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Motorcycling debate in the Kootenays moving from a hum to a roar

Click to play video: 'Motorcycle controversy rides through Kootenays'
Motorcycle controversy rides through Kootenays
It's one of Canada's best roads for motorcyclists, but not everyone is happy about who's been using Highway 31A, and it's even driven some people to start a petition. John Hua explains. – May 12, 2016

In the Kootenays, where virtually every town was originally founded because of a natural resource boom that has long since gone bust, necessity has always been the mother of economic reinvention.

Which is why last year in Kaslo, after nearly 30 years of catering to hunters and fisherman (and even, for a brief period, paintballers) Barren’s Sport Shop began focusing on motorcyclists.

“We noticed increasingly more and more motorcycles going through town,” says store co-owner Karissa Stroshein, surrounded by leather jackets and oversized sunglasses.

“Thousands of bikes come through, and it means so much to our little community. They stop for gas, they stay the night, they buy souvenirs, and it’s huge.”

Stroshein isn’t the only one in Kaslo, population of just over a thousand people, welcoming the industry. The 9-hole golf club, one of the oldest in British Columbia, advertises free club rentals to to motorcyclists passing through. And at the Kaslo Hotel, overseeing picturesque Kootenay Lake, says at least 25 per cent of their revenue is now tied to the industry.

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“A lot of them are just passing through, but some stay for lunch, some stay at the hotel,” says the hotel’s owner, John Eckland.

“We’re the only industry this area has left. The sawmills all closed down, mining is gone, so tourism is the industry that Kaslo has to stay alive.”

QUIZ: How well do you know the Kootenays?

The highways extending from Kaslo have always been curvy, well-paved but lightly trafficked, and full of enchanting vistas.

Now, motorcyclists have taken notice, with the inland 31A route between Kaslo and New Denver attracting attention in multiple publications.

“It is a spiritual ride. Whenever you go through the canyons, when you’ve got trees embracing you on side to side, and streams quieting and dampening your day, there is nothing better,” says Robb Priske, who lives in the Castlegar area.

“There is nothing better. And that’s what the west Kootenays are all about.”

WATCH: Global News travelled with some motorcyclists from New Denver to Kaslo to understand why Highway 31A is considered one of the top rides in North America.

Click to play video: 'Motorcycling Highway 31A in B.C.'
Motorcycling Highway 31A in B.C.

To Gloria Lisgo, who lives on a farming property right off the 31A highway in New Denver, the west Kootenays are about something else.

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“We probably all want to come here for the same reason. We arrived in New Denver, and we take a look at what’s around us, and we go for a swim in the lake, and you drink the water, and you just say oh my gosh, this is wonderful. It’s peaceful, it’s quiet, we have some wildlife, and it’s just over the top beautiful,” she says, staring out from her window to the shores of Slocan Lake below.

“And all of a sudden, there’s this huge amount of noise that comes by. The commercial that our provincial government is putting out, Supernatural B.C., just gets squashed.”

Last year, Lisgo helped organize a petition, demanding the province enforce existing laws against excessive noise and bikes with modified mufflers. They’ve gathered over 4,600 signatures—no small feat, when you consider the Regional District of Central Kootenay has fewer than 60,000 people.

“When you can hear things two, three, four miles away that’s loud. It’s ridiculous,” says Art Mason, a petition organizer who lives in Kaslo.

“A woman from Germany [who signed the petition] said you know this is like a beautiful painting, but when these characters go by like that, it’s like vomiting on a canvas.”
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The harsh rhetoric has escalated in recent months, both sides feeling under attack. And with the Regional District of Central Kootenay passing on legislating the issue—leaving any future enforcement in the provincial government’s hands—the issue will simmer for another summer.

“It started off completely aimed at motorcycles, and that’s what bothered me the most, the discrimination. There’s a lot of other of noisy vehicles, a lot altered in different ways to be altered, and it’s not just motorcycles,” says Stroshein, who has created signs, to be distributed through Kaslo, asking bikers to keep their mufflers down while travelling through town.

“We can get the knowledge out there, you don’t have to crack your pipes coming through town, but we want them to come out to the Kootenays. I can reach middle ground, I think some people might not want to reach middle ground. But we have to work together, we all rely on each other.

Lisgo is adamant that she welcomes motorcyclists. Just not ones with excessive noise in residential areas.

“Please come! But, please don’t modify the muffler on your bike, so it makes a lot of noise. And please respect the speed limits…It affects all of us. And I would just like to see a little bit of respect.”

Talk to both groups, and they plenty of anecdotes, and plenty of claims they have the support of the silent majority.

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The Kootenays have always had people searching for their own slice of heaven living next to businesses trying to push the local economy in new directions.

But in this dispute, the two sides may be intractable.

“At the end of the day, I have an issue with there’s two sides,” says Lisgo.

“There’s one side that is breaking the law, and there’s the other side saying you shouldn’t be allowed to break the law.”

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