A healthy vision for parks and people: An Ontario rock climbing success story

For alumnus Adam Reeve (BRLS ‘96), recreation is the opportunity to turn spectators of the environment into activists through activity.

Inspired by a love of nature, health and environmental sustainability, Brock Recreation and Leisure Studies alumni Adam Reeve and Jeremy ‘Jay’ Thompson (BRLS ‘08; MA ‘10) have been at the centre of a shifting dialogue in southern Ontario climbing areas for the past 15 years.

In 1990, the Niagara Escarpment was designated an international Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Brock students bouldering.

Brock students bouldering at the Niagara Glen.

This designation as a biosphere reserve gives the Niagara Escarpment international recognition for its important ecological and cultural values.

As one of only 16 biosphere reserves in Canada, the areas where climbing takes place along the Niagara Escarpment are unique and fragile environments with special protections.

For many years, some considered rock climbers the antithesis of delivering conservation-area objectives, largely, due to misunderstandings about the activity and its impacts on the environment.

Adam Reeve saw it differently. He wanted to see the Niagara Escarpment used to create a mutually healthy vision for parks and people in southern Ontario climbing areas by working with local stakeholders.

“The Brock Recreation and Leisure Studies program helped me understand how critical positive outdoor recreation experiences are in driving people’s motivation to sustain the natural environment,” says Reeve.

Canada’s National Parks are a great example of how natural resources can be preserved while providing sustainable access to select areas for recreational use, he says.

“The concept of sustainability motivated me to help re-open Halfway Log Dump after it was closed for nearly a decade because of environmental concerns,” explains Reeve.

Located on the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula, near Tobermory, Ont. and spread along the shore of Georgian Bay, Halfway Log Dump is a unique and beautiful destination of clean, solid boulders and rocky shelves extending into the crystal clear waters of Lake Huron.

Halfway Log Dump is a bouldering area where climbers generally climb close to the ground with the use of spotters and gymnastics-like pads in case of a fall. There is limited use of specialized equipment such as ropes or harnesses.

Bouldering has quickly become one of the most popular forms of rock climbing in southern Ontario. To help ensure Halfway Log Dump remains open, Reeve was the driving force behind a climbing mentorship program where volunteers spend time there during the busiest months of the year, showing new climbers how to practice the activity respectfully in one of Canada’s nature-based treasures.

The past superintendent of Bruce Peninsula National Park, Frank Burrows, calls the climbers ‘ambassadors’ for the area, who help the park to deliver its objectives of maintaining and improving the ecological integrity of the parks, while facilitating high quality visitor experiences and conducting effective public outreach and education.

While climbing for Reeve is still primarily a way to connect with nature, to help ensure the Escarpment is a place for sustainable rock climbing for many years to come, he has authored a climbing guidebook about Halfway Log Dump with a focus on nature interpretation and Leave No Trace climbing practices.

The Niagara Glen Nature Reserve (locally known as the Glen) in Niagara Falls, Ont., experienced challenges similar to Halfway Log Dump. As bouldering in the Glen became increasing popular through the 1990s and early 2000s, it brought increased ecological pressures which resulted in damage to the fragile vegetation at boulder bases and tops.

In 2007, a draft management plan recommended a bouldering ban to protect the area. Luckily for the climbing community, this was all happening while Jay Thompson was at Brock working on his master’s thesis about outdoor recreation sustainability.

In 2010, Thompson conducted focus group interviews with climbers investigating the perceptions of boulderers regarding the idea of creating an environmentally sustainable bouldering community at the Niagara Glen.

Working closely with members from the Ontario Access Coalition (OAC), Thompson was able to help open communications with the Niagara Parks Commission (NPC), for further dialogue about how to solve the sustainability challenges.

Over several years, NPC, OAC and members of the Friends of the Glen community group began to work side-by-side. One initiative was to catalogue species on the tops of boulders. Naturalists explained the flora, fauna and geological history of the area and the boulderers demonstrated climbing practices and equipment to the naturalists.

“Everyone got to experience and appreciate the Glen in new ways,” says Thompson.

In 2011, bouldering was officially sanctioned as an activity at the Glen by the NPC through a permit system that has been successful in minimizing environmental impacts while keeping the area open for recreation.

What began with tension and some misunderstanding is now a textbook outdoor recreation sustainability initiative and the Niagara Glen is now the province’s largest destination for bouldering.

The vision for sustainability of both Thompson and Reeve is now being further realized through other climbing community-driven initiatives. These include land acquisition, invasive species removal, signage creation, site clean-ups, and funding environmental impact research studies.

Students currently enrolled in Brock’s Outdoor Recreation courses use the Niagara Glen and other Escarpment areas as outdoor classrooms where they conduct fieldwork and earn a Leave No Trace Trainer certification, which will prepare them to teach the best practices for minimizing recreational impacts to natural areas.

Rock climbing and bouldering are progressive forms of outdoor recreation that facilitate protection of natural areas and healthy lifestyles. The work of Thompson and Reeve for healthy parks has helped to create healthy people and will continue to do so for generations to come.

To download a free copy of Adam Reeve’s book, An Interpretative Bouldering Guide to Halfway Log Dump, visit the Ontario Access Coalition website at ontarioaccesscoalition.com.

• Story by Garrett Hutson, Associate Professor of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Brock University. 

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