No longer, it seems, do many Minnesotans need prodding through clever social media campaigns, special freebies and proclamations to “get outdoors.”
Some recreation managers back that up, too, witnessing a crush more akin to what they usually see in summer. Popular parks and trails close to the metro, and across Minnesota, are especially jammed on weekends — and the Memorial Day holiday is dead ahead.
Based on cellphone tracking data, research at the University of Maryland (and reported by the New York Times) shows that more people, Minnesotans included, are heading outside and doing it more frequently as the weather warms and states ease into reopening. A Star Tribune analysis of Minnesota data this week backs up the mass movement trend. Trips away from home are predominantly to parks. Expect the migration outside and the heavy traffic to increase — a restlessness manifest of what the Maryland researchers call “quarantine fatigue.”
Getting outdoors to find refuge — and something to do — has baggage now: More concern about keeping a safe distance from other walkers, runners, cyclists — everyone. The current message from officials is more nuanced these days: Go, and do it safely.
It didn’t take a pandemic for regular trail users to debate proper manners, rights of way and common decency. Now, with experienced outdoors people and newcomers converging, busy public areas from sidewalks to state trails are testing what constitutes proper behavior. Using a bit of common sense can do wonders.
Bill Lindeke of St. Paul is keenly attuned to city landscapes and how people interact with them. He is an urban geographer and regular contributor to the streets.mn blog.
“Before the plague hit and people began sheltering in their homes, walking was something most of us took for granted. It was something we did to get to the car or the bus stop,” he wrote recently on the blog Twin City Sidewalks. “These days, though, walking is a special treat, the highlight of the day.”
Lindeke, who regularly cycles near the Como Park area, applauded the street closures by St. Paul and Minneapolis to create more public spaces to allow people to move safely together. He said the moves by St. Paul were “immediately a breath of fresh air.”
Still, he acknowledged the effect of the shelter-in order has changed the dynamic for people fanning out for their physical and mental health.
“There are new pressures on the streets,” he said.
Some park managers say they’re limited in their ability to control crowds. Officials have put up trailhead signs and closed parking lots, but its messaging that many lean on. Three Rivers Parks District has posts on social media, and has blogged about remote, less-crowded options.
Parks district associate superintendent Luke Skinner said the main tools have been education and encouragement. Beyond that, he is hoping people show some self-awareness.
“We’re really expecting people to take personal responsibility,” Skinner said.
Nine-Mile Creek, one of the park district’s most-popular multiuse trails, runs from Richfield to Hopkins. It has had more people on it than any high-use time in summer. April had 24,000 visits — the highest to that point was 18,000 last year.
Notable has been the number of new users at the district’s parks and trails, Skinner added. “They’re learning park decorum and how to behave … that’s been a challenge of new users learning the rules of the trails. Overall, though, it’s been pretty good,” he said.
The story is similar on state trails: Brown’s Creek, which courses several miles through Stillwater, tracked 2,500 users May 2 — a mark only hit on the busiest summer weekends, said Kim Pleticha, a spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources.
How to keep safe and sane
Rule No. 1 for the new or experienced trail users, whether on dirt or asphalt, is straight-forward: Respectfully share the trail and keep a distance. Whatever the public space, Lindeke said, always yield to the slowest people. Many older Minnesotans and those with health issues are diligently seeking time outdoors, too.
Some other thoughts about how to share space (and keep anxiety low):
• Go early, or late. Avoid popular areas from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., especially on weekends. The rule also helps if you need to drive to a trailhead.
• Do some homework, and know where you are going. Maybe there is better access along the trail than at a heavily used trailhead.
• Know how to communicate and warn others of your movement. Use “on your left” well in advance of passing people — walkers, cyclists, anyone.
For walkers, stay to the right in your lane.
• Walking with one or more people? Form single-file when others approach or need to pass from behind.
• Consider not wearing earbuds (or one) to stay alert.
• Don’t make sudden stops. Move off the trail to let others have space to pass if kids (or dogs) are restless.
• Speaking of dogs, keep them leashed and under control.
• On a hilly trail? Yield to people on the uphill.
For cyclists, get on a street if there is a need for speed. Period.
Also, slow down — way down — to pass, and yield if another person is approaching from the other direction.
For runners, get into the street if keeping a 6-feet gap isn’t doable. Also, communicate an intent to pass and be sure to glance back.
Finally, tap your inner Buddha.
Perhaps the Dalai Lama was thinking of experiences outdoors as he pondered human action — and interaction.
“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effect.”
Descending on parks and trails
Below are some visitation figures about state parks and trails from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources:
• Estimated visits to state parks have increased 50% for March and the beginning of April.
• Visits to areas in central Minnesota have approached levels typical of peak summer visitation.
• Afton State Park has exceeded 10,000 visitors each week for four consecutive weeks. Two weeks in all of 2019 had more than 10,000.
• Lake Maria State Park in Monticello has exceeded 3,500 visitors each week for four consecutive weeks.
• Visits to Whitewater State Park near St. Charles are up 121% in April from a year ago. There were 68,947 visitors (21,546 vehicles).
• State trail use is more than double what is typical for spring.