access cut off, they began venturing farther west looking for a new weekend destination.  And they found Entwistle.  As I said earlier, for as long as I can remember, the river has been popular with tubers, so naturally the new tourists would want to try it themselves.  Like all good entrepreneurs, Pembina River Tubing didn't create the demand...they saw the demand and rushed to fill it. 

I guess the Pembina Interest Group also came to the realization that Pembina River Tubing is not to blame.  Over the past month or so, their shift has focused to the Entwistle Cemetery.  As I mentioned earlier, a very popular staging area for people to launch their tubes has been a patch of Crown land behind the cemetary.  And the only way to access this land is to drive through the cemetery itself.  Needless to say, what was once a very quiet country road has now became a very busy thoroughfare, as people drive down the road, through the cemetery, and to the Crown land.  My memories of the highway next to Pembina River Provincial Park being clogged with parked cars is now applicable to the cemetery road.

It does trouble me that the Entwistle Cemetery has become somewhat of a major thru road, but since the only information I'm getting is from the Pembina Interest Group, I can't help but wonder how much of it is hyperbolic.  Most of the "spy photos" they post on their Facebook group are of the multitudes of cars parked on the Crown land.  Despite their allegations, they have yet to post a photo of people parking on the graves, picnicking on the graves, peeing on the graves, having sex on the graves, or any other disrespectful behaviour to the graves that they allege happens. 

But if what they say on their Facebook page is true, they have been sending those photos to the Edmonton media.  They must have finally caught someone's attention, because back on Monday, I noticed stories about the tubers in Entwistle in the Edmonton Journal, on Global TV, and on CBC Edmonton.  And there I got to hear from Parkland County.  Entwistle, you see, dissolved their village council about 10 years ago and became a hamlet in Parkland County.  That's been adding to the Pembina Interest Group's frustrations, as the seat of power is all the way in Stony Plain, and they feel the west end of the county is being neglected.

In the news stories, they county officials say that a new road will be built over the winter to bypass the cemetery, and this should once again preserve the cemetery's peace.  Off the record, I can tell you that my parents are about to lose their neighbours.  Pembina River Tubing has acquired a parcel of land on the south side of Entwistle, and hopes to build some permanent facilities closer to this new road.  So accommodations are being made.  But it's not enough for some.  There are those who won't be happy until every last tuber is gone from Entwistle.  And that saddens me.  Their logic eventually boils down to selfishness.  After you go through the hyperbole of graves being vandalized and Pembina River Tubing being a blight on the community, you find, "Tubing on the river used to be our little secret...we want it to be our secret again."

That's long been my frustration with small town living.  So much opportunity, but no desire to pursue it.

Perhaps that can be best summed up by a discussion I saw on the Global TV Facebook page about this news story.  Let me paraphrase:

Tourist>>  I don't know what Entwistle's complaining about.  Build some restaurants, build some motels, get rich off these people.

Local>>  Pfft!  We already have motels and restaurants.  We don't need more.

Much like the oil and gas that drives this province, tourism is a resource.  And like all resources, it must be properly developed and managed.  What's going on back home is almost a Fort McMurray situation.  They've become a boom town, and now their struggling to keep up.  And sitting there screaming, "TUBERS GO HOME!" is the wrong way to go about it.

Steps are being taken.  That new road around the cemetery is a good thing.  But why stop there?  Why not take that patch of Crown land and develop it into a proper campground?  Built a proper boat launch for the tubers.  Set up some camping stalls so they'll stay longer and spend more money.  And with a park comes park rangers...the more law enforcement that the Pembina Interest Group says is needed.  In a way, that is where the Pembina Interest Group is doing a good deed.  They say on their group that every weekend their filing more and more complaints with SRD, the RCMP, and most other law enforcement agencies.  The more complaints will show the greater demand for officers of the law.

As it has for most of my life, Entwistle sits at a crossroads, literally and figuratively.  At the meeting of the Yellowhead and the Cowboy Trail, so much potential lies.  And as always, I wonder, can that potential be developed?

Further Reading:

The Official Website of Pembina River Tubing

The Pembina Interest Group on Facebook

The Edmonton Journal's article on Entwistle's massive influx of tourists

Here's Global TV's story on the tourists

And here's CBC Edmonton's story on the matter.

And here's a picture of the beach at Pembina River Provincial Park, which best matches my memories.

No comments: