Canadians eager to leave pandemic worries behind are heading in droves to the country’s outdoor destinations, but some vacationers, shut out of booked-solid campgrounds, are setting up tents in sensitive wilderness areas and damaging the local environment. The influx of campers is being felt across the country, from Gaspé, Quebec, to British Columbia’s backcountry.
Chris Ludwig, president of Backcountry BC, an advocacy group, says he’s seen video footage of keg parties, weddings, barbecues and large groups of people swimming, all in remote natural environments.
Hard-to-reach areas in B.C., such as Lake Lovely Water and Watersprite Lake, have seen dozens of tents go up in recent weeks. Some individuals have even hyped these activities on their Instagram pages.
Mr. Ludwig says government officials and groups such as his are working “to try to stop some of these basically out-of-control shenanigans.”
“Maybe part of it is that people were pent up and trapped in their home self-isolating with COVID-19,” he added. “And now that the restrictions have been lessened ... they’re trying to make up for lost time.”
As lockdowns and other measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 begin easing across Canada, some advocates say backcountry areas and campgrounds are seeing an influx of visitors who are disregarding rules and common outdoor etiquette. Many are overusing fragile environments, leaving garbage behind and causing disturbance to local communities.
Camping advocates attribute the increase in vacationers to “COVID-19 fatigue” and a desire to leave the house, but they are asking enthusiasts to exercise caution and plan ahead of their trips to reduce danger for themselves and the environment.
“The victims [are] the vegetation, the shoreline, which [are] getting trampled and destroyed,” Mr. Ludwig said. “The wildlife – black bears, wolverines, deer – they’re getting displaced and bothered by these large numbers of people.”
Similar challenges have been reported in places such as the Bighorn region of Alberta, where nearly 5,000 square kilometres of backcountry have been overrun by thousands of campers. A report published on June 4 by Alberta Environment’s Bighorn Backcountry Standing Committee said campers set up tents everywhere they could, some going as far as cutting down trees to accommodate their needs.
In Quebec’s Gaspé region, out-of-town campers have set up tents along the area’s beaches, leaving litter and human waste behind while causing overnight disturbance for local residents.
Camping on Gaspé beaches is a local practice that was never forbidden or regulated as it caused little trouble. However, the sudden surge of non-locals in search of an in-province holiday because of travel restrictions has pushed Méganne Perry Mélançon, the MNA for the region, to ask for some regulation.
She is also calling for further Sûreté du Québec patrolling.
“We can see 30 to 50 tents every night on the beaches, and the Gaspé sector has maybe four or five beaches,” Ms. Mélançon said. “It’s a lot of people, and they’re coming for one night or two or three, but it’s always new people coming.”
Stuart Letovsky, president and head guide of Algonquin Adventure Tours, a company that organizes trips in Ontario’s Algonquin Park, says the “vast majority” of clients this year have no previous camping experience.
“Working in the park every day as I do, I have noticed an exponential increase in people who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing,” Mr. Letovsky said. “Unfortunately it’s going to have a negative impact on the environment. There is trash everywhere. Everybody’s littering everywhere.”
Angela Gardiner, a resident of Pictou County, N.S., and administrator of a Facebook group called Camping in Nova Scotia said that she hasn’t seen campgrounds there being inundated in the way they have been in B.C. and Quebec.
However, she said that there has been an issue of people “hoarding” campsite reservations, by booking more spots than they could realistically use when provincial campground reservations first opened this year. “Many people booked with no idea when they could camp, then a day or two before the reservation, they cancel,” she said. “It was like the toilet paper situation but for camping,” referring to how people were buying up toilet paper at the start of the pandemic.
In Ontario, Alexandra Anderson, executive director of the Ontario Private Campground Association, says that the 400 campgrounds in her network have not seen extreme unruly behaviour.
“The one big challenge right now in Ontario is that we simply don’t have enough space to accommodate people,” she said.
Campers who are eager to leave the house may be doing so with little experience, preparation or knowledge of camping etiquette, she said. Staff at many campgrounds have found themselves having to pick up trash or deal with an increase of “parking-lot camping” – people travelling in RVs, arriving at sites and “realizing that there’s just simply no place to go.
“I think a lot of residents don’t realize that this is sort of the holy grail of camping [season] for this province, regardless of the change in the travel patterns,” Ms. Anderson said. “So my concern is that ... there are going to be people found just camping on the side of the road.”
Ms. Anderson has also received calls from campers who are unable to find campgrounds but “still want to go” and ask her whether they can set up a tent at a local beach or park.
“No, you can’t do that,” she said.
Her advice to vacationers is that they inform themselves thoroughly before setting out to go on a camping trip. She also suggests they research camping basics – such as how to set up a tent – and try doing so in their backyards before heading out for the first time.
Finally, she says new campers should try planning trips during weekdays, which tend to be less busy – and because other campers “will tend to have more time to maybe help you out as well.”
With a report from Dave McGinn
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