Illicit Encampments, ‘Hippie Architecture,’ and Banff’s High Tourist Season

Transient youth crashing on the lawn at Central Park, June 1970.

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By Ben Bradley.

Free national park admission during Canada’s 2017 sesquicentennial caused severe housing shortages in Banff, compelling young workers in the tourism and service industries to catch a wink when and wherever they could, always worried about being kicked out of town for sleeping where it was not permitted. While some residents deemed the situation “unprecedented,” it actually echoed conditions in the 1960s. During those years, summer staff were not the only youths who experienced difficulties with accommodations. So too did counterculturalists visiting Banff to make the scene rather than to make money for tuition or a car. Between them, they created a new kind of park campsite: illicit forest encampments where they could stay free. For many Banffites, these encampments raised serious concerns about youth morality, the boundaries of proper park behaviour, and the defilement of nature. For the National Parks Branch, they posed a serious ground-level policy challenge.

By the mid 1960s the town of Banff regularly saw 45,000 visitors per day during the summer months. With a year-round population of about 3000, it was also home to 1500+ young workers during the high tourist season.[1] Housing for these young workers was scarce, expensive, and crowded.[2]

An influx of counterculture youth began in the mid 1960s. These visitors had little to spend and little interest in local jobs. They troubled merchants, permanent residents, and many tourists, particularly when they loitered in public spaces and engaged in ‘bad behaviour’ that included panhandling, drug use, noise, and general defiance of local conventions and authorities. Like young workers, ‘hippies’ and hitchhiking transients found it difficult to stay in Banff. Motels were pricey and park campgrounds required users to at least have a tent. With few other options, many slept rough around town, while a few constructed illicit encampments at its forest edge, with a makeshift “hippie architecture” that used whatever material was at hand, even if it meant cutting down trees and ripping up the forest floor.

Transient youths crashing on the lawn at Central Park, June 1970. Summit News, 15 July 1970.

The earliest such encampment I have found reference to is from 1965. That July, wardens and police cleared a “jungle” in the woods of Tunnel Mountain, 300 yards from the Banff School of Fine Arts campus. Treehouses and huts had been built from illegally cut trees and plastic sheeting and other material pilfered from a nearby construction site, then camouflaged with evergreen boughs. Park superintendent Harry Dempster observed that “Banff has become a regular route for hoboes and bums ever since the Trans-Canada Highway was built,” but the founder of ‘Vagsville’ (“a term derived from vagrants”) told the Calgary Herald a different story, claiming that a couple of the half-dozen people who slept at the camp had menial jobs in town. “We’re not bums,” he protested.[3]

Vagsville was not the only problematic encampment busted that summer. Dempster described several parties of “beatnik types” kicked out of campgrounds for “drunk and disorderly” and “obnoxious and snotty” behaviour. That same week, two young men were charged with breaking into a Parks Branch bunkhouse in order to sleep there, and the police rousted a group of “young transients” from a picnic shelter they had “taken over” as their sleeping quarters. Seven males aged 17 to 23 were charged in the crackdown, while a 16-year-old avoided charges. They hailed from Alberta, BC, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. Two arrested at Vagsville were sentenced to 15 days in jail for vagrancy; the rest were evicted from the park for violating the National Parks Act.

The number of counterculture visitors to Banff grew rapidly each summer, from dozens, to hundreds, then thousands. Wardens patrolled for illicit encampments in the forest fringe along highways and trails close to town. Illicit campfires could reportedly be seen flickering on Tunnel Mountain every  night, raising concerns about the fire hazard.[4] Tensions between Banffites and transient youth rose sharply in 1968 and 1969, and the summer of ’69 was capped by a headline-grabbing raid on another encampment at the outermost edge of town – quite possibly the largest such encampment.

A Summit News reporter hams it up at the abandoned Spray River “hippie haven,” August 1969. Summit News, 21 August 1969.

In the forest about a mile up the Spray River, park wardens and RCMP officers discovered a “colony” or “commune” consisting of half a dozen low huts built of illegally-cut pine poles, moss, and polyethylene sheeting. Forty youths were reported staying there, though only twenty were arrested.[5] According to the Summit News, “everything about the primitive village was repulsive.”[6] Liquor bottles, litter, and “unmentionable drugstore items” were strewn about. The latter alluded to sexual impropriety: the late-night raid was said to have caught the camp in the middle of a “swinging party.” The paper stressed the age difference between “bearded youngsters and juvenile girls”; repeatedly mentioned that the youngest female found there was only 15; and emphasized that the males were “hairy stranger[s] from some other part of the country.” Calling the encampment an “example of how quickly virgin wilderness can be turned afoul” luridly captured how it violated most Banffites’ environmental and moral expectations. It also captured the broader frustration with Banff’s emergence as a major counterculture destination.

‘Hippie architecture’ at the Spray River encampment. Summit News, 21 August 1969.

