A Season to Remember
By Chad O’Halloran
2020 will be a season to remember. Parks Canada staff across northern Ontario were poised to build upon past successes, with promises of exciting events and new interpretive programs. Then, at the beginning of March 2020, a few weeks before our sites were to open for the season, we questioned whether there would even be a season!
And while, for the first few weeks of the season, our places were closed; that did not mean our staff were not working. They were just adjusting to a new way of achieving their goals. Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, for example, typically offers a roving interpretation program and events across the north shore – both of which were hard to implement with travel restrictions and bans on public gatherings. Instead, staff began developing interpretive videos and digital activities. They encouraged individuals or small “bubbles” to participate in ‘virtual’ hikes and shoreline clean-ups. Greater focus on social media meant interactions across our channels increased by 117%! So, even though we weren’t able to physically engage with visitors for much of the season, we found ways to strengthen our programming and broaden our reach.
Parks Canada places cautiously started business resumption, first re-opening day-use areas and hiking trails, before introducing interpretive programs (outdoors and socially distanced, of course!), and activities like camping. Adjustments needed to be made. At Fort St. Joseph, to manage the amount of people wanting to enter the building, staff set up a welcome station outside to provide orientation for visitors. Despite opening several weeks later than normal, the fort welcomed only 49 fewer guests in 2020! On quieter days, staff even delivered new programming, which was very well received.
Nearby, the Sault Ste. Marie Canal had been gearing up to commemorate its 125th Anniversary. The events the steering committee had planned, with input from stakeholders and Indigenous partners, obviously had to be adjusted due to the pandemic, and largely became a story-oriented, season-long commemoration using traditional and social media. Meanwhile, the grounds, trails, and lock remained busy, with visitor numbers up over last year.
It was also a busy year at Pukaskwa, as Canadians were drawn to nature. Despite being open for only 93 days (as opposed to 154) the park saw more visitors than in recent years, except 2017 (when free admission for Canada 150 was offered). Regardless of whether it was front-country camping, back-country camping, or oTENTiks, numbers were up across the board. In August, an average of 10 parties departed daily for the backcountry; and September saw more than three times the number of parties over last year! In a normal year, between 20-30 % of visitors to the Park originate from the US, so to achieve these numbers without that group of travellers was a significant surprise!
It’s been a rollercoaster of a season: from not knowing whether Parks Canada places would open, to adapting to working from home, to working on how, exactly, our sites could offer something, to determining and implementing safety measures needed to protect staff and visitors, to welcoming visitors back to our places, to achieving record numbers of visitors despite a shortened season! 2020 will definitely be a season to remember.