Albertans aren’t leaving home much, but when they do, they’re flooding into open spaces amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Hiking, birdwatching, fishing and other outdoorsy pursuits are relatively safe virally speaking, and allow people to exercise and experience the mental health benefits that nature can provide. However, the droves of visitors to provincial parks led to an assortment of unwanted problems.
2020 saw the highest number of visitors ever recorded in history in the Kananaskis says Michael Roycroft, Regional Parks Director for the Kananaskis region.
"We had about 5.3 million visits into Kananaskis country in 2020 which represents, certainly over the summer months, about a 43% increase over past years. Overall for the year to date about a 20 plus per cent increase from the year before."
This is higher than the annual average visitation rate in Banff National Park, which is typically just over 4 million.
The make-up of visitors last year was also more varied than before, with a “new to the outdoors” group heading out. Many of these users were discovering outdoor recreation activities, like hiking, for the first time.
"We did see a lot of new to parks visitations, so people that haven't historically visited parks did get out, and I think it speaks to the fact that people just wanted to get away and away from the urban environment and Kananaskis country is right on the doorstep for Calgary so I think those are some of the factors at play there."
Roycroft says many of these visitors were not familiar with wildlife etiquette and best practices, including bear safety recommendations, like effectively carrying bear spray and knowing how to use it, not feeding wildlife, properly disposing of garbage and keeping dogs on leash. As well as staying on dedicated pathways.
"As you may know K-Country has a world-renowned Bear management program throughout this country, but specifically in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park where we actively managed Grizzly bear movement through that area," Says Roycroft "Bears are attracted to human waste and garbage so overflowing garbage containers and garbage along trails increases the chances of a negative encounter with wildlife."
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In addition to developing new “unofficial” routes and trails, visitors left the highest amounts of garbage, litter and waste ever observed in Kananaskis. Litter was often tossed in front or around bins, or simply left on trails, day-use areas and around other facilities. Bins could not be serviced quickly enough to keep up with the high volume of garbage.
Crowding can also bring about new hazards. In some places where parking lots have filled, drivers have instead parked alongside busy roads and put themselves at risk of getting struck by a vehicle.
"You know, several kilometres of cars parked along the roadway and that created the safety issues as well, so certainly public safety has become a bigger challenge and a bigger issue for us to deal with along with this increase in visitation as well."
The crowds can also affect the human-user experience. The psychological benefits of an awe-inspiring view may be harder to obtain if you’re having to squirm through a horde to catch a glimpse.
Roycroft recommends heading to the Alberta Parks website if you are planning a visit.
"If you're trying to avoid the crowds, consider coming to Kananaskis country during the week. So off-peak hours, but also perhaps avoiding some of the more popular day-use areas too...perhaps go to areas where there aren't as many people to try to get away from it all."
This year they are also opening up the visitor centers in Peter Lougheed, Elbow Valley and Barrier Lake with limited capacity.
"You know the silver lining in this is that the more people that are experienced parks first hand, the more people that hopefully will value them and support policies that protect them."
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