Fort Smith's Paddlefest has begun, with organizers saying they have done all they can to address concerns about nearby pelicans nesting.
The town and surrounding river are favourite sites for the American white pelican to nest. This year, some pelicans are reported to have made their nests outside their usual protected nesting site – and closer to where Paddlefest's events take place.
The annual paddling festival, held just to the south of Fort Smith on the Alberta side of the border with the NWT, runs from Friday until Monday.
James Darkes, a resident of Fort Smith, contacted Cabin Radio ahead of the festival to express concern for the pelicans' safety as dozens of paddlers take to the water nearby.
Darkes feels Paddlefest is ordinarily held too close to the island sanctuary where pelicans nest. He believes the new location of some nests this year only exacerbates the problem, arguing birds could be harmed by noise from the event or the actions of paddlers.
“Most teenage boys of my experience could throw a baseball across the channel from Paddlefest venue to the nesting island.” said Darkes by email.
"When the juveniles start going into the water they will be in the eddy closest to the shore where kayakers gather.
"Any boaters in the playground rapid will be sharing the water with them. They will almost assuredly flee. Downstream is the only place they can go – no adults to feed them."
No generator, no PA
Paddlefest organizers say they are aware of Darkes’ concerns and taking precautions to protect the birds.
In an email to Cabin Radio, Karl Cox – the vice-president of the Fort Smith Paddling Club – listed some of the safety measures being taken by Paddlefest.
“This year we are eliminating the use of a generator and PA system to reduce the noise on-site," said Cox.
"We will also include a briefing during the safety meeting for all Paddlefest participants to remind them to avoid the nesting islands.”
On Friday, signs at the Paddlefest flatwater canoe racing site – at a different location to the festival's main Saturday and Sunday venue – could be seen warning attendees to respect the pelicans.
“There was one incident a few years ago where a number of young pelicans ended up injured and starving at the Rapids of the Drowned," said Cox.
"There was a severe thunderstorm that passed over the nesting islands not long after Paddlefest. I believe the storm was likely the cause of the birds getting blown into the rapids and downriver.
"Paddlefest has been going on for years and that is the only bird disturbance or mortality event that I have heard of."
Darkes is especially concerned for the juveniles because Paddlefest, he says, is being held at the time they are starting to leave the nest.
Paddlefest says it will instruct all participants to avoid disturbing any juveniles and paddle away from them.
Both Darkes and Paddlefest agree the festival is not breaking the law by going ahead as planned. Only the existing pelican sanctuary is afforded legal protection, not any new nesting sites outside that zone.
Paddlefest says a 100m buffer zone around the existing sanctuary is enforced and posted on signs but not a specific legal requirement under Alberta's Wildlife Act.
Alberta Environment and Parks – under whose jurisdiction the event falls, given its location south of the territorial border – could not be reached for comment.
The weekend's Paddlefest activities include competitions and games at Mountain Portage Rapids, the festival's main location, plus a beach party on Saturday night and a dinner at the Queen Elizabeth campground on Sunday.
Weekend passes for paddlers cost $90 for adults and $55 for youth aged nine to 17. Spectator prices for weekend passes are $60 for adults and $40 for youth.
With files from Alice Twa