As pandemic rages, park usage spikes

I’m not a doctor. I’m not a medical expert. I don’t know squat about epidemiology. But I do know that in this pandemic age, we need time outdoors. Possibly more than ever.

Repeatedly in this column I have encouraged such activity and very recently I wrote about all the things there were to do in local parks to burn off some of that quarantine-induced cabin fever. Apparently, everyone heeded my advice because, at least at county parks, we have never seen so much demand for our trails, waters, campsites, and open spaces. It certainly has helped that the fishing has been good, there were a few morels to find, and despite some rain and coolness, the weather has been fairly cooperative. But hey, this is my column so I’m taking credit. And also saying thanks. Whatever inspired you to visit your local park, I’m glad you did, and I thank you for doing so.

To put this demand in perspective, we did trail counts this month on some segments of the Flint River Trail and found the number of people using the trail in the course of a week more than tripled from similar counts last August. And we expect that to increase as this coming holiday weekend is usually just the start of our busy season.

Visitation to Big Hollow Recreation Area about ten miles north of Burlington has seen similar increases in usage. With the crappie biting so well in the lake, it wasn’t uncommon to see 50 trucks and boat trailers parked at the boat ramp. The pandemic shut the campground down for a while but the minute we reopened, we had campers waiting in line to get a spot. And I mean “minute” literally. There were campers sitting on the road when we opened the gate at 6:00 AM that Friday morning. The campground has been full to capacity ever since.

Memorial Day weekend is always our busiest weekend of the year, but it’s only been recently that we’ve been filling the campground to capacity a full two weeks before (the stay limit in most public recreational campgrounds is 14 days). The reservable sites, which cover half the campground, sold out last December. With the pandemic-induced cabin fever we’re all feeling, it seems there’s an even greater sense of urgency to secure that coveted campsite for the long weekend.

Related: A full listing of Des Moines County parks.

While it’s certainly great to see so many people outdoors, it does lend to a bit of trepidation on the part of park managers. Due to the virus, not everything is open, crowd sizes are supposed to be limited, and social distancing enforced. That’s easy enough to do on miles-long trails but maybe not so much in campgrounds. Or on a beach. So park staff are doing what they can to keep themselves and park visitors safe, but ultimately we’re relying on park users to take personal responsibility for their safety and that of others. It’s the only way we’re going to get through this.
Remember when scenes like this were perfectly normal?
Plus, playgrounds are still closed (at least as of the time of this writing) which will undoubtedly illicit the ire of more than a few children. Here’s this beautiful playground, gleaming like a beacon from within a cage. If none of them clamber over the snow fence quarantining the beckoning swings and slides, I’ll be shocked. And I pity the park ranger that has to enforce that one. But so it goes in this age of parks-amid-pandemics.

Then we have the confusing situation in which the DNR announced this week it is opening modern facilities such as shower houses in their state parks for the holiday, but most county parks, Des Moines County included, are not. We don’t plan to open ours in Des Moines County parks until the county chooses to reopen the rest of its public buildings. But few people make the distinction between state parks (like Geode) and county parks (like Big Hollow). To most, and justifiably so, a park is a park. They’re either open or they’re not.

Except, as with most everything else in this pandemic age, it’s not that simple. Nor will it be for the foreseeable future, if ever.

I think it’s great that so many people are getting outdoors and frequenting our local parks. After all, this is exactly why we work so hard to build, improve, and maintain them. And we will continue to provide the places we all need to get away from the stress of life-amid-pandemic. Places to be free of the confines of walls and meetings and work. Places to exercise, to explore, to enjoy. Places to be together while sufficiently separated. We simply ask in return that you enjoy such places responsibly and be patient as we all navigate this confusing era of parks-amid-pandemic together.

See you out there.

This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.