Birds were chirping throughout a southern Manitoba campground as Erica Dyck took in the signs of spring on Sunday morning.

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Birds were chirping throughout a southern Manitoba campground as Erica Dyck took in the signs of spring on Sunday morning.

"It is beautiful, because the trees are starting to bud; there are lots of birds," she said. "It’s calm and peaceful."

Camping season started in mid-March for Erica and her husband Cliff, who returned in an upgraded camper to their seasonal site at the private Prairie Oak campground in Emerson on the west side of the Red River. The Plum Coulee grandparents are among those Manitobans who embraced a newfound love of the outdoors over the past year and are trying to stretch their spring and summer to last as long as possible.

At many campgrounds across the province, the surge in demand this season surpassed last year’s unprecedented spike in bookings. Reservations for provincial parks and public sites filled up fast in early April. Some private campgrounds have newly opened or expanded their sites to keep pace with the popularity.

Although the Victoria Day long weekend is the traditional start of Manitoba’s camping season, some campers have been, perhaps unsurprisingly, even more eager to start one of the few activities that’s permitted under public-health restrictions. But just like last year, campers aren’t allowed to gather with people who don’t live with them.

Last Friday, deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal confirmed campsites are considered private residences under the public-health rules, meaning outdoor gatherings with members of different households are prohibited.

That rule hasn’t reduced interest at all, said Prairie Oak campground co-owner Ernie Wiebe. Last year, they couldn’t make a dent in their waitlist. This season, they had to expand.

"The response was just crazy; phone calls were steady, and we created an extra 13, 14 sites, and they were gone, like immediately, the list just kept growing."

Farther north in Portage la Prairie, the Miller’s Camping Resort has been having much the same experience. Spaces are still available, but long-weekend spots are already pretty full.

Paresh Gedia, manager/partner of Miller’s, said people are hungry for COVID-safe activities.

"I think camping is a safe bet for everybody, so booking-wise it seems really busy," he said.

More hikers hit the trails

The surge of Manitobans looking to get outside this spring has led to a noticeable increase in new hikers on provincial trails.


The surge of Manitobans looking to get outside this spring has led to a noticeable increase in new hikers on provincial trails.

Pre-pandemic, Hike Manitoba author Jaime Manness was used to seeing one or two others on trails outside Winnipeg at 7 a.m. Now, she sees a dozen. Manness says she considers it a welcome change, but one that comes with some responsibility. There are very few trails in the province that are accessible for everyone -- something that needs to change, Manness says. But all hikers need to take safety precautions and respect the environment, following the "leave no trace" adage.

"You're always going to have the people are kind of like, 'I was there first and I don't like how many people are embracing this,' but I try not to give them too much time, because it's so amazing to see how many people are out there exploring Manitoba and falling in love with Manitoba," Manness says.

"Now that we're going into our second year of lockdown, this is starting to become a lifestyle for some people and they're starting to invest in the gear and the habits... and they're starting to invest in their role as a hiker or a camper," she adds.

Hikers should pack appropriate safety gear and leave nothing behind. Most importantly, Manness says, they must tell someone about their travel plans, where they're going and when they expect to be back.

In the early days of the pandemic, eager for an escape from "looking at your same four walls and cleaning your cupboards," Erica Dyck says, the couple booked a season-long campsite for the first time last year.

Their neighbours were on the bread-baking bandwagon, leaving fresh loaves by their camper door every morning (bread baked in a smoker is surprisingly "really, really good," Erica says) and the lure of stumbling upon a secret swinging bridge or two got them out on the hiking trails every day. The more they explored, the more of southern Manitoba’s hidden gems they wanted to discover.

"We love it now," Erica says.

"It’s like its own little community. Even though you can only have your household members in your yard, from a distance everything’s open. You can still talk to people, see people at least (from a distance). You’re not locked in your same four walls at home. And there’s so much more to do outside. Everybody’s more active now, I think," she adds.

"It’s like life is still happening."

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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