Trail Mix: Using Wi-Fi for a Better Connection With Nature?

Trail Mix: Using Wi-Fi for a Better Connection With Nature?
What's this? A Wi-Fi tree? But I'm not getting anything!

What's this? A Wi-Fi tree? But I'm not getting anything!

The news of Parks Canada's plans to add Wi-Fi to 50 National Parks this year (and more to come), has sure spread across the Web, print, TV and Radio. "Do you agree with having Wi-Fi at our parks?" has become the loudest conversation with the resounding chorus seeming to be against it. But wait a second, something isn't right here...

The first problem is that when our brains hear Wi-Fi and Parks, we jump to the notion of "unplugging"... and for good reason too. Going camping with others who are corresponding with work e-mail, streaming NetFlix, or playing loud music on their digital devices in the campsite next to you are missing the point of getting out and enjoying Nature (and are being intrusive). But I think media just drew a connection between two catchwords and didn't look at the bigger picture. You might call it splitting hairs, but let's break down the two words.

Encroaching technology moves into Algonquin Park. This faux tree provides cell phone service along the main corridor of the park

Encroaching technology moves into Algonquin Park. This faux tree provides cell phone service along the main corridor of the park

Wi-Fi is the wireless technology that you may have within your home, or access when you go to your local coffee shop. A little box called a wireless router shares internet access for those approximately 30 feet around it. Because of Wi-Fi's small range, it isn't used in a very large scale except for a few select instances. For example the City of Toronto, Ontario and City of Fredericton, New Brunswick offer public Wi-Fi where a wireless access point is installed every fourth or fifth light post (a handy pairing because they are powered at all hours). Will we see something like this in our parks? Probably not any time soon, with costs far outweighing the benefit of added attendees. What you need is something with greater range, such as cellular towers however this comes at an even greater cost and poses their own set of issues.

So how is Wi-Fi being implemented? Parks Canada hasn't unveiled an official press release, but I would hazard to guess from looking at the 50 parks in their proposed roll-out, Wi-Fi would come to their visitor centres. Even though our Canadian populous is growing, sadly, people/families are taking shorter vacations, and Parks Canada is feeling the crunch. They have been actively seeking out ways to engage attendees.

The second word was Parks, and the majority of comments have been about camping and using wireless, however... 73% of Parks Canada locations are National Historic Sites which include sacred spaces, battlefields, archaeological sites, buildings or streetscapes. You can see their commitment to sharing these sites as summarized by their mandate in their Charter...

"On behalf of the people of Canada, we protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada's natural and cultural heritage, and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment in ways that ensure the ecological and commemorative integrity of these places for present and future generations."

Us Canucks have a strong sense of connection, and maybe this is why it has stirred up quite the debate, but in this instance, Wi-Fi in Parks would be a good thing. Better ways to engage attendees (whether it be through social media, or interactive displays). Since it is becoming harder to engage youth, it seems tech might be the answer. Sadly, the majority of visitors to parks aren't even from Canada. We're missing out on a lot of neat opportunities within our own country.

We went canoeing in the backcountry for a few days, and returned to this. Frankly, we didn't miss anything.

We went canoeing in the backcountry for a few days, and returned to this. Frankly, we didn't miss anything.

Which brings us to the last point. The conversation everyone is having about Wi-Fi in our more outdoorsy parks. So if we suspend our sense of disbelief (which the majority of us seem to be doing while ignoring everything written above) and talk about tech in the outdoors, I don't think there is a right answer. Where does one draw the line? Is a GPS too much? Is a GPS that talks to your cell so you can text messages too much? Is full wireless access everywhere you go too much? How about access at all visitors centres to sign off as you arrive and re-connect when you leave? These days, there are hundreds of apps that are pretty useful such as mapping, photo taking, and plant identifying apps, but they all require wireless service to be effective. There are practical reasons for connectivity too. Scientific research and Search & Rescue are two that could benefit dramatically by being connected.

It seems it is inevitable one day that we will become wired wherever we go... even the backcountry much to our chagrin. I guess the only answer is... you have full control over the situation. Just hit the OFF button and enjoy Nature for what it is.


Update: May 9th, 2014 - 1:26 p.m.

Parks Canada released an update on their integration of Wi-fi into the parks...

Many things have been said about the possibility of providing Wi-Fi Internet access in our national parks and historic sites. That is why we would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight:

Parks Canada is indeed considering the possibility of offering this service in some national parks and national historic sites. This idea, still in development, is in response to visitor demand. 

Without compromising the experience of visitors wishing to disconnect from their everyday life, these hotspots located, for example, at serviced campground loops or visitor centres, could make it easier to plan a trip, share beautiful images taken at our sites or even do some work for those who wish or need to do so. As of this summer, we are thinking of offering 25 to 50 hotspots in 15 or 20 parks or historic sites. This service will be entirely included in your entry fees. 

We also want to reassure you: neither the backcountry nor wilderness will be covered by these possible hotspots. Thus, this is not about installing infrastructures on a mountain top or along a remote trail. You will have to wait to be back from your hike to update your Facebook page or add a squirrel selfie. 

In closing, tourism trends evolve quickly and Parks Canada must adapt in order to attract new visitors who will come discover our nation’s natural and historical treasures that we have been protecting for over 100 years. As always, we will continue to honor our commitment to be responsible and respectful in our approach.