Reflecting on Camping and the Parks System

Group of women carrying a canoe overhead
Unidentified group of women carrying a canoe, Winnipeg, 1940s. Library and Archives Canada. MIKAN 4328425

I’ve went camping twice this summer and stayed at three Provincial Parks in Ontario as part of that experience.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the complicated nature behind the parks system, the dispossession of Indigenous people from parks and the lack of acknowledgement of the traditional usage of the land by Parks.  None of the parks I visited this year had signage about the history of the park or about the park’s relationship to the local Indigenous communities.

Last year I visited Pukaskwa Nation Park.  It is the only Park I’ve visited to date that is actively working with the local First Nation community to reinterpret the site and to include a discussion of the community’s history on the land. Pukaskwa’s staff included an Indigenous Cultural Interpreter – who was from Pic River First Nation, the local First Nation community that was impacted by the creation of Pukaskwa.  The were also in the process of creating an Anishinaabe Camp for cultural programming and the “Bimose Kinoomagewanan” trail signage was created by local elders and youth from Pic River.

Pukaskwa serves as one example of parks addressing their problematic past.  I would be interested in knowing of any other examples out there.  As visitors what can settlers do to encourage more critical interpretation? As a first step speaking with the folks staffing the visitors centre and interpreters to ask them about what they know about the park’s history can help.  If they don’t mention the traditional Indigenous territory of the land ask why. Ask them why there is no discussion of the land prior to the park being established and if there is any plans to change that.  Talk with the people you are camping with – have those important conversations about land and history – even if it makes you or them uncomfortable.

For additional context I would suggest reading Anne Janhunen’s The Holiday Spirit Will Prevail’: Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Erasure in Ontario’s ‘Cottage Country‘ presentation and Robert Jago’s “Canada’s National Parks are Colonial Crime Scenes.”

Pukaskwa National Park

20160626_155631Recently I visited Pukaskwa National Park, the only wilderness national Park in Ontario.  The Park features a small campground and 1878 square km of wonderful Northern Ontario natural heritage.

I had a wonderful time camping, exploring, and learning about the landscape at Pukaskwa.  We were there prior to the official start of their interpretation season (July and August) but still managed to take in some activities and many of their trails have great interpretive signage that can be used without a guide.

Anishinaabe Camp Construction

The first morning at Pukaskwa we joined in a walk to the Anishinaabe Camp that was currently under construction.  We were the only ones to participate in the walk that morning but it was worth the half hour to talk with the people building an interpretive space based on traditional knowledge. Our guide was from Pic River First Nation and works as at the park as a cultural interpreter and programmer and the builders were a combination of local and visiting people with knowledge of traditional structures.  As an added bonus our guide took us into the Visitor Centre despite it not being officially open for the season so we could take a look at some of their other programming spaces and some of the other birch bark items that were made at the Park.  I loved that the park integrates traditional knowledge keepers into interpretive programming.

Beach Trail

20160625_085744Pukaskwa has a number of short hikes that can all be completed in a hour or two from the campground.  This was perfect for us given that we were traveling with a small child.  The first hike we did was the “Beach Trail” which visits driftwood filled beaches in three different areas of shoreline – Horseshoe Bay, middle beach, and north beach.  The views of Lake Superior and the huge amounts of driftwood were amazing to look at.  This trail was a fairly easy hike though there were a few spots that could have used better signage and required some hunting to pick up the trail again. In addition to the natural beauty Horseshoe Bay also featured an easel which explored the Group of Seven’s paintings inspired by the landscape contained in Pukaskwa.  I loved this integration of history, culture, and natural heritage.

Bimose Kinoomagewnan

Bimose Kinoomagewnan signage at start of trail.
Bimose Kinoomagewnan signage at start of trail.

The second trail we explored was the Bimose Kinoomagewnan trail or the “Walk of Teachings”.  This trail may have been my favourite of the many hikes we did at Pukaskwa.  It didn’t have Lake Superior views but the views around Halfway Lake and the interpretive signage focusing on the Seven Grandfather Teachings was extremely well done.

Wisdom teaching signage.

Each teaching had a sign placed at scenic points on the trail and the signage contained stories of Elders’ experiences in the park, their thoughts on the teachings, and their memories of the land.  Each of these written experiences was paired with artwork by local youth.  The signage was in three languages (English, French, Ojibway) and extremely well done and added to the trail significantly.  On the natural heritage side of things I loved the variety of this trail which includes forested land, huge rock faces, hills, a beaver lodge, and fantastic views.

Southern Headland Trail

Red Chairs as part of the "Share the Chair" Parks Canada program.
Red Chairs as part of the “Share the Chair” Parks Canada program.

This was probably the most popular trail we explored – at least judging by the number of people we saw exploring the views.  On many of the other hikes we didn’t see anyone else.  The Southern Headland trail has breath taking Lake Superior views and overlooks Hattie Cove, Pulpwood Harbour, and Horseshoe Bay.

