By Darren Lum
Last month two lost hikers needed to be rescued by the OPP in the Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Park. It was a reminder of the dangers related to venturing into the woods when not prepared.
Even before the recent provincial stay-at-home order, Ontario Parks wanted the public to limit travel and adhere to provincial recommendations said Natalie McMorrow, park superintendent for the Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands, Balsam Lake and Indian Point.
“As much as people love to visit Ontario Parks, we are still hoping people will limit travel to follow provincial guidelines at the time, depending on where we’re at with COVID-19. We’re encouraging everyone to do their part by minimizing their risk to ourselves and others by continuing to follow public health advice,” she said. “We certainly know we’re having visitors, but we just want to make sure that everyone is taking steps to reduce their exposure to the virus and to protect themselves and others.”
The Queen Elizabeth II is a massive non-operating park at 33,505-hectares, spanning from Minden to Gravenhurst.
However, it’s acknowledged that people will still travel, which could include outdoor activities such as going into the woods of Ontario Parks. McMorrow said it’s important that visitors equip themselves with knowledge and prepare for any eventuality.
“Recently, we formed a designated phone line that has a long information message at the beginning, but it’s’ pretty valuable for people that might know how big this park is and how many different user groups are in there,” McMorrow said.
She recommends visitors to use the (705) 454-3324 ext. 5226 number. This line is checked daily and staff will return calls to ensure people receive help, she said. She encouraged the public to visit the Ontario Parks website (www.ontarioparks.com/park/queenelizabeth2wildlands) for the QEII because it not only offers recommendations about planning updates about the park, but also includes a downloadable map with campsites and trail information. The map can be downloaded to any device and used offline and doesn’t require internet connectivity to navigate, which can be an issue in the area.
There are a diverse range of activities available to do at the park, which boasts with 100 kilometres of Ganaraska hiking trails. Established in 2002, the park provides a setting for hiking, paddling, fishing, camping, boating, snowshoeing, and with restrictions even hunting and snowmobiling. McMorrow points out there aren’t any designated bicycling trails at the Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands. Currently, overnight camping is unavailable.
One tip before heading out into the park from the parking lot is to leave a note on the vehicle or share a trip plan with someone, McMorrow adds.
“A family member calls us and says, ‘My friend was supposed to be home by 5 o’clock then at least we know they told someone where they plan to go in and kind of where they had planned to go,” she said.
Her recommended list of items for a safe day out or multiple days out include making a trip plan, taking a compass and knowing how to use it, having a map, whether that’s downloaded to a device or a paper version, and a water purifier.
She adds experience in the outdoors is invaluable and suggests people go to operating parks such as Algonquin Park and Kawartha Highlands before going to a non-operating park like the QEII.
“It’s definitely not beginner back country,” she said.
After the hikers were located, the OPP Central Region shared a video through Twitter depicting the hikers being spotted from the air, noting that in an emergency, people should not panic; stop: sit, think, observe and plan; stay put to help reduce time and search area; seek shelter and stay warm, and signal for help, as reported by the Echo.
It’s important, McMorrow said, that visitors intending to stay overnight be aware that with limited designated camp sites that people have a backup plan for accommodations.
A non-operating park like the QEII presents greater challenges and issues if one gets lost or hurt.
“Unlike Algonquin or Kawartha Highlands, QEII is non-operating. So, non-operating parks typically have limited facilities and infrastructure and do not take camp site reservations or collect camping, or day-use fees,” she said.
There is limited access to the park, she adds.
Popular starting point, Devils Lake, isn’t just an access for the park, but is also used for residents and users of water-access cottages. It creates parking issues. There are also only less than 10 designated, first-come campsites available from that access point.
McMorrow said there have been no additions made to staff numbers, despite an anticipated growth in interest in the site, but the staff available will be directed to the areas of greatest need, such as Devils Lake, Victoria Falls and Little Gull Lake, which is the most popular day-use area.
McMorrow reminds users to follow “back country etiquette,” which includes adopting a no trace approach to enjoying the outdoors and carrying everything out that you brought in. This is also related to proper food storage such as using sealed food containers and abiding by the Ontario Parks signage recommending the use of bear bags suspended from a tree branch for safety, as bears are drawn, to food but also to aromatic items such cooking oil, toothpaste and deodorant. Expect bears to come out of hibernation mid-April and be most active in May, she said.
Although there is no quantifiable visitation data for the QEII, last year Ontario Parks had more than 11 million visitors, McMorrow said.
She adds, as of several weeks ago there has already been a 110 per cent increase in reservations for parks relative to last year and there is an expectation that will continue for the rest of the year.
“So we’re definitely anticipating an increase interest to QEII,” she said.