International travel has been halted by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Politicians and health officials have warned against any non-essential road trips. But many Canadians have held onto the hope that a more local escape might still be possible. After months of Alberta cold, the trees and grass are getting green, and flowers are blooming. It makes me want to pack up the tent and camp stove, and get out of Dodge.
Camping, opening soon in some parts of Canada, appears to be relatively low-risk. It’s outdoors, and there’s built-in physical distancing. Relatively, you might not have far to travel to get to a campsite.
But like many other aspects of life upended by the pandemic, it’s far from straightforward. Many campsites will still be closed in the early stages, and services will be limited. The same way Ontario cottage country mayors are concerned about an influx of outsiders, the small communities near Canada’s best parks are concerned about travellers coming through and bringing COVID-19 with them.
Openings of campgrounds are going to be another test of our collective will to be careful for the sake of others.
June 1 has emerged as a key date for those with a pent-up desire to retreat into the bush. That’s when the West opens up – at least, to a limited extent. British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan are all opening some overnight camping at provincial parks on that date.
This is a more certain timeline than in other provinces and for national parks. The only word from Ontario provincial parks and Parks Canada is they are closed for camping until at least May 31. Sépaq – the Quebec agency that manages parks – has no public plans for resumption of services. In Newfoundland and Labrador, overnight camping is many stages of reopening away.
In Alberta, Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon is looking at the May long weekend as a key test. Campsites in provincial parks might not open until June 1, but some vehicle access is already open. And Alberta’s long-running tradition of “random camping” – in the backcountry without services such as running water or outhouses – was never shut down.
Even in more normal years, the Victoria Day long weekend has plenty of gong show potential as months of cabin fever is unleashed. Mr. Nixon notes the eastern slopes west of his town of Sundre – with a population around 3,000 – draws 60,000 random campers on a typical May long weekend. People drink too much. Grad parties in the bush get out of control. Trucks and ATVs are driven into creeks and rivers, and sometimes get stuck, or destroy riparian areas.
This year could be worse, Mr. Nixon acknowledged. National parks will still be closed. And people feel even more stifled than they do after a normal Alberta winter.
Safely bringing back seasonal employees and enforcement staff, including many who have to be transported long distances together by truck or helicopter, is a key logistical challenge, Mr. Nixon said. But he believes the province is ready. PPE supplies are in place. Drones will be used for some patrols previously done by helicopter.
When provincial campgrounds actually open on June 1, staff will have to be even more careful. Cleaning washrooms and shower halls is going to be a delicate operation. Mr. Nixon says local supervisors will decide how many sites in a given campground can be safely put to use. But, overall, the province will be operating at about 50 per cent capacity.
Interprovincial travel is still a no-go. Alberta, like Saskatchewan, is limiting camping bookings to its own residents. “We wanted to make sure Albertans had first access to their backyard,” Mr. Nixon said. BC Parks has not made the same explicit rule but is “encouraging people to continue to stay close to home” and “enjoy where you live.”
By staying local and being careful about the opening, Mr. Nixon said, camping can be safe. I hope he is right. Getting into the woods or onto the prairie could be a salve at a time when the world is an overwhelming place. It’s good for mental health. It will get squirrelly, unschooled children away from their screens.
But Mr. Nixon’s call to get outdoors comes at the same time his government is seemingly taking a contradictory position of closing or partially closing 20 remote and less-used provincial parks, and allowing third parties to operate dozens of others. The plan was announced in early March as a means of saving money, even before COVID-19 hit the provincial budget. Sites for which no manager can be found will lose park status and revert to general Crown land, which can be sold.
Mr. Nixon said park lands that shift status will still be protected, and he can’t imagine any scenario where the government would sell those Crown lands.
But many Albertans are worried. Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist Grace Wark said the change will make parks less accessible and could loosen environmental protections. With physical distancing such a major concern, she added, it’s now the perfect moment for the government to highlight those lesser-known sites and take pressure off the big draws, such as Kananaskis Country.
Mr. Nixon says his government is standing firm on the decision. Ms. Wark is still hoping for a change of heart. “It’s an irresponsible time to be taking parks out of the parks system," she said.
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