Some Southwestern Ontario provincial parks are anticipating more visitors than usual this winter, as the second wave of COVID-19 turns them into natural havens for people weary of lockdown cabin fever and with few indoor options for recreation open.
Officials at Pinery Provincial Park report a “slight increase” in both day use and overnight camping so far this winter compared to previous years.
“There have been more people for sure, but nothing too crazy,” said Megan Loucks, the Pinery’s discovery leader. “We definitely have a lot of people who are still just coming in for hiking and day use and to get outside.”
But the lack of snow has put a damper on many winter activities typically offered at the park, such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, tobogganing and skating.
Loucks said there are only about five centimetres of snow at the park, which has closed their ski and toboggan hills.
Cross-country skiing still is possible, but the trails aren’t groomed by park staff until there’s enough snow.
Loucks said staff are fielding “a lot of questions” about when the weather will make additional activities available.
“We definitely see a higher interest when there is snow on the ground,” she said.
The park’s chalet is closed, and guests are to follow public health guidelines and are encouraged to wear a mask even outdoors.
There are 330 provincial parks in Ontario, many in the Southwestern region, including Pinery, Komoka, Rondeau, Wheatley and Port Bruce.
Last spring, in the early days of the pandemic, provincial parks were shuttered amid the virus crisis.
When they opened in the summer, parks became a safe haven for lockdown-weary Ontarians, with many hitting record use and campsites being booked all summer.
At Rondeau Provincial Park, discovery specialist Jess Matthews said walks along the Lake Erie beach remain popular even in colder months.
“In the winter along the beach, we get what people have called ice volcanoes,” she said. “They look like little mountains along the shoreline, it’s just gorgeous.”
Rondeau Bay just froze over, meaning ice-fishing is a go.
Matthews said having no snow on the ground can be viewed as a positive, making biking and rollerblading options even in January.
The park, open for day-use only, has two outdoor fire pits as warming stations.
Outside of provincial parks, another popular winter activity also is picking up steam amid the pandemic lockdown, but again is being delayed by the warmer weather.
The Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs said it has seen an increase in early season permit sales this year.
“Before Christmas, they were up considerably,” said Gary Thuss, president of the federation’s District 5, which covers Southwestern Ontario. “Our district is kind of holding fairly steady. Because of our weather, more people will hold off until we get the snow.”
Thuss said only a handful of trails, some around Tillsonburg and Kitchener, have opened as the ground is yet to freeze.
Still, he suspects once there is snow, many will see snowmobiling as a safe, socially-distanced outdoor activity.
Thuss said some shops that sell snowmobiles already are sold out. “The demand is very high.”
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Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press