Standing at the 18-kilometre mark of Florence Lake Forest Service Road, Mission RCMP Insp. Ted De Jager reaches down and picks up his choice of spent casings and shotgun shells lying among the garbage.
Holding up the shell, he looks past the paper targets hanging on nearby branches and rocks and focuses his gaze towards the trees in the distance.
De Jager explains that a .308 rifle round would have no problem going past the targets, through the woods and far beyond.
Alouette Lake is located on the other side of the trees. The chance that a stray bullet could injure someone is very real.
It is illegal to shoot any firearm within the District of Mission, except for hunting. Target practice is forbidden. However, the 18-kilometre point of the road represents the end of the district and the beginning of Crown land, where shooting is permitted.
Despite that, De Jager says dangerous shooting practices are unacceptable, no matter where you may be standing.
Still more targets are hung on trees facing the opposite direction. Anyone firing at these would be shooting right back towards the road they drove up.
Dangerous shooting is just one of many issues the Mission RCMP is trying to get under control in Stave West – a 5,000-hectare area situated in northern Mission around the west side of Stave Lake – and other rural areas in the district.
Impaired driving, unlicensed vehicles, illegal campfires, large drunken parties, stolen cars and other objectionable acts have plagued the area, but steps are being taken to bring the law back to what some have dubbed as “the Wild West.”
The process began last year when the district solidified its Stave West Master Plan with the intention to create a family-friendly recreation destination.
To support the plan, Mission RCMP began an education program to inform visitors in the area – 90 per cent of whom are not from Mission but surrounding communities – about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.
This year the focus is on enforcement. It seems it’s going to take time and persistence to get the message across.
While incidents of illegal shooting in the district have decreased, other activities within the district boundaries are continuing.
“There is an attitude that, ‘We’re out here, nothing applies to us. We want to, essentially, have our own way and don’t want to be burdened by the rules of society,’ ” De Jager said.
It’s an attitude that goes back decades. Visitors believe that anything goes at Stave Lake and the police will look the other way.
“Those days are long gone. This is a place for families and for everybody to enjoy, not just people who feel that they have some sort of entitlement to break the rules and break the laws in this area. And that’s what we’re cracking down this summer.”
That attitude of entitlement showed itself over the Mother’s Day weekend.
That’s when Mission RCMP began their enforcement campaign, checking vehicles entering the Stave Lake area, ensuring off-road vehicles were properly licensed, and watching for impaired driving.
As part of a tradition in the area, dozens of ATVs and 4x4s were on the mud flats that day, tearing around on the lake bed.
Police did not stop the “Mudders Day” event from happening, but did hand out citations and tickets to any violators.
When they attempted to arrest an individual, the situation quickly escalated.
A crowd of about 30 people approached the five officers on scene and began to protest the arrest, attempting to intimidate them. The group chanted “Let him go!” as police tried to calm the crowd.
De Jager called it an unusual event.
“I wouldn’t call it a riot, but that’s the type of thing that, when people get that belligerent that they are trying to intimidate the police … it’s a bit of a hair-trigger situation.”
But he said police remained calm and professional and, once they had the person under control, they left the area.
It has been suggested that a gate be installed in the area of the mud flats to restrict access, but no definite plans have been approved.
Despite the parties, shooting and other dangerous behaviour, driving is the usual cause of physical injuries and even death.
More than 200,000 vehicles travel on Florence Lake Forest Service Road annually, making it one of the busiest service roads in the province. The gravel road is challenging to navigate, with steep hills and large potholes.
“People will take normal cars up here, but they have no business being on this road… it’s pretty nasty,” said De Jager.
He said many people outdrive their vision, especially if it’s wet or icy.
“If somebody doesn’t have any experience on gravel roads, or if they are driving beyond their experience, then it’s game over.”
In March, 15-year-old Lidia Ramos lost her life when a car in which she was a passenger missed a turn and crashed into the trees. A memorial is still erected at the scene of the crash.
A little further up the road is another marker, for Vikki Heppner whose burned body was found March 29 by a passerby .
De Jager wants to make it clear that the police are not trying to stop the area from being used. Rather, they want it to be a safe place.
“The people dumping things and having bonfires and causing mayhem in the middle of the night – that we are trying to restrict or prevent.
“People that are 4x4ing and driving their ATVs and their dirt bikes responsibly and are registered, that’s exactly the people that the District of Mission wants here and we’re trying to attract.”
While the police are encouraged that illegal shooting has decreased in Stave West, they know the problem hasn’t stopped; rather, it has moved to the opposite side of the lake.
Stave East is Crown land, outside of the district boundaries, where shooting is legal. But it still needs to be safe.
“It’s in our detachment area, but is provincial land, not municipal,” said De Jager.
He said the RCMP’s focus for Stave East is going to be firearm usage.
“A lot of people come up there, the east side, and they don’t realize there are houses all through there.”
According to De Jager, last summer a fire suppression crew came under gunfire in Stave East.
“They weren’t shooting at them on purpose, but didn’t realize their bullets were going through the trees and at the firefighters.”
The crew was forced to abandon the fire, which fortunately didn’t get out of control.
Much like Stave West, De Jager said people believe the rules don’t apply to them because they are in the wilderness.
“There is a place (in Stave East) nicknamed Little Iraq that you can step out of the truck and not touch gravel because you are going to be standing on all the shells, and shotgun shells and the empty casings from rifles. People don’t believe me until they actually go there.”