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Alberta Parks Are Open - To Go Or Not To Go ?
Last Friday’s decision by the Alberta government to reopen provincial parks to car traffic made lots of outdoor enthusiasts happy. Finally a way to escape the city and get back to our “regularly scheduled programming” with some hikes, ski tours, runs, etc.
Reports of crowded trailheads in Kananaskis country last weekend has us question ourselves on what we should do as outdoor enthusiasts? Should we go enjoy the provincial parks like thousands of other people? Is it the most responsible thing to do? Maybe there is no right answer to that question but there are elements worth considering before choosing whether to head out or not.
Physical distancing, something we’ve been hearing about every day for the past eight weeks. By shrinking our social interactions to the minimum, we slow the spread of COVID-19 down. This in return gives our health care system more time to handle patients without exceeding its capacity. The incubation period between infection and appearance of symptoms can vary from 1 to 14 days and symptoms are mild 80% of the time. This means that you can get COVID-19 and be contagious without having any symptoms. If you interact with a dozen people at work, with friends at night and with hiking or ski friends on weekends, each of these contacts risks getting and propagating the virus.
In these completely unusual times, recreating only with close relatives and avoiding interactions at the trailhead and in the neighbouring communities is essential. If you come to the parks to ski, hike, climb, run or do anything else, you should keep in mind that the goal is to do so without opening your “bubble” to strangers in the community you visit. This starts when you leave home and includes gas stations, restaurants, cafés and everywhere else you go before and after your ski tour or your hike.
What about accidents and rescues?
Another issue that was raised when Alberta Parks shut down was the risk of exposing rescue and health care workers to COVID-19. Accidents happen, no matter how well prepared we are. For skiers and hikers, the injury rate is approximately 5 to 6 injuries (of any severity) per 1000 outings. That’s quite low but that is still a risk. During a rescue, it is impossible to respect physical distancing. This can expose the rescuers to COVID-19, although the risk is unknown. As we said earlier, COVID-19 can be transmitted even without symptoms. Getting rescued and driven to a hospital is a pretty good way of suddenly interacting with lots more people! Can we avoid rescues completely? No. Is the risk low? Yes, but it is still there.
Hospitals are dealing with COVID-19 infected patients as we speak, and a trip there could expose injured skiers, hikers, runners, climbers to a risk of contracting the virus, and the same goes for EMTs and other rescue members. As you read this, Alberta is re-opening parts of the province’s economy and services with the argument that ICUs across the province can deal with more cases of COVID-19. Let’s hope the pandemic doesn’t test the limits of our health care system going forward, and let’s respect the health care workers who are working the front lines.
No services means leave no trace
Don’t forget about the environmental impact we have on the parks we recreate in. Without services like washrooms and garbage collection, leaving no trace should become a priority. No one likes to stumble on a pile of trash in the backcountry, and now packing it back means bringing all the trash back home instead of at the trailhead. Are you ready for that? Already, reports of trash piling up at the Canmore Nordic Centre and around Kananaskis country are telling us that many aren’t planning on respecting our public lands.
Should we recreate in our provincial parks during this pandemic?
Is there a right answer to that? Going for a hike in Kananaskis Country is likely a much more solitary activity than Nose Hill Park on a weekend day. Why wouldn’t you? Trails in the parks are a lot less crowded than most city parks and paths on any given day. Keep in mind that on some trails especially around Canmore you might encounter dozens of hikers and not be able to give them 6 ft distance to pass. So much for physical distancing…
Want to enjoy our provincial parks in a responsible way? If you are making efforts to avoid going for that coffee, that take-out and that beer at the park with friends afterwards, there is hardly a reason to condemn that hike or that ski tour. What matters is that you keep your microbes to yourself and to your close relatives, and not that you spread them to communities you are foreign to.
With the Alberta and BC governments allowing outdoor enthusiasts in their provincial parks, how to recreate is yours to decide. Let’s try to be as careful and responsible of ourselves and others while out and about. Stay responsible and intelligent in the backcountry, and keep in mind that Spring risks still exists (snow, avalanche hazard, cold weather, etc.)