Slocan River tubing. A resident wants to keep motorized boats off the river. Photo: Jennifer Small

Slocan River tubing. A resident wants to keep motorized boats off the river. Photo: Jennifer Small

Should motorboats be banned on the Slocan River? This woman says yes

Judy McMahon is concerned by rising tourism

by John Boivin

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

A Slocan Valley woman’s drive to save the Slocan River from motorized boat traffic started one day when she was on the water with her then 14-year-old son.

“He said, ‘Mom, why are people motorboating on this river? That’s not right.’ And I said, ‘well, we should do something about it,’” says Judy McMahon.

That ‘something’ will likely turn out to be a long struggle with regulators to control how people can use the river. McMahon – who has lived in the valley 16 years – worries that with tourism development and population increase, the river could see more people zooming up and down the shallow river in powerful watercraft.

“It’s not the old ‘tinners’ that have been going up and down the river for the last 50 years that’s the problem,” the freelance photographer and homeschooling mom says. “… It’s what’s coming, and what they don’t see, what could come and has come in small numbers already that’s the problem.

“I think it is unnecessary to have motorboats, especially high-speed boats, going down the Slocan River,” she adds. “I think many people understand the Slocan River is unique – its hard to describe how special it is. It feels like one of the last rivers with clean water, and lush wildlife on it, and that’s the reason for me wanting to do this.”

McMahon has seen it happen before – on the Elk River near Fernie. There, she says, she had a small role in the local fight to keep powered watercraft off a section of that river.

Right now, there are no laws prohibiting any kind of motorized craft on the shallow, winding, 60-kilometre Slocan River – something most people aren’t aware of, she says, which has helped.

“Many people think there are restrictions, and thank goodness – that’s kept the river quiet till now,” she told the Valley Voice. “But in fact there is no designation for non-motorized. However, there is a 10 km/hour speed restriction, and from what I’ve seen, the motorboat users aren’t following it.”

That’s created conflicts between other users of the river – people paddling, floating down the river on tubes, or swimming. McMahon has set up an online survey and says survey respondents have told her of numerous instances where they had problems with motorized vehicles. Over 200 surveys have been completed, she says, and they are almost unanimous in their concern.

“So many people feel the river should be non-motorized. While it’s infrequent at this point, we know that tourism … you can’t even predict how quickly people flock to a place once the word gets out. Especially in these days of social media, people like to advertise the great things they are doing.”

Certainly not everyone agrees motorized boats should be banned, but McMahon says her survey showed overwhelming support for the idea.

But it can be a long way from becoming a reality. She says the federal Department of Transport has to make the ruling, and that can take years – or even decades.

“It took one particular lady 25 years to get a 10 km/hour restriction on a section of the Columbia River,” she says. “We don’t have time like that. Tourism is moving very rapidly, and so is technology in watercraft. By having a non-motorized riverway, you’re protecting the river from the future, for the people who use it for swimming, waterboarding, kayaking.”

McMahon says she’s at the earliest stages of this drive to get protection for the Slocan. The survey’s a good start, but she needs to do more research, draw up a report, and distribute it to various government departments and interested parties. She’s also contacting people like MP Richard Cannings, to enlist his support for the cause.

She says their effort will focus on the safety aspects of the problem.

“It is an environmental issue, but it’s a safety issue as well,” she says. “Safety is the issue that’s going to be the inflection point. If you talk about people getting hurt, boom, the government is going to listen. If you talk about the otters and fish and other waterfowl or turbidity, well ‘hmm, that’s going to take a while.’ We see it all over the world.”

Though it may be a long haul, she says she’s in it for the duration. If you’d like to get involved, or get a link to the survey, you can contact McMahon at

“We just want to protect the river, the wildlife, the quality of life along the river, either for people or animals, and the river itself, well into the future,” she says.