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April 8, 2020

Saying goodbye to the outdoors, mostly — at least for now

After canceling summer trips, our outdoors columnist and his family are staying home

This article first appeared in The Denver Post on Apr 3, 2020.

From my back porch, Longs Peak dominates the horizon, the highest point of Rocky Mountain National Park and a daily reminder of my geographic good fortune. Its tooth-shaped pinnacle soars beyond the surrounding summits, often gleaming with snow and painted peach with alpenglow. In the early days of closures and event cancellations related to the new coronavirus, I looked to Longs Peak as I always had — that is, as a visible piece of the wilderness to which any of us could escape whenever we wanted.

In those initial, innocent days, just after canceling an April trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and a late-spring float through Dinosaur National Monument, I thought about taking the family camping to Rocky Mountain National Park or somewhere nearby. Those thoughts quickly vanished with the escalating stay-at-home orders.

The closure of Rocky Mountain National Park on March 20 came on the heels of the ski resorts’ closures, at the urgent requests of the town of Estes Park and the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment. Estes residents were afraid that an influx of outsiders for spring break, in addition to people who had canceled ski vacations and were re-routing their trips, would be a bad idea for a small community with limited health care centers.

Around the same time, the outdoor crowd’s opinion rapidly evolved from “get out into nature” to the current, cautious “stay home.” There was also an outcry, not just from folks in Colorado mountain towns, but also from Bishop, Calif., Bend, Ore., Moab, Utah and the desert communities near Joshua Tree National Park in California, to postpone visits. On a Facebook group for outdoors professionals and athletes, Freya Fernwood, an outdoors photographer from Washington, wrote March 22: “To all of my friends that get rad, let’s get semi rad instead, or just kinda boring.” She went on to remind everyone to look at the potential impact of their travel to the places they love to have fun.

“Keep your germs in your local area,” Fernwood wrote. “If you must go somewhere else, bring all your own food and don’t use public bathrooms.” Adventure close to home, she advised. Also, don’t carpool with friends, “please do not rock climb. Should I explain that you are touching rocks that a lot of other people are also touching?”

Indeed, on March 17, Golden-based American Alpine Club issued a statement advising climbers to cancel all climbing trips, pointing out how these trips might negatively impact gateway towns, many of which have elderly, more vulnerable populations. On March 18, adventure travel company The Outbound Collective posted an article entitled “How to Adventure Responsibly in the time of Covid-19, which begins: “Now is not the time for road trips, flights, and big adventures.” In addition to possibly bringing the new coronavirus to isolated communities, a mishap in the outdoors could divert already overburdened first responders and medical staff.

For those of us who have always thought now was the time, this doesn’t feel natural. This new reality is slowly sinking in. On March 20, right about when California State Parks closed all of its campgrounds, Christopher Solomon wrote on Outside Online, “…suddenly, getting away from it all didn’t feel necessarily wise at all. Instead, it felt almost like trying to outrun the tide. Worse, it seemed selfish.”

In light of Colorado’s stay-at-home order, Abby Leeper, communications manager for the Colorado Tourism Office, said in a statement: “While ‘escaping’ to the great outdoors and more rural parts of the state may seem like a logical idea, Colorado’s rural destinations and mountain communities have limited medical facilities and personnel whose services need to be reserved for their residents. Non-essential travel is discouraged at this time.” Since then, Colorado Parks and Wildlife closed all playgrounds, campgrounds, camping and camping facilities (including yurts and cabins) at state parks as well as camping at State Wildlife Areas until further notice.

My family is still getting outside. We’re avoiding popular trails and looking for spots with wider paths and semi-empty parking lots. It’s proving to be a fun, safe, healthy discovery tour for us. We’re avoiding campgrounds, public bathrooms, picnic tables and visitor centers, crowded parking lots and places that are set up to channel crowds of people onto narrow trails or to small vista points. No more visits to Colorado’s mountain towns either, for now — too many touch points like gas stations, supermarkets and unfamiliar trailheads where we would need to find our way.

I ponder these thoughts and others as I sit on my back porch and look toward Longs Peak. It’s the same mountain, but now it stands for the things we need to give up for now.
The closest Joshua Berman and his family are getting to national park these days is this puzzle. (Joshua Berman)

How to safely enjoy the outdoors

Gov. Jared Polis is encouraging Coloradans to get outdoors for their physical and mental health. The best outdoor activities are those close to home — walking, hiking, running and biking the trails and paths from your front door. While doing so, stay at least 6 feet from people with whom you do not share a home. Don’t drive to other communities to recreate. And postpone group activities that use shared equipment or require close contact.

Outdoor photographer Freya Fernwood, in her online post, mentioned above, wrote: “Take up running … running seems to me to be the safest outdoor exercise I can think of and you can do it right out your door.” She also suggested deep dives into activities close to home — gardening, weeding, knitting. Get into your kitchen and perfect your next great campfire recipe.

Elevation Outdoors magazine shared tips for spending time indoors to improve your time outdoors, including learning to tie your own flies and tackling repairs to your outdoor gear. That tiny rip in your sleeping bag won’t fix itself!

Make virtual visits: Many national parks, natural history museums, Google Earth, and outdoor destinations are sharing virtual tours and learning experiences online. Here’s a unique one: Sit around a campfirewith legendary cowboys and musicians from Cody, Wyo.

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