A secluded beach on the northern tip of Vancouver Island has become the epicentre of a feud between a hippie-style counterculture movement and local residents concerned about protecting the environment.
Gaby Wickstrom, a town councillor in Port McNeill, said she found out on Wednesday that hundreds, possibly thousands of people from around the world were planning to descend on Raft Cove Provincial Park, a beach area accessible only through a two-kilometre hike from remote logging roads.
Facebook postings from a group called the Rainbow Family of Living Light had declared Raft Cove the destination for a month-long "World Rainbow Gathering," where attendees would live off the land and pray for world peace. A Facebook event page, now deleted, showed more than 1,800 people were planning to attend.
The Rainbow Family is a leaderless, amorphous movement that has been gathering in public forests around the world since 1972. Annual conventions of the U.S. branch draw as many as 20,000 people, and are carefully monitored by law-enforcement agencies and the U.S. Forest Service.
Facebook pages of Rainbow groups in B.C. show a movement riven by infighting and disorganization. The gathering was initially set for a spot near Nelson, B.C., but was switched at the last minute due to fierce local opposition.
After Ms. Wickstrom raised concerns about the Raft Cove gathering on social media, word spread rapidly and residents of Port McNeill and Port Hardy became outraged that the beach's environment would be trampled.
"Currently there's about 200 people out there," said Ms. Wickstrom. "They've already started clearing some salal [small shrubs] and digging a latrine. They have a kitchen set up, and have reportedly had bonfires."
Terry Eissfeldt of Port McNeill helped set up a protest Facebook page with more than 1,000 members, and has been frantically alerting government officials to the situation.
"Raft Cove is this tiny little place, and it'll just ruin it," Ms. Eissfeldt said.
Police and B.C. Parks staff were also caught unaware about the gathering. In an e-mailed statement, the Ministry of Environment said conservation officers and RCMP would be on site by Thursday afternoon.
"Our primary concerns are to ensure public health and safety as well as protect the natural environment and uphold the ecological and cultural park values in Raft Cove Park," the statement said. "B.C. Parks is currently exploring all options to ensure concerns are addressed, up to and including closing the park."
Active members on the Facebook pages dedicated to Rainbow events in B.C. either didn't respond to contact attempts, or denied being representatives of the movement when reached.
Port McNeill residents said that throughout Thursday, hitchhikers and motorists continued to travel down gravel roads toward Raft Cove.
Sequoia Coe, who has lived in Port McNeill for 13 years, hoped for a negotiated resolution but said many options are being discussed by locals. "A lot of talk of road blocks and signs," she said. "But from what I've heard, it's still in the talk stages."
"We're trying to be law-abiding citizens, and not fall into the same anarchic mindset that these people have," said Ms. Eissfeldt. "We would just rather see the Ministry of the Environment close the park completely until their magic moon moment is gone."