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Lonely stretch of B.C. highway mourns final call for its last pay phone

Residents concerned about emergency coverage on Vancouver Island between Campbell River and Sayward
Roberts Lake Resort owner Lorna Duncan says she and her staff have been making sure the phone booth is clean for years. Photo by Marc Kitteringham/Campbell River Mirror

One day soon, or maybe already, the pay phone at Roberts Lake Resort will be used for the last time.

The sign above the booth has a maple tree growing alongside it, and the edges of the booth itself have begun to show signs of lichen from the rains last winter. But stepping into the booth feels like stepping in to the past. It’s clean, well taken care of and, for now at least, functional.

Also inside the booth is a notice posted on the phone by Telus, saying the phone is slated for removal on May 13, 2024.

“Let’s let’s put it this way. It’s a good emergency phone.” said Lorna Duncan, the owner of the Roberts Lake Resort.

Duncan has owned the resort for 46 years, and said that the phone gets regular use for emergency communications: people waylaid by weather in winter, or reporting accidents on an empty Vancouver Island highway strip between Campbell River and Sayward that does not have cell service.

“This is the halfway point between Campbell River and Sayward,” Duncan said. “So if you have an accident and are out of cell range, this is what people use. There isn’t anything around. What do they do?”

Many community members posted to the Sayward community Facebook group in the past few days, saying they’ve contacted Telus about their safety concerns.

“When I saw that I just decided I’d write to Telus,” said Terry Kluytmans, a resident of Sayward. “I hope that public pressure (will) either stop them from removal of the phone booth or make them consider putting in a cell tower like they’ve done it by Woss.”

Kluytmans used to drive to and from Campbell River daily for work. She said that on one occasion she witnessed an accident and stopped to lend a hand.

“There was nobody around so it took probably 10 minutes for the first car to come by,” she said. “It was almost an hour before we got personnel there to actually be on scene because it was just so far between two locations … It’s scary and when it’s winter and those curves are bad when you’ve got black ice in place, you know, it’s a scary road.”

The Mirror reached out to Telus, who said in an emailed statement that “After careful consideration, we are replacing the existing pay phones at Roberts Lake Resort and Sayward Valley Resort on Vancouver Island with community phones, at no charge to the person calling. The pay phones will remain operational until the community phones are installed.”

Telus’ statement went on to say that the phones will connect to 911, 988 (suicide crisis helpline), and other N11 services, and will have free calling to anywherein B.C. as well as toll free within the region.

“Both community phones will remain in place until cell phone coverage becomes available.”

The notice left on the payphone, however, does not mention this.

“We have invested heavily to connect rural highway corridors to a reliable wireless signal to enhance the safety of travel across our province,” the Telus statement says. “We are thoughtful about removing payphones and often work closely with local businesses, municipal governments, and the community to ensure there are alternate options within a reasonable distance before a payphone is removed.”

In March 2023, the province announced funding for highway cell coverage, specifically noting the dangerous corridor north of Campbell River. As of May, 2024 much of the road still does not have coverage.

Phil Adams is a frequent traveller of the highway. He posted on Facebook about the closure of the booth.

”I’ve always driven past and thought that it’s a cool novelty,” he said. “I pulled over and saw that it was working. It brought back a bunch of nostalgia from growing up when I was using those phone booths.

“It was pretty cool to pick up the phone and hear the big clunky click of the receiver, and then hearing the dial tone and putting it back down,” he said. “I called my wife from it as well. I actually ran back to my van to see if I had a quarter … it’s an end of an era.”

Telus said that they recognize people have feelings of nostalgia towards the phones.

“We’re working with the community and local organizations to decommission the payphones for display purposes to ensure they can stay within the community as an acknowledgement of a shared piece of technology history,” their statement says. “Any residents who are interested in seeing these payphones showcased as a piece of history in a local museum or community centre can email us at to learn more.”

For at least a little while, North Islanders can make a trip north of Campbell River to make a call from the phone. Adams said that he was informed by the contractor in charge of removing the phone that the date of removal has been pushed back.

But, some day soon, the pay phone at Roberts Lake will make its last call.

RELATED: Dial tone: TELUS removing 19 of the 22 payphones in the Tofino-Ucluelet area

RELATED: Province announces funding for highway cell coverage

The booth is located halfway between Sayward and Campbell River, and has been a lifeline for motorists passing through the area in inclement weather. Photo by Marc Kitteringham/Campbell River Mirror
The area has no cell service, though Telus has posted a notice saying it “will continue to invest to bring you the latest connectivity, including our next-generation 5G network.” Photo by Marc Kitteringham/Campbell River Mirror

Marc Kitteringham

About the Author: Marc Kitteringham

I joined Black press in early 2020, writing about the environment, housing, local government and more.
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