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Alberta's campers turn to public land due to COVID-19

With provincial campgrounds set to open at half capacity on June 1 and national campgrounds still closed, more campers are expected to make use of public land as an alternative.

National park campgrounds remain closed and provincial campgrounds restricted to half capacity

Tenters camp on public land beside the Blackstone River in west central Alberta. (Scott Stevenson/CBC)

On Monday the province's campgrounds will reopen but COVID-19 restrictions will keep half the sites closed

Campgrounds in Alberta's national parks will remain closed until at least June 21.

Meanwhile, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have followed Alberta and closed their campgrounds to out of province visitors.

If the Crown Land Camping Alberta Facebook group, recently launched by Calgarian Ryan Epp, is any indication, many Albertans are looking for alternatives.

In the seven weeks since launching the page, Epp has welcomed nearly 29,000 members with more joining all the time.

"I started it up basically looking to find some new people to go camping with," Epp said. "I was expecting to get maybe 50, 60 people to join up.

"We're still growing at almost a thousand a day," he told CBC News. "It's been crazy." 

Epp believes the interest in his group is connected to conventional campgrounds being closed or restricted.

Ryan Epp and his friends circle the wagons at an undisclosed spot somewhere on Alberta's public lands. (Ryan Epp)

Now he's sharing his knowledge with people who have never used Crown land before, something the 46-year-old has been doing since he was a kid.

"We'd hit the forestry trunk road with our tents and some other family friends," he said.

As an adult, Epp upgraded to a tent trailer and he's recently purchased a hard-walled trailer.

"It's got bathroom facilities and a water tank and everything, it's a little more comfortable," he said. "I've got a generator to supply power so that way I'm all set-up."

It's a long way from the five-gallon pail he once used for a toilet.

"There's no services, so there's no water, no electricity, no toilet facilities," Epp said. "If you head out there you have to have all that with you."

Camping on crown land usually can mean fewer neighbours. (Ryan Epp)

Epp is also quick to remind members of the etiquette and rules when it comes to Crown land camping.

"The big one with a lot of us is we try to haul out more than we take in," he said. "We look for garbage, we'll pick it up and bring it out."

There are options for those looking for peace and quiet and options for those who might want to let loose and make a little noise.

"It's so much more quiet," he said. "If you want to make more noise you can because there's not really anyone right beside you that you're going to disturb."

Epp says there are also Crown land camping areas ideal for specific hobbies like quading or fishing. The tricky part is finding those spots and Epp is fielding a lot of questions from people wanting to know where to go.

Albertans may have to get off the beaten path to find those special camping spots on public land. (Ryan Epp)

"We all have our secret spots that we're not going to divulge to anybody," he said. "The fun of it is going out and scouting out and finding your own secret spot to go to because there's thousands upon thousands of kilometres to travel and find these throughout Crown land."

CJ Blye, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta in the faculty of kinesiology, sport and recreation, agrees.

"There are a lot of places; actually 60 per cent of the province is public land," Blye said.

"We do have a number of wildland provincial parks that are north of Edmonton and then most of our public land use zones follow along that Rocky Mountain corridor all the way down to the south of the province."

Much of the land is not easily accessible and Blye encourages people to check regulations before heading out.

Each public-land-use zone has its own rules and regulations, which are more important than ever, Blye said.

A room with a view. (Ryan Epp)

"The pressure that we're going to be placing on our natural areas will be more significant because we're going to see more folks wanting to get out," she said.

"We want to be really careful that we're not overloading our natural environments.

"Leave no trace camping and leave no trace travel is a great way to look at how we can be in these areas and reduce our impact," she said.

Blye encourages people to check the online information provided by the provincial government and Alberta Parks before they head out.

Nobody from the province would talk about the pressure on Crown land.

In an email, Jess Sinclair, press secretary for the minister of Environment and Parks, said that over the May long weekend, staff saw an increase in public land use in parts of southern and central Alberta.

"It remains to be seen if campers that traditionally use our provincial parks will increasingly move onto public land for their fill of outdoor recreation," Sinclair said. 

Sinclair urges users pack out what they pack in and limit stays in one spot to 14 days.

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