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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Crowded parks become closed parks

Outdoor pros offer safety tips for visiting Washington state parks during COVID-19.

American Alpine Institute guides at Mt. Erie. Photo by Jason Martin

By Olivia Hicks

The outdoors provide an escape during COVID-19, but visitors taking safety precautions is key to ensuring that state parks remain open. 

After closing in March because of COVID-19, Washington state parks reopened for outdoor use on May 5. Most campgrounds and cabins reopened in June and July, according to Meryl Lassen, Washington State Parks’ communications consultant. 

Recreate Responsibly, a coalition of businesses, nonprofits and government agencies, suggests practices to make outdoor recreation safe during COVID-19. 

These include: 

Lassen said people heading outdoors should stick to the basics to minimize risk. 

“This is not the time to take up rock climbing or learn to kayak in open water if you’ve never done it before,” Lassen said. “This is probably the time to play it a little bit below your risk level.”

Low-risk activities include hiking, backpacking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, said Nick Belcaster, lead equipment specialist at the American Alpine Institute in Bellingham.

“The correct terrain choice will keep you out of trouble,” Belcaster said. “The correct weather and the correct activity are going to dictate how safe you’re going to be. Even though you can go do something really gnarly, exciting may not be the best choice right now.”

An increase in newcomers to the woods puts stress on search and rescue teams and medical professionals when those resources are needed elsewhere because of COVID-19, Belcaster said.

“COVID is not the only danger out there when you’ve got new users in the outdoors who may not have the gear, who may not have the knowledge and they end up getting off-trail,” Lassen said.

Local adventures are also a better idea than big trips. Belcaster said smaller mountain towns in the Cascades are less frequented now, adding stress atop financial hardship during the pandemic. Bellingham’s American Alpine Institute offers modified trips with social distancing and limited capacity to ensure safety.

Belcaster said less-frequented outdoor recommendations include the Scott Paul trail, Nooksack Cirque trail and Anderson and Watson lakes near Mount Baker. 

Lassen recommended visits to Larrabee, Bayview, Birch Bay, Peace Arch and Deception Pass parks. 

“Crowded parks become closed parks,” Lassen said. “If we can’t safely manage the crowds, then we may end up having to close the areas or limit parking.”

In response to COVID-19, Washington State Parks encouraged people to social distance, wear masks, bring toilet paper and avoid common areas. Parks have added more portable toilets, while closeing playgrounds and some cooking shelters, Lassen said. 

Kenna Dupree, a second-year student at Western, did not let COVID-19 stop her from having a fun-filled summer. Dupree went on a different camping or road trip almost every two weeks with her boyfriend. The pair followed recommended COVID-19 precautions by staying in their car overnight instead of campsites, visiting less populated areas and wearing masks, Dupree said.

Despite the cancelation of her initial summer trip to Thailand, exploring Washington and Oregon was an affordable and safe way to have a great summer, Dupree said. 

“Camping is a really good alternative,” Dupree said. “Even day hikes are a really nice escape from online classes.” 

Dupree said she encourages students and Bellingham residents who are itching to get out of town to research in advance to find the least populated beaches and trails. 

Additionally, Belcaster said following COVID-19 safety precautions is not just healthy, it’s respectful. 

“Getting outside is essential for a lot of people,” Belcaster said. “But having respect for other folks is almost as important as getting outside yourself.” 

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