Fire restrictions, public health rules rain on Manitoba campers looking to get away for May long weekend
Some Manitobans, meanwhile, are determined to enjoy the weekend out of town anyway
The May long weekend is not known for good weather in Manitoba, even if many consider it the unofficial start of summer.
But this year, lousy weather is just one of the factors turning the weekend into a bust for some.
Despite some recent rain, extremely dry conditions have forced a ban on campfires and backcountry camping. The conditions have also resulted in the closure of some hiking trails in the southern part of the province.
New public health orders in place for the weekend to prevent further transmission of COVID-19 are also limiting who campers can interact with.
"We've decided we're going to pack up," said Lorraine Wright, who was camping at Birds Hill Park all week with her husband. The couple was supposed to stay the weekend.
"It's cold. We can't have fires until tonight."
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer, and Health Minister Heather Stefanson announced new public health orders Thursday afternoon, in an attempt to prevent a surge of COVID-19 cases from long weekend gatherings amid the third wave.
As of 12:01 a.m. Saturday, Manitobans cannot gather outdoors with people outside their own household (with an exception for people who live alone, who are allowed to see one other person regularly).
Also, only one person per household will be allowed to enter businesses, though there are exceptions for people such as caregivers.
Campsites will be considered private residences under the order, so only people from the same household will be allowed to camp together, said Roussin during Thursday's news conference.
That clinched it for Wright. She and her husband had hoped to meet up with a few friends in public areas, but she didn't want to stay out camping if they had to spend the weekend by themselves, she said.
"We can't sit on the beach or around a picnic table or a campfire, so it's just cold and somewhat lonely," she said. "We looked forward to this for a long time."
A drought has caused extremely dry conditions through much of Manitoba and wildfires have been burning in various pockets for over a week. Some residents had to evacuate their communities this week due to fires and smoke.
Last week, the conditions prompted a ban on campfires and backcountry camping south of the 53rd parallel, and closed many hiking trails in southern Manitoba as well.
Recent cool temperatures and rain dampened the fire risk in many parts of the province, so most of the fire and travel restrictions have been lifted where appropriate, says a wildfire bulletin issued by the provincial government Friday.
The safety restrictions are still in place for the northern Interlake region and west of Lake Winnipeg and Swan Pelican Provincial Forest. Campfires are only permitted in fire pits in those regions — which also include the Beaver Creek, Hecla/Grindstone, Kettle Stones, Lake St. Andrew, Lake St. George, Primrose and Springwater provincial parks — the bulletin says.
Some provincial trails also remain closed due to nearby fires, but most have reopened.
The only trails still closed as of Friday's update were the Black Wolf Trail in Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park, and the Mantario Trail and Whiteshell River water route from Caddy Lake to Lone Island Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park. That was because of a fire in the area, the province said.
More than 50% of campground spaces booked
Shaun Harbottle, owner of Crescent Beach Cottages at West Hawk Lake in the Whiteshell, has seen a downturn is business this May long because of fires that were "really close to our doorstep," he said.
But Harbottle will cope with the slow summertime start if it means a downpour of rain is in the forecast.
"That's more the concern right now.... It's the long-term look," Harbottle said.
"It's one of those things where you want business, but we need the rain. Otherwise, we're not going to have a business here to run."
Even with the challenges facing campers, 54 per cent of Manitoba's campground spaces are booked this weekend — which is slightly higher than May long weekend last year, a spokesperson for the Manitoba government told CBC News.
Harbottle attributes that to the public yearning to get away in a safe manner during the pandemic. In the winter months, Crescent Beach Cottages saw an increase in business, in part, because of that.
Kai Newman and his wife, Natasha, are among those who had to get out camping this weekend.
"We didn't have any plans on missing it no matter the weather. We got our nice tent, we got our tarp and we're going to enjoy it," said Newman.
"Big bummer that there's been no hiking. But the lake trail that goes around the Birds Hill campground is really nice and that's all open."
Camping is an opportunity for peace and quiet for Christy Cousins, an emergency room nurse in Morden, Man.
"I'm sick of COVID. I wanted to get out and get away," she said.