Park staff started the year wondering if high water levels would again impact the operation of the park. Little did we realize that 2020 would be about a worldwide pandemic that made flooding seem trivial in comparison. The pandemic caused cancellation of all March Break events throughout the organization on March 13th, including our 44th annual Waterfowl Weekend. This was followed by all parks closing on March 19th, and all staff being told to work from home on March 23rd.
From March 19th until April 17th, one staff member was going into the park 3 times a week for a couple of hours inspection tour. This was done on a rotating basis. Personally, because I had been travelling in Asia and developed some mild symptoms I was under quarantine until mid-April when cleared. I finally was able to do an inspection tour and was giddy with excitement to be able to drive around a grey and rainy park for the first time in over a month. On April 18th inspections moved to daily on a rotating basis.
On May 6th, all staff started working in the park on normal shifts as we got ready for an opening. Park staff were not informed of when the re-opening would be until May 9th, when the government announced non-operating parks would open Monday, May 11th and operating parks would open on Friday, May 15th for limited free day use only. This terminology unfortunately caused some confusion with many people heading to all parks on the Monday while we were not open until the Friday.
Opening on the 15th coincided with the arrival of nicer weather and an increase in bird migration so the May long weekend had many birders and others happy that the park was open. Lake Ontario water levels peaked at 75.40m on May 5th (40cm short of 2019 levels) and continued to drop after that, and it seemed clear that we would not see another flood event in 2020.
We started charging for day use on June 1st and we opened for camping on June 22nd, just in time for a long, hot, dry summer. In fact, it was too dry with yet another droughty summer that seems to have become the norm in recent years. We didn’t have to cut the dry, brown grass for most of the season.
This spectacular hot summer weather, coupled with a COVID-19 constrained population desperate for activities, resulted in the busiest summer in park history. All parks with beaches within driving distance from the GTA saw record use, as did some without beaches (Ferris). Presqu’ile closed Canada Day and every Saturday in July and August and Labour Day weekend. We also closed on about 1/3 of the Sundays. Day use was up 136% in July and 167% in August over 2019. Camping was up 33% and 23% for the two months. Increased camping numbers continued into the fall but with the end of the beach season and drop in day use, life seemed much less hectic. With so many people came so much garbage. This increase in garbage, along with the extra cleaning requirements for a safe, COVID-free visit kept our staff very busy all summer long.
The Discovery Program was severely reduced this year as gatherings were restricted with physical distancing required. Early on we decided our main vehicle of interpretation would be the Nature Centre, which could be converted into a one-way building with controlled access. With our reduced program and knowing the Friends would lose their sources of income for 2020, the Discovery program rescinded all its requests for funding help with its staff.
In the end we opened the Nature Centre every day from July 6th to September 6th and had 5132 visitors, about half a normal year. We also had a self-use discovery bucket program where families could sign out a net, bucket, ID sheets, jars and go capture and study insects on their own. In the end we also did a few physically distanced “Ask the Naturalist” prop talks and even a couple of amphitheatre programs, including Don Davis monarch tagging for his 35th year here. For the latter, every second bench at the amphitheatre was closed, and to keep below the maximum of 100 people at outdoor gatherings, we restricted advertising to within the park itself.