Billings council plans to open a portion of Bridal Veil Falls, Kagawong River trails soon

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KAGAWONG – Billings Township plans to open up a portion of Bridal Veil Falls and the trails along the Kagawong River as early as this weekend if everything goes well and signage is in place. Of course, all COVID-19 regulations such as physical distancing will need to be maintained regardless. 

“Our emergency control group was on site today, and we are moving ahead with what we said we would be doing at our council meeting on Tuesday,” said Billings Mayor Ian Anderson last Thursday. This means that the viewing platform at the top of the Bridal Veil Falls will be open for viewing of the falls (with people needing to adhere to all COVID-19 regulations such as physical distancing). However, the stairs going down to the falls themselves will be closed, as is the base area at the falls. The portion of trail from the power plant to the falls will also remain closed. 

The trails along the Kagawong River from the power plant north along the trail to the Old Mill Road at the bottom will be open. 

“There is much work that needs to be done, and signage put in place before we can move forward,” said Mayor Anderson. “We don’t have a set date yet, but we are hoping all of this will be in place by this weekend.” 

Mayor Anderson said that “the closure of the staircase at the falls and at the base of the falls, where people normally congregate to look at the falls, and even swimming, has to remain closed for now. Maintaining social distancing in this area and down the trail to the hydro plant is impossible.” 

Earlier in the week, Billings council discussed the issue and a letter it had received from a local business person calling for Bridal Veil Falls and the trails to be opened. 

Deputy clerk Megan Bonenfant said, “Bridal Veil Falls has been part of a lot of discussion of the group and in the community,” noting that the province’s Stage 1 reopening allowed for the opening of a number of recreational spaces but didn’t authorize the opening of all of them. An important caveat of all of this is that regardless, public health measures must be maintained, with people maintaining two metres’ distance from each other, no more than 10 people grouping in an area, the necessity of hand washing etc. 

“We are working with the MTO concerning signage at the top of the falls area,” said Ms. Bonenfant. She said masks will be required to access the trails and the falls viewing platform as well as all other COVID-19 regulations will need to be adhered to. Monitoring of the area will also be carried out. 

While public beaches have now been opened, playgrounds are still closed, council was told. 

Council also reviewed a letter it had received from Sandi Hurcomb at last week’s council meeting, “I am writing on behalf of SH2 which encompasses both Sugar Bush Canadian Coffee House and Bare Naked Beauty; Boo-Bah-Lou and Wild Creations are also in agreement with this letter.” 

“We understand that you have enormous concerns about our opening the falls and the trails. We realize the fear is that the railing and proximity issues are daunting, and you are scared that the virus will be propagated,” wrote Ms. Hurcomb. “The world and the Island have been dealing with COVID-19 for months and the human and economic toll has been immeasurable. With the first phase of reopening happening in Ontario and the recommendations from Dr. Tam, it is unfortunate that Billings is not following suit. Mental health for many is teetering, businesses are on the verge of closing permanently and the impacts are mounting. The Island needs a change of scenery, fresh air and exercise. At the risk of sounding dramatic, it is time that council stops parenting the behaviour of people on the Island. We all are aware of the safety measures, the tools like masks and gloves and the protocols of social distancing. It is not in your power to stop this virus; it is extremely frightening and we are likely to be dealing with it for months even years to come.”

“This already shortened season of tourism has had a costly impact, to lose more revenue due to not trusting the public is like trying to avoid the independence that every child must experience. You have all done what was required and helped this community through the first phase of this crisis, we thank you,” continued Ms. Hurcomb. “We ask that you follow the lead of the provincial government before the economic damage changes the landscape of our beautiful township. The Manitoulin is a place of incredible scenery and people. Those two factors are also our greatest strengths and our legacy. The Island has proven its capacity to mitigate this challenge. We now need to continue those efforts and regain the economic and mental health that makes our township so unique and treasured.”

“Please trust that moving forward and opening the assets of our town are in the best interest of us all,” continued Ms. Hurcomb. “With respect and good intention, thank you for hearing us out and for considering our request and our point of view.”

“Thank you, Sandi for your letter. Some of this has been addressed already here tonight,” said Mayor Anderson. “We don’t disagree, we agree. We are not living in a vacuum, we know the economic impacts have been devastating. We have made the conscious decision to open what we can, and be as safe as possible.”

“But we are willing to take baby steps, one major one being at Bridal Veil Falls,” said Mayor Anderson. “Things will not be entirely the way they were in the past, but we will give our plans a try and see how it works. We need to stay positive and get back to something better than we have recently experienced.” 

“I support the letter and the analogy,” said Councillor Sharon Alkenbrack. “We need to allow things to move forward. Our businesses are really important to the community.”
Councillor Bryan Barker said, “as Megan noted, discussion on the falls and trails have been foremost on the committee’s agenda and how  everything is impacting our business community. It is difficult to open things up while maintaining safety for everyone.” He said in Hamilton, which is known as the falls capital of the world, many there have not been open due to similar challenges faced locally. 

“We’re not parenting, we’re making decisions based on public health, federal/provincial recommendations and guidelines, and what is best for our community,” said Councillor Barker. “We’re trying our best. It is frustrating for everyone.” 

“The emphasis is that this is not like any other year, where everything is open to all,” said Mayor Anderson. “We have seen the evidence in Toronto of opening parks, where there were way too many people in one area.”