The parking lot was full of cars and it was standing room only in the Mill Falls warming hut.
The main road into Kejimkujik National Park was buzzing with skiers, snowshoers and hikers enjoying the four or five inches of fresh snow that fell throughout the day, Saturday, Jan. 19.
Some of the more experienced and intrepid skiers reached as far into the park as Big Dam Lake, Jakes Landing and Merrymakedge—places you used to be able to drive to. Places from which you used to be able to start ski trips through the trails and around the lakes of Keji.
Until this year, until Parks Canada barricaded the main road into Keji at Mills Falls. About 5 km from any real trail head, about 8 km from any of the lakes.
“It’s disingenuous to pretend the park is open,” says Steve Briggs of Conquerall Bank. “You can’t get into the centre of the park, you can’t access any of the major trails. Who wants to come to a national park to ski along the side of the road?
“You come to a park for the lakes, the rivers and the woods.”
Over 100 people, from Halifax, Digby, Yarmouth, the Annapolis Valley and the South Shore turned up at Keji on Saturday, Jan. 19 to make that point at a gathering called Occupy Winter.
The Canada-wide movement aims to show Parks Canada and the federal government that Canadians want to be able to use their national parks all year round.
Parks Canada closed Keji to overnight camping on Oct. 10, 2012 after the Thanksgiving weekend. They also closed all the side roads leading to the lakes and trails.
The main road into the park was supposed to be barricaded at Mill Falls starting Nov. 1 but staff kept it open as long as the snow held off, which was til the end of December.
Parks Canada plans to open the main road and the road to Jakes Landing on March 30.
They don’t intend to allow overnight camping until the Victoria Day weekend in late May, after the best of the fishing season has passed.
Linda Frank, Parks Canada’s field unit superintendent for mainland Nova Scotia, says the closures are part of Parks Canada’s efforts to help reduce the federal deficit. The federal government has cut $29.2 million from the Parks Canada budget and Parks Canada plans to meet that target by focussing on “seasons of traditionally high visitation (ie. July and August),” says Frank.
She couldn’t or wouldn’t say how much money Parks Canada was saving by closing Keji in the fall, winter and spring.
Diane and Harold Clapp of Smith’s Cove have been coming to Keji since 1978.
They came last weekend to ski and to show how much they love the park in winter.
“Winter here is fabulous,” says Diane. “Nature is open, you can walk not only in the forest but across the lakes. You can see who your neighbours are because they leave tracks in the snow. It’s wonderful.
“Should we just have parks open for summer tourists? I don’t think so.”
David and Ann Marsters of Canning have been bringing their family and now their grandkids to the park for years for canoeing, camping, skiing and fishing.
David and his sons Peter and Karl used to ski the 15 km to Mason’s Cabin in the southern end of the park most winters for an overnight stay.
“It was a sense of accomplishment,” says David. “It’s such a great place out there on the lake in the winter time.
“Now, you have to add 7 km to each end of the trip and you have to be out by nightfall, well you just couldn’t do it, it’s too far.”
On Saturday they settled for a ski up and down the main road.
In the warming hut Ron Eaton of Harmony was serving hot chocolate using water heated up on the woodstove.
Mary Billard of Clementsvale brought little mini pizzas and a tray of homemade mincemeat tarts for the Occupy Winter gathering.
She’s been coming to the park for almost 40 years and says its normal practice for her to bring extra food.
“I often bring a carload out here,” she says. “Some of us hike the trails—I love to walk—some of the ladies might just stay here in the shelter and play cards or talk.
“And we always met other people here and they might not have any lunch so we share.”
She says she used to gather “activity points” at Keji for Annapolis County’s Take the Roof Off Winter contest.
“We should be able to use the trails and the facilities here even if there isn’t any staff,” she says. “We need places like this in the winter. You can’t just stay inside all winter.
“A little exercise never hurt anyone.”
Besides the food and warmth in the warming shelter, organisers were drawing for door prizes – bottles of blueberry juice and a painting of a memorable tree from Muise Island, one of the most sought after camping sites in the park.
The painting will be drawn for at the end of the day Sunday, Jan. 20.
Rick Swain of nearby Harmony told the crowd in the shelter stories about Jim Charles, the Mi’kmaq man who found gold and a lot of trouble somewhere in or near what is now the park.
Don Pentz also read some of his poetry, inspired by experiences in the park.
Outside Peter Rogers was giving cross country skiing clinics and snowshoeing clinics.
Eric LeBel, the park superintendent was in the parking lot for a good part of the day—he provided the gathering with firewood and welcomed visitors as they arrived.
“I got a message to be here and to welcome people,” said LeBel. “It is great to see so many people support the park. Great to see so many people using the park.”
The main organizers, Rod Kierstead, Ron Eaton and Peter Rogers plan to be back at the shelter on Sunday, Jan. 20, with a warm fire, and hot chocolate.
“Rain snow or shine,” says Kierstead.