More provincial parks embracing wireless internet

More provincial parks across Canada are offering wireless access to the internet, but not everyone's a happy camper about it.

Wi-Fi available in Ont., N.S., B.C., Sask., Alta.

Willmore Wilderness Provincial Park in Alberta is still off the grid, with no wireless access. (Government of Alberta)

It's now easier than ever to stay connected in provincial parks across Canada, but not all visitors are happy campers about it.

With wireless access available at some parks in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, visitors can enjoy the web in the wild.

"We're an accommodation — bottom line," says John Salo, southwest zone manager for Ontario Parks, the agency that oversees provincial parks.

"Yes, we protect significant [environmental] areas, but we're an accommodation, and when people go to motels and hotels, they expect to have wireless internet."

Ontario Parks has decided to extend a pilot program that introduced wireless internet in Pinery Provincial Park last year. Salo says the hotspot at the park's convenience store will stay active until November.

"If there's a positive response, we'll sit back and determine if it's worth it to continue," he said.

At Pinery Provincial Park in Ontario, visitors can access wireless internet as part of a pilot program that runs until November. (Government of Ontario)

Although Pinery is the only provincial park in Ontario with Wi-Fi, parks across the country are moving into the internet age.

Most parks that offer Wi-Fi do so for free, but some that are operated by private businesses charge for the service.

Visitors must stick to visitors' centres or designated areas, not the trails or beaches, to access wireless internet in those parks that do offer the service. Some, such as those in Nova Scotia, limit access to the internet to certain times during the day.

But despite some restrictions, hotspots are more common than ever in provincial parks.

Last year, Nova Scotia decided to expand wireless access at its provincial parks. Now 14 of 20 provincial parks there offer the service.

 In Saskatchewan, visitors can use their smartphones or tablets to log on to a 4G network available at most parks.

Robert Seaton, park facility operator for Meziadin Lake Provincial Park in B.C., says visitors are delighted to have access to Wi-Fi, at a cost of $5 a day.

"Most of them are surprised to have it," said Seaton. "They are pleased but very surprised."

He decided to install Wi-Fi at Meziadin four years ago because there was no cellphone coverage at the remote northern B.C. camp, and the closest phone was 60 km away.

"Most people just use [the internet] to update their friends and family on where they are … and send photos," Seaton said.

Many American and European tourists choose to spend an extra night at Meziadin so they can stay in touch with family back home, he said.

National parks are choosing to stay disconnected for now. None of them offer wireless internet to visitors.

Connecting with each other, not the net

Not everyone is excited about the prospect of staying connected in the wild. Jen Johnson is a mother of two and an avid camper who lives in Toronto. Her family of four has already gone on 10 camping trips this year.

"At home, [the internet] is a huge part of my life," says Johnson, "but when I go camping, it doesn't even cross my mind. I keep those worlds completely separate."

Johnson and her husband have always had a no-electronics policy, unless the device is used for safety, such as a GPS or a cellphone. She says camping is an opportunity to connect to her family, not the web.

"It's nice to be able to get away where it's quiet and reflect and be with each other," Johnson said. "When you're out there, you interact exclusively with each other and with nature."

Johnson, who runs a successful camping blog, has a good excuse to log onto her website during a camping trip but insists on keeping work and play separate.

"Staying connected can be important," she said. "It's nice to be able to share what you're doing in real time with people back home in a text or by sending a picture. But you need to draw a line when it comes to working."

While her two sons are allowed to bring all the gadgets they want for the drive to the park, all electronics stay in the car when they get there.

"Sometimes, you get the occasional eye roll, but they're used to it," Johnson said.

Tech-free for the weekend

Johnson is not the only one who avoids technology when camping.

A couple hike in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, where the visitor centre in Saskatchewan offers wireless internet. (Government of Alberta)

Many campers are trying to get as far away from technology as they can, according to Camille Weleschuk, a spokesperson for Alberta Tourism. Some of them even specifically seek out remote parks with no cellphone coverage.

"You're not tapped in," she said. "You're not checking your blackberry, because you don't have that option. For them, it's about breathing that sigh of relief and saying, 'OK, I'm tech-free for the weekend.'"

Currently, only two of Alberta's 500 parks have Wi-Fi. But even if more people demand wireless internet, it may not be possible. Many provincial parks are simply too remote.

"There are some locations where we cannot offer [wireless internet]," says Salo of parks in Ontario.

He stresses that there will always be an option to stay offline for those who are looking to truly get away from it all.

Johnson agrees.

"Just because it's there, doesn't mean you have to use it," she said.