Many of us are feeling stressed by the disruption and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. To cope, more and more of us are turning to outdoor recreation. This makes sense, as being outdoors is a proven way to combat stress and promote positive well-being. As a professor of outdoor education, I’m encouraged to see people reconnecting with the natural world.
We’re lucky in the Chequamegon Bay area that we have large expanses of National Forest and other public lands, trails for hiking and biking, and city parks and beaches. But, whereas during a typical summer many of us are accustomed to being the only ones at a trailhead or on an inland lake, this summer is anything but typical.
As more and more people head to the outdoors, our recreation areas are becoming crowded. This means, to protect our natural areas and be considerate of others, we need to be more deliberate in our choices.
At the most basic level, this means following Leave No Trace guidelines so we don’t “love to death” our outdoor spaces. Pack out your own trash (sticking it in the fire pit doesn’t count). Have a campfire only in a designated fire ring, collect only dead and down firewood, and completely drown the fire before leaving or going to sleep. Protect live trees and vegetation from damage, and respect the wildlife and other human visitors. Make sure you leave an area looking even better than you found it.
Call ahead to see if the area you’re planning to visit is open and if reservations or permits are required—some recreation areas have limited capacity. Be prepared in case the bathroom facilities are closed. Know how to dig a cat hole, bury poop, and pack out used toilet paper—nothing ruins another’s outing like coming across the human waste.
Beyond basic Leave No Trace, we need to minimize the risk of spreading COVID. Being outside can give us a false sense of security. But guidelines from the CDC and the National Recreation and Park Association ask us, even when outside, to avoid congregating with people who aren’t in our household, maintain at least 6’ distance between ourselves and others, consider wearing a face covering and avoid crowded spaces. If a recreation area is too crowded, try a less popular spot. And certainly, don’t use a public recreation area if you don’t feel well.
I’ve made some changes this summer to my recreation habits. For example, instead of hiking to Houghton Falls this summer, I’ve been exploring non-descript sections of the North Country Trail, where I’ve yet to run into another person. When outside by myself or with just my husband, I keep my face mask around my neck. If I see someone coming towards me on the trail, I step off to the side and slip the mask over my nose and mouth.
These basic considerations ensure we can all enjoy recreating in nature while protecting the health of our community and the beauty of our natural spaces.