Covid seems to have attracted more people to the outdoors to pitch a tent or park an RV. Provincial parks' reservation numbers have quadrupled across Canada, crashing computer systems and creating a poisonous environment on social media. It seems the only way to get your favourite campsite this season is to be as scrupulous and immoral as possible.
Devious campers have figured out ways to beat the system, just as a ticket scalper does for a sold-out rock concert. They buy up sites for as many days allowed (Ontario Provincial Park is 23 days) and then either cancel them at the last minute, except for the weekend of their choice, or sell everything on Kijiji for a higher price.
Some elitist, seasoned campers have demanded that they should get first rights to their favourite campsite rather than the newbies, who are now being labelled Covid Campers by the self-righteous.
People are certainly yearning for the wilderness to help heal mind and soul from the pandemic, and that’s a good thing. However, it’s also bringing out the worst in people at the same time.
Credit: Kevin Callan
The parks themselves have reacted to the demand in some questionable ways. Western provinces are getting rid of many single tent sites and adding more enlarged RV sites to their campgrounds. The demand is up for pulling motorhomes that resemble the one used in Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's 1954 film The Long, Long Trailer. The golden days are gone where families spent their summer holidays roughing it in their small, inexpensive nylon dome tent with no electrical socket to plug their technology into.
A bigger debate seems to be happening in the east. Ontario Provincial Parks has created a flat rate fee, “streamlining” the backcountry fee structure to make it consistent with their car camping fee model. They’re testing it out in two parks: Massasagua and Temagami.
The Massasagua will cost you $40.75/night and Temagami is $32.50/night. The dollar difference between the two is due to Massasagua providing paddlers picnic tables, fire pit and box privy to poop in. Temagami just offers a rustic spot to pitch your tent.
In the past it would have cost $9/person/per night. So, it’s actually an incentive to large groups; it becomes a lot cheaper to camp there with multiple people to split the cost. If you’re a solo paddler, however, the price is as much as quadruple, and double what it would be for a party of two. That’s a 300 to 400 per cent fee increase for any paddler that doesn’t like a crowded campsite or is looking for true solace.
Some backcountry campers don’t see a big issue with the flat rate and fee increase. After all, the Ontario Provincial Park system is 80 to 90 per cent funded on fees. There is very little if any tax revenue that flows into the park for operations. And the money goes towards an outstanding recreational resource known around the world as one of the best places to rejoice in nature.
Credit: Kevin Callan
Others are fuming at the change. Some believe more people per site just means more trash left behind. Others say the system gouges anyone wanting to travel alone or as a couple. Environmental groups are slamming Ontario Parks, believing the new system is a roguish way to get less people on in the woods to witness the added resource extraction along the park’s borders. They’re suggesting a boycott, implying paddlers just shouldn’t pay it. There’s even a petition circling about on social media.
A few campers have simply done the math: why bother with a permit, as the fine for unlawfully occupying a campsite would be lower, and that’s if you get caught. There’s less and less park wardens patrolling the backcountry.
The recent crowds heading out to camp isn’t a surprise to me. It’s a cyclical thing. After any major historic disruption to the human population (i.e., world wars, depressions, recessions, pandemics…) people seem to head out into the woods because it’s an affordable thing to do and it cures them of their heightened anxiety. It’s also no surprise that reservation systems crash, undignified campers create havoc, conflict between the public and the government heat up…
The aftermath may be a lessening of crowds in campgrounds and the interior. The camping fad will lessen, most will just check camping off their to-do list and move on to other recreational pursuits. A small percentage of Covid campers will remain, now educated and with a stronger etiquette.
My bigger question remains: Will the governments who manage over our provincial parks, and the people who want to camp there, remember one of main principal missions of it being created in the first place—ecological preservation?
Here’s hoping so.