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Landslide cuts wide swath

Destruction of access road, bridge may mean the end of a business

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Friday morning's massive landslide blocked sections of Meager Creek. It wiped out an entire span of Capricorn Creek Bridge. And it may have wiped out Don Pitcairn's business.

The owner and operator of Whistler Hot Springs (WHS) started his tour company this past winter to capitalize on world market interest in Meager Creek hot springs following the Olympics. The plan was to haul tourists up on a round trip for about $100, let them soak in the magma-heated mineral water in natural stone tubs as the white water of the creek rumbles past.

Now, with one span of Capricorn Creek bridge wiped out and about five miles of the Upper Lillooet Forest Service Road buried, it may take years for the public to access the springs again. That means Pitcairn will either need to refocus his efforts on Skookumchuck hot springs or fold the business all together.

"There's a fair amount that's up in the air right now with what we're going to do with Whistler Hot Springs," Pitcairn said. "Meager Creek was the destination that everybody wanted to go to."

He said 80 per cent of the calls he receives are queries about the Meager Creek hot springs. If Meager Creek is out indefinitely, he needs to decide if there's enough interest in Skookumchuck - located about 50 km south of Pemberton - to maintain his business. At this point, he doesn't know what to do.

The hot springs, which have long been a tourist attraction, sit at the foot of Mount Meager, a dormant volcano. They are heated by the volcano's magma system. The area is highly unstable; Meager last erupted 2,400 years ago and the landscape has been breaking down ever since.

A flood in 2003 wiped out the bridge spanning Meager Creek, cutting off access to the hot springs. It took until 2008 to fix the bridge. Then, in September 2009, another, weaker flood damaged one of the bridge's three spans, once again cutting off access to the hot springs.

According to Mike Sato, owner of Sea to Sky Onsen Inc., which developed the hot springs into a tourist friendly hotspot in the 1990s, repairs to the Forest Service Road and the bridge were finally completed about three weeks ago.

"The caretakers for the Meager Creek Hot Springs were last there last Monday, and were preparing for opening the hot springs to the public," Sato said.

But Friday's massive landslide wiped out one span of the bridge and shifted another, rendering the hot springs unusuable and virtually unreachable, except by airlift.

"There's not much left up there," said Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy. "I'm not sure what the impacts on the Meager Creek Hot Springs are. I have no idea what the situation is there, given what I saw."

Aerial photographs of the landslide show that large sections of the road and bridge are completely covered. Photographs submitted to Pique from Brian Allen show the hot springs, which are about six kilometres upstream from the slide, remain intact.

"Given that this is not the first time this has happened, not even the second time this has happened, I'm not sure what the Ministry of Forests and Range plan would be," Sturdy said. "Relative to the cost of rebuilding the infrastructure, there may be a question there of whether it's worth moving forward on it or not. Certainly we want to see the hot springs operational, but there's a lot of work to do before that can happen again."

The Ministry of Forests and Range isn't sure if it will rebuild the road or the bridge, given the instability of the area. Cheekwan Ho, media liaison for the ministry, wrote Pique in an e-mail that the ministry will be conducting an aerial and on-land survey in the coming weeks to assess the damage and what steps need to be taken to move forward.

"While we do not believe the slide impacted the Meager Creek hotsprings, we have not yet had an opportunity to assess damage to roads and infrastructure," Ho wrote.

"Until a full assessment has been conducted, it is premature to speculate on options to re-open access in the area."

SFU earth sciences professor John Clague said it's unlikely that the hot springs were directly affected by the landslide, which was a surface phenomenon. The springs are fed from deep below the earth's crust.

The big question he asks is whether the ministry will find it worth the money to rebuild a road and a bridge in an area that he said is likely to suffer landslides in the future.

"It's going to be an interesting discussion," Clague said.

Pitcairn, who also owns a commercial gardening company in the Lower Mainland, isn't too optimistic.

"If I were the forestry ministry I'd look at whether they're going to get good value for their money or if this is going to be a never-ending black hole they're throwing tax dollars into," he said.

"It's going to take years to stabilize that area. The chances of the government putting another bridge through there, knowing that it could be wiped out again and again and again - who knows?"