The breakup of the Spray River “hippie haven” marked the culmination of a tense summer, leading pundits in Banff and beyond to reflect on the nature of modern youth and their connection with the Great Outdoors. “The average hippie would have been ashamed of this bunch,” the Summit concluded. Jobless and unsupervised, they had seemingly gone wild, even feral. The Calgary Albertan agreed. An editorial titled “Hippies Don’t Have to Be Animals” decried “hippie-pigs” and “trash hounds” whose “self-created garbage dump” desecrated the crown jewel of Canada’s national parks.[7] Scorning the notion that youths of 1969 faced real economic hardship, it described Banff’s illicit encampment as comparing unfavourably with Depression-era hobo camps, where orderliness, sanitation, and good woodcraft had supposedly prevailed.[8] The Albertan concluded that “the Banff hippies seem to have lost respect for themselves as human beings.”

Happenings previously unseen in Banff’s wild forest edge drove home the need for safe, supervised venues in the town centre. The Summit News praised local social and cultural services for youths as valuable community assets.[10] For the National Parks Branch, the incident showed that transient counterculturalists needed a dedicated place to stay, otherwise they would carve out their own. In spring 1970, ahead of an anticipated wave of 20,000+ young hitchhikers, the Parks Branch established a new, free campground that would concentrate tentless transients at a single site. The Echo Creek ‘hippie’ campground was a desperate response as much as an enlightened one, intended to resolve a host of social and environmental problems associated with Banff’s new status as a counterculture destination. Though it ran for two summers, it did not work out (the town’s leading historian describes it as “a black mark on Banff’s social history,” but that is an Otter post for another day).[11]  Nevertheless, the fact that Echo Creek was established at considerable expense shows how far the Parks Branch would go to dissuade young people from doing their own thing unseen in the surrounding forest. Dedicated facilities for hitchhiking hippies were deemed preferable to allowing illicit free camping to continue. This response revealed a fundamental split with most Banffites over what constituted ‘proper’ behaviour in the park. Both parties were used to balancing the impulse to accommodate visitors’ tastes, habits, and preferences against the need to preserve the appealing atmosphere so essential to Banff’s tourist reputation. But where the Parks Branch tried to deal with the counterculture scene pragmatically, in a way that minimized damage to both environment and public image, many permanent residents were sick and tired of problems associated with youths who they saw as being allowed to run wild by permissive parents and bureaucrats. Deeply concerned about the scene’s effect on business and on the morality of local youths, they called for crackdowns and strict enforcement, while objecting to any special accommodations for counterculture youth.

[1] Precise population figures for Banff are difficult to find. Not only did its population fluctuate dramatically with the seasons, but it did not appear in the Census of Canada during the period examined here because it was not legally a municipality of Alberta.

[2] The best studies of Banff’s urban history are C.J. Taylor, “Banff in the 1960s: Divergent Views of the National Park Ideal” in Claire E. Campbell, ed., A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011 (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2011): 133-152; and E.J. Hart, The Battle for Banff: Exploring the Heritage of the Banff-Bow Valley, 1930-1985 (Banff: EJH Literary Enterprises, 2003).

[3] “Banff Breaks Hobo ‘Jungle,’” The Albertan [Calgary], 23 July 1965, 3; “Charges of Vagrancy Heard in Banff Court,” Calgary Herald, 24 July 1965; “Protest Hobo Conviction,” The Albertan, 26 July 1965.

[4] On hitchhikers, hippies, and forest fire risk, see Dale Portman, The Green Horse: A Park Warden’s Story (Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2017), 228; Mike Schintz, Close Calls on High Walls, and Other Tales from the Warden Service (Surrey: Rocky Mountain Books, 2005), 166.

[5] The estimate of forty campers is from Don Thomas, “Transient Youth: Banff’s Summer Woe,” Calgary Herald, 23 May 1970.

[6] “Hippie Haven on Spray Hit by Fuz [sic],” Summit News, August 21, 1969. Also “You Can’t Do That There Here,” Crag and Canyon, 20 August 1969.

[7] Tom Moore, “Hippies Don’t Have to be Animals,” The Albertan, 19 August 1969. Also see Jack Gorman, “Hat Rack,” Summit News, 28 August 1969; ‘Anti-Establishment,’ letter to the editor, Summit News, 28 August 1969; ‘Anti-Hippie,’ letter to the editor, Summit News, 11 September 1969.

[8] As Todd McCallum shows, an orderly camp was an important way for unemployed men to stake a claim to respectability and state support during the Depression. Todd McCallum, Hobohemia and the Crucifixion Machine: Rival Images of a New World in 1930s Vancouver (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2014).

[10] “Odd Ball Ministry Big Hit with Students,” Summit News, 25 September 1969, 1.

[11] Hart, Battle for Banff, 284.

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I'm a historian of cultural, natural, and built landscapes in twentieth-century Canada. One of my current book projects is about the popular culture of nature in postwar Canada, looking at the history of rowdyism and 'bad behaviour' in Canadian parks from 1965 to 1985, or from hippies to headbangers.

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