[UPDATE: 9 p.m. Jan. 15. Changed dates to Jan. 19 and 20. THIS weekend.]
People are making plans to occupy Keji this weekend.
Rod and Mary Kierstead have been putting up posters in the communities around the Kejimkujik National Park inviting people to “hike, ski, snowshoe or enjoy a warm fire at the Mills Falls shelter” this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 19 and 20.
“It’s like a vote,” says Rod, “If you think the park should be open and accessible year-round, you can cast your vote by showing up and showing the government it’s important to you.”
The Occupy Winter movement started on Facebook by Manitoban Celes Davar this Christmas in response to Parks Canada’s decision to close most of Canada’s National Parks for the Winter.
Events have been planned at National Parks across Canada to coincide with Snow Day—a day to encourage young people between 4 and 14 to get out and enjoy winter.
“Winter is an iconic part of Canadian culture,” says Davar. “Parks Canada made this decision without consultation with Canadians or the staff at the individual parks.
“Some of the most active users of the parks are the rural people who live next door. This whole ‘alignment of resources’ focuses the parks on serving the summer users. But come October, November, a different set of visitors use the parks. These people are strong advocates for the parks, they use the parks on a daily basis, they keep on eye on the parks, and these are the people who are being shut out by this decision.”
Rod Kierstead is one of those people. He goes cross-country skiing about 75-100 days of the winter and in a normal winter, half of those days he spends in Keji.
This year with the park road blocked off about 5 km from any trailhead he figures he’ll get in half as much.
“I’m okay with a 15-20 km ski trip, cause I’m in shape and used to it,” says Kierstead. “But think of all those people who want a place to try out skiing or get used to it before trying a bigger trip; they’re not going to want to, let alone be able to ski that far.”
Kierstead said the Keji staff had been getting better and better at grooming the trails. They had also just got a yurt rental operation up and going which Kierstead says was booked up all the time. And last year, Keji held its first maple festival to attract more visitors to the park.
“The staff must be just heart broken after all the work they’ve done to build up the winter visitor numbers.”
Linda Frank, Parks Canada’s field unit superintendent for Mainland Nova Scotia, says the closures are part of Parks Canada’s “efforts to to reduce the government deficit and meet the $29.2 million reduction to the agency’s budget.”
She says the main road is closed for “safety and security reasons.”
She couldn’t or wouldn’t say how much they were saving by closing the park in the fall, winter and spring or how much they were saving by not allowing access to the park.
Colin Mudle uses the park regularly in the off-season for canoeing and camping through the fall and spring and for snowshoeing and hiking in the winter.
He says visitors from Europe were showing up at the gates of Keji all fall expecting to spend a couple weeks in the park.
He doesn’t understand why Parks Canada couldn’t let people access the park even when it’s closed.
“I can’t see how it would cost them any money to let people self-register,” says Mudle. “It’s not like there was ever anyone right there with you holding your hand when you were camping. And the wardens are still on staff.
“I think they’d actually be bringing in a little money if they’d let people camp in there.”
Keith Weigle visited the park Dec. 30 with a group of friends wanting to hike and enjoy the woods.
They had to park at the Mill Falls visitor information centre parking lot and walk alongside the main road into the park for about 5 km before they reached the first trailhead.
“That’s not why people visit a national park,” says Weigle. “You go for the woods and the lakes; you go for nature, not to walk along a road.”
The Kiersteads plan to make sure the fire is lit and warming shelter ready for visitors this weekend. You can find more information about occupy winter by checking out the Facebook event http://www.facebook.com/events/243107382485981 under the title “Occupy Winter: We <3 our fourth season”.
Frank says the main road might open before April 1 if road and weather conditions permit.