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  • Dave Butler

Two Paths in a Wood

By Dave Butler

I read Greg’s recent post about his trip to Yellowstone National Park and began thinking about what this summer and fall will be like, and how it will compare to last year.

North Americans, like the rest of the world, are obviously weary of pandemic rules, restrictions, and the isolation they have brought to our lives. Residing in a rural area like I do means it is still relatively easy to get outside, to find places without other people, and to feel – at least for a moment – as if life is once again normal. But I certainly commiserate with people living in high-rise apartments and condos in large cities, where getting outside means nothing more than taking possession of a few square feet of tired lawn in a local park. I understand why they would want to get away.

Because it is still difficult to travel overseas, because the Canada – US border essentially remains closed, and because we are required (as of the date of writing) to remain within our health regions here in British Columbia (except for “essential travel”), I’m sensing a strong latent demand to get outside, even if only locally. During the first long weekend of the summer season, we saw campgrounds full, trail-heads packed, and highways clogged with trailers.

My assumption of latent demand is backed by recent studies undertaken by ‘Pattern’ (a global ecommerce research company):

The study suggests that demand for camping gear this year (tents, lanterns, backpacks, camp stoves, etc.) is up 25% over the same period in 2020, and up 86% compared to 2019.

Even freeze-dried food sales are up 320% in March and April of 2021 compared to the same period in 2019 (that brings up horrible memories of early versions of beef stew and chili con carne… washed down by Tang (we were told it was the drink of choice for astronauts so, you know…) … but I digress).

I wonder what percentage of these purchases are by people who want to get outside, and what percentage by people preparing to survive what they assume will be a post-pandemic zombie apocalypse.

I see the image of Greg’s classic Airstream trailer in his last post and note that sales of recreational vehicles (RV’s) continue to grow from year to year, which is also pushing demand for new RV parks and campgrounds. RV sales jumped only 4.5% from 2019 to 2020 (was that a wait-and-see situation...?) but are forecast to rise by 19.5% this year.

However, as all these extra folks head out to wild and natural places – national parks, provincial or state parks, and local spots that might not be formally protected but are just as attractive -- what will happen when they get there? Will they find themselves in line-ups (as Greg and his wife did at the south entrance to Yellowstone)? Will there be fights over campsites and day-use spots? Will popular trails be crowded?

In my opinion, this pulse in interest in getting outdoors could lead us down one of two paths.

One path could result in more people being exposed to the benefits of hiking, camping, and recreating in natural areas. In a best case scenario, then, this might translate into more people – a larger supportive constituency if you will -- growing to love the outdoors, cherishing them, pushing politicians to maintain and protect them. And buying stacks of environmental mysteries to read while lounging in hammocks, or in the light of those new lanterns … but I digress again.

Down the other path, we could see many more people appearing in the outdoors who do not know how to behave, don’t know the largely unwritten rules of taking care of these special places, people who will simply go back to theme parks and resorts and movie theaters when we’ve moved from a pandemic to managing just another virus. Will that additional use cause impact on the environment through extra garbage left behind? Additional trail erosion by walkers, mountain bikes and ATVs? Wildlife harassment? Increased pressure on search and rescue groups? More wildfires from unattended campfires? In this scenario, how will our collective outdoor experience be impacted?

As the summer begins, we will soon know the answer to those questions.

In the longer-term, we'll better understand which of those two paths is our “new norm.”

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

(Robert Frost)

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