This walk provides visitors with glimpses of the power of Superior and there is some signage talking about the impact the lake has on the landscape and flora/fauna in the region.  This trail also featured the “red chair experience” a Parks Canada national initiative which places red Muskoka style chairs at places with breathtaking views and spots which highlight some of the best spots in national parks.  I love the idea of making destination points within parks that are points of connection, shared experience, and social media opportunities.

Manito Miikana

Outlook over Lake Superior on Manito Miikana
Outlooking Lake Superior on Manito Miikana

Also known as “the Spirit Trail”, Manito Miikana is a predominately forested trail leading to two viewing platforms with panoramic views of Lake Superior.  This was by far the most difficult trail we hiked, it has a lot of changing elevations, a ton of tree roots, uneven ground, and it was very wet the day we walked it.  The views were similar to that of the Southern Headland Trail but overlooked different portions of the lake and also allowed for a look at the Pic River Dunes in the distance.  It wasn’t a bad hike and we probably would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t rained so much prior to our walk.


I really enjoyed Pukaskwa National Park, exploring the natural history and learning a bit more about the landscape of the North Shore.  I was also pleasantly surprised by a lot of the interpretation programming and signage in the park.  The interpretation I engaged with was really well done and the Park has made an effort to engage local Indigenous communities in programming and include traditional knowledge in their signage.

Heritage Hide’n’Seek GeoTour

Parks Canada recently announced a Northern Ontario heritage GeoTour that combines geocaching and the history of the Northern Ontario region.  Details on the GeoTour were a bit difficult to locate initially, as the links provided in my local paper didn’t direct users to the correct site and the parks website has a number of geolocation based programs.

The Hide’n’Seek program includes 16 geocaches located as far south as Algonquin Park, as far north as the James Bay coast, and as far west as Fort Frances.  Given the vast distance between the geocahes it is fairly unlikely that too many people will visit all of them.  However, there are various clusters located around Thunder Bay, Sault Ste Marie, Sudbury and the Hwy 17 corridor which might be great stopping points for anyone traveling across the province. 

The historical details of the GeoTour are well written and often involve visits to Parks Canada sites and local landmarks.  For example, the Sault Ste. Marie Commerce cache includes a visit to the Francis Clergue plaque, the Nicolas Perrot plaque, and the Ermatinger House.  Each stop includes a description of the historical context and explanation of the impact of person or location of the development of trade and commerce in Sault Ste Marie.  Given that this GeoTour was created by Parks Canada it’s not surprising that locations of many of the geocaches encourage participants to visit parks or local heritage sites.

Overall, the GeoTour seems like a neat way to encourage the general public to interact with history in a new way.  The tour is educational, includes a number of interesting landmarks, and makes use of the growing abundance of smartphones.  The only potential downside to the tour is that there are significant distances between many of the caches.  It would be nice to see more caches developed throughout the region so that local participants could take advantage of more of the GeoTour without having to drive thousands of kilometers. 

Natural Heritage: Dark Sky Reserve

This year marks the Centennial anniversary of Parks Canada. This anniversary seems to have contributed to a recent increase in media coverage of natural heritage sites and events. As a result of this inspiration, I’ve decide to start a series of blogs focusing on Canada’s rich natural heritage.

After some debate, I decided that this first post should feature a unique park which is rich in both heritage and forward thinking initiatives. The Jasper National Park in Alberta, is the largest most northerly located park in the Canadian Rockies. The park includes a range of natural and man made heritage features such as: the Sunwapta Falls, the Athabasca Glacier, the Yellowhead Pass, and Jasper House.

Additionally, in March 2011 Jasper was officially designated as a ‘dark sky preserve.’ This designation means that light usage within the preserve is restricted as a means of preserving a natural dark sky. Currently, Jasper is the largest dark sky preserve in the world. Jasper is also the only dark sky preserve in Canada to encompass a town. More information on Canada’s other dark sky preserves can be found here.

Prior to learning about Jasper’s designation as a dark sky preserve, I had no idea that such a designation even existed. Furthermore, the idea of the sky being something in need of preserving hadn’t really crossed my mind –granted, I’m a bit spoiled by living in rural Northern Ontario which has by most people’s standards dark skies. However, considering the ever expanding cities and the rate at which light pollution is generated, Jasper’s substantial dark sky preserve is a significant step towards preserving natural heritage that is endanger of being lost to development.

Parks Canada’s Digital Move

Parks Canada recently announced intentions to provide location specific content to park visitors using GPS technology and a program called Explora. Explora includes location specific ‘pop-ups’ with information pertaining to the area visitors are in, it also includes an interactive quiz type feature.

During the pilot phase of the project Parks Canada handed out devices loaded with the app to visitors to a select number of parks. Parks Canada is still working on making the Explora program available on a wider scale and is working on expanding the number of mobile apps offered by Parks Canada. There has been some indication that these new apps will contain historical content, which would be a great way of updating traditional methods interpretation.

It will be interesting to see how this project expands. Using digital apps has the potential to inform parks visitors of their surroundings in a way which is more accessible and engaging than a traditional text panel. However, I think there needs to be a balance between enjoying the natural beauty of Canada’s parks and learning more about one’s surroundings through technology.