(Photo courtesy Chase Elliot Clark/Flickr)I'm totally in love with the new Parks Canada "Experience PROPER AWESOME" campaign. It aims to celebrate one our national treasures, a collection of parks (from urban to wilderness) and historic sites which aren't on everyone's radar…yet. I confess I've long been smitten with the wonderful attributes of our 44 national parks. By no means has my long-simmering ardour been doused, but let's just say the recent announcement of WiFi hotspots in our beautiful national parks and historic sites has given me pause. It's that moment we all must face: "But I fell in love with you — and now you're changing!" The water-cooler buzz in our office has been lively in the last couple of days. We have ardent campers and outdoorsy folk on staff (of whom I am one) and then we have the non-campers. So the plan to introduce WiFi hotspots in our national parks has been alternately described as "invasion" or "introduction," depending whose side you're on. Personally, I don't want to see (or hear) someone yammering on their cell phone as I trek through a wilderness trail in Bruce Peninsula National Park, or while I plant myself on a sandy shore in Prince Edward Island National Park to do nothing but stare (quietly) at the water. Nor am I keen to have my friends pull out an iPad and start talking with people back home when I'm bunking down for the night in my oTENTik in Parc la Mauricie, Quebec. Nor, for that matter, do I want my nieces and nephews quoting the latest Just Bieber Tweet as I poke a fire pit at Waterton Lakes National Park (not that they would…I hope.)
Beautiful Moraine Lake (Courtesy Banff Lake Louise)But it's about choice. My colleague Jenn explains she's totally against WiFi hotspots in national parks — but confesses she'd be the first to log on. "If it's there, I'll use it. There's no way I'm going to walk by a WiFi spot and not check my email or take a peek at my Twitter updates. But that's more about my choice, not an option offered by Parks Canada." A common response, and one that's cropping up on dozens of Canadian media sites in the last 24 hours, has suggested that WiFi hotspots could deter people from visiting the parks. There's some rationale to that, but there's also the case of my twenty-something nephews: There's no way I could get them into a national park for a weekend (much less a week) without the ability for them to connect with their friends at home. Is it the lack of connectivity (via the Internet) that's actually keeping some Canadians away from the joyful, rejuvenating, and educational experience of Canada's wilderness? As I understand it, the Parks Canada tender issued earlier this week is for service providers to implement between 25 and 50 hotspots in key national parks and historic sites this year. It's important to note that historical sites are not necessarily in wilderness setting, but are still overseen by Parks Canada. Andrew Campbell, a Parks Canada vice-president, has been quoted as saying the WiFi-in-the-parks program is part of a drive to attract a younger generation of Canadian campers. (Parks Canada is to be lauded for their popular Learn to Camp program.) Again, it comes back to choice: visitors to Parks Canada venues, and other campgrounds for that matter, can choose to Facebook pictures of their portaging moments to friends back home — at night in the privacy of their tent. Others will choose to march about the campground at night under the blue-white glow of their iPad screen. Technological intrusions in outdoorsy settings aren't new. I hiked up the amazing Stawamus Chief outside Squamish, B.C., last summer and was greatly annoyed when some yob hiked past with his music blaring for all to hear. The peace and serenity I'd been enjoying evaporated in a nanosecond and it had nothing to do with WiFi connection. He didn't have the manners to plugs in his ear buds. An entire trail of happy hikers was forced to listen to Heavy Metal. I wonder if we need to shift our discussion point: is it really the option of WiFi hotspots in Parks Canada campgrounds, or it it more about Internet and technology etiquette in outdoor settings? Do you support WiFi spots in our national parks?