TORONTO -- With another pandemic summer on the horizon, Canadians are looking to get out in their own backyards for outdoor adventures that are COVID-19 safe.

Companies offering outdoