• Terra Observer

The new normal for Ontario parks and rec

A forecast for what nature enthusiasts, campers and park hoppers can expect this summer with provincial COVID-19 guidelines looming overhead.

Elisabeth Edwards, Contributor

Camping is going to look a little different this year. (Scott Goodwill / Unsplash)

For many Ontarians, quarantine has taken a huge toll on not only their daily lives but their summer plans as well. As someone who thrives in the great outdoors (and makes a living working in it, too) COVID-19 has both impacted my mental and physical wellbeing and “cancelled” one of my greatest passions: learning from and enjoying nature.

I’ve worked for Parks Canada as a student interpreter, or tour guide, for the past eight summers. At Georgian Bay Islands National Park, my job involves taking visitors on guided hikes, doing demonstrations with live snakes and leading educational programs for campers—all as part of the effort to spread our love of nature to anyone who sets foot in our park.

However, summer at Georgian Bay Islands National Park will look entirely different this year. It’s a destination only accessible by water, and most of our boats aren’t even 12 feet wide. That means it’s next to impossible for employees to reach the park without breaking social distancing rules. Aside from commuting by water, our job requires daily interactions with visitors that include selling firewood, cleaning restrooms and sharing life jackets. All of these are high-contact encounters that could spread COVID-19 if the park experience is not modified, especially in close-quarter sites like campgrounds.

So what is the new reality for camping, hiking and tourism in Ontario? Will we be able to swim at public beaches? Camp with friends over the long weekend? Hike on a trail or simply hug some trees? It’s complicated, but there are some glimmers of hope. Make the most of your summer with this tentative 2020 guide to Ontario’s Parks and Rec.

Sunset on Beausoleil Island, Georgian Bay Islands National Park largest and most visited island. (Muskoka Tourism)

National parks

Parks Canada recently announced it will gradually resume some of the operations at 29 of Canada’s 48 national parks (which include National Historic Sites and National Marine Conservation Areas) starting June 1, 2020. The reopening process will look different for different parks, but the consensus is that overnight camping won’t be possible until later in the summer.

The best way to know exactly how each site is reopening and the experiences available is to check out the park’s website, which you can find on pc.gc.ca. On its COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions page, Parks Canada warns that “visitors should not expect the kind of experience that they have had in the past.” It’s perhaps a stern and discouraging stance—but we can only hope that as summer progresses, park restrictions might be eased.

Canoers get up-close-and-personal with a moose at Algonquin Provincial Park. (TripAdvisor)

Provincial parks

All boat launches are open for the season as of May 16, as well as the province's 635 provincial parks and 295 conservation areas. Day-use and self-guided activities are permitted by visitors, but other services like visitor centres, camping, beaches and playgrounds remain closed.

If you’re looking for a nature escape or to get some fresh air while maintaining social distance from other park visitors, provincial parks are likely the best option. Park-goers are encouraged to visit the parks nearest to them to prevent the spread or introduction of COVID-19 into new municipalities.

Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park and its controversial crowding this past May. (blogTO)

Municipal parks and beaches

Most recently, Sudbury’s local beaches and parks opened to the public. While each municipality has its own rules and regulations for slowing the spread of COVID-19, there’s been a growing call from the public to reopen local parks and outdoor spaces. Currently, many Ontarians are struggling to self-isolate in confined spaces, both inside and outside of their homes. More and more people are running, walking or exercising on narrow sidewalks, or flocking to off-limits parks and beaches. It’s a classic case of cabin fever that the Ontario government is having difficulties controlling.

For those wondering what’s allowed and what’s not, visit Ontario’s COVID-19 website to stay in the loop. While playgrounds might be covered in caution tape and many parks and beaches remain closed, opportunities still exist to make the most of your summer.

Tips and tricks for getting yourself outside, safely

The Backyard Advantage

Not everyone is lucky enough to have their own backyard, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, take advantage of it and try camping at home! Set up a tent, build a fire or string up a hammock to enjoy some much-deserved time out of the house.

Campfires, but online

Speaking of campfires, why not have your own virtual gathering with friends? Get everyone together on a Zoom call to enjoy a fire or drinks on the deck. Encourage your musically-inclined friends to strum a few campfire tunes, and don’t forget the s’mores!

Explore new places, safely

Hop on Google to search for trails or places near you that might be worth checking out. Just remember to abide by any signs if trails are closed, to maintain a safe distance when you encounter fellow hikers and to check that the site is permitted for visitors under provincial COVID-19 guidelines.

Test your nature knowledge

On hikes, I like to challenge myself by learning to identify as many new species as I can. Download the free app Seek, which uses your phone’s camera to identify species based on your location. Keep an eye out for interesting plants, fungi and animals—it’s always fun to learn something new.

Stay informed

The number one way to ensure you won’t miss out on beach days and camping is to stay informed. Hopefully, we’ll start to see more spaces opening to the public around July. Be sure to follow your municipal, provincial and federal channels through their websites and social media for updates. Again, keep a safe distance between yourself and others when at a beach or campsite, wash your hands frequently and stay home if you’re feeling unwell.