PETER LOUGHEED PROVINCIAL PARK – Ensuring Albertans from all demographics have the chance to access and enjoy the great outdoors, more than $1 million dollars has been designated for the maintenance of William Watson Lodge in the provincial government's 2019 budget.
The lodge, located in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, will receive $450,000 over the next three years for a total of $1.35 million between 2019-22 based on the recently released 2019-23 Capital Plan.
Jill Jamieson, Alberta Parks team lead with William Watson Lodge, said she is pleased that funds have been allocated to the lodge because it will aid in ensuring the facility stays up-to-date based on contemporary accessibility standards.
“It’s [William Watson Lodge] quite unique and it’s quite the jewel in the crown for environment and parks to offer year-round barrier-free wilderness and lodging,” Jamieson said.
However, Jamieson noted, the specific rollout of the funds has yet to be determined.
“We don’t know details yet,” Jamieson said. “Currently we have the detailed design of our main day lodge complete with a construction start date yet to be determined.”
Since 2017, Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) has invested $3.5 million into William Watson Lodge. The work funded included replacements of some of the larger cabins.
Under the Alberta Budget 2019, the government is expected to allocate about $8.9 million overall to the lodge over the next five years, Jamieson added, to support capital upgrades. This includes the anticipated replacement of the main lodge and refurbishment of the older cabins at the facility.
“Our primary clients and guests are Albertan’s living with disabilities. It’s to have accessible wilderness lodging opportunities,” Jamieson said, adding that the lodge is also available secondarily to seniors over the age of 65.
“The plans are actually quite exciting. It’s to help William Watson Lodge maintain its universal accessibility.”
William Watson Lodge features 22 accessible cabins, 11 RV campsites, an accessible camping hut and more than 20 kilometres of accessible hiking trails.
Four of the 22 cabins have been replaced to date to meet current accessibility standards.
“It’s really quite incredible,” Jamieson said. “It’s just so remarkable to be able to support that section of society that often does not have a purpose-built place in not only the parks system, but in other areas of the province.”
Jamieson said one of her favourite aspects of William Watson is the day lodge available for guests. The building boasts an area for visitors to enjoy a coffee and chat, while learning what is happening on the ski, snowshoe and hiking trails.
The lodge hosts a group almost every day of the year and welcomes groups of seniors or people from group homes living with disabilities.
“It’s really a lively and incredible day for folks,” Jamieson said. “It’s a real respite and it’s recreational – it’s a hub for people to stay active.”
Jamieson added that visiting the lodge serves as an opportunity for guests to connect with nature and Alberta heritage while offering people of all abilities a safe recreation space.
“They can access the landscape whether they use a chair, or walkers or snowshoe or if they’re with caregivers,” she said. “It’s a real way to connect and also build a sense of belonging.”
The William Waston Lodge has been a well-loved and well-used facility for more than 40 years and the upgrades to the area are a welcomed development, Jamieson said. The lodge is also able to pursue enhancements through funding from the William Watson Lodge Society.
“They are so committed – they raise dollars in order to support any enhancement above and beyond what the government is able to do to make the stay even more welcoming and rich experience for people who come to the lodge,” Jamieson said. “They use it and love it … it’s pretty amazing.”
Jan Wierenga has been visiting William Watson Lodge for more than 25 years. He served as a volunteer camp host with his wife Christina for around 20 years of those years, explaining that he appreciates the community William Watson Lodge has been able to foster.
“It has changed,” Jan said. “A lot more people [come out].”
The beautiful country and the quiet keep Jan and his wife returning to the mountains.
“There’s lots of hiking trails and you can go fishing,” Jan said, adding that in the past they used to cross-country ski in the area. “Here we have all the facilities, your light, your water and your sewer.”
It is a welcome change to see potential upgrades come out of the capital budget funding, Jan said, because while Alberta has experienced a population boom that growth has not been reflected in the park system in terms of lodging and camping availability.
“The population since we came here must have tripled,” Jan said with a laugh. “You have the same amount of campgrounds, so now you can’t decide who is going to get a campsite and who won’t. There is so much enthusiasm for it. If you don’t book the first day you possibly can’t reserve you’re too late.”
Sharing a cabin with Jan, Heike Wierenga from Calgary travelled to the lodge for a four-day trip.
It can be challenging reserving a spot at the lodge, Heike said, because guests face the chance they may not get in, creating an unpleasant experience.
They were able to get in for a visit because they were on the waiting list and a reservation cancelled.
“It is a great facility,” he said. “The biggest problem is that it is becoming very difficult to get in. There’s no more spontaneity to go camping.”
He said visits to William Watson Lodge are enhanced for guests by the supports and gear in place at the lodge that helps ensure visits are always a pleasant experience.
The services provided at the facility play a role in ensuring the great outdoors are “more in reach” for people who want to come out.
“It’s a great place to come you can get away from everything,” Wierenga said. “If your interests are outdoors then it’s a great place to get an outdoor experience, especially if you’ve got someone who has a mobility or issue or requires some other assistance because everything is laid out for you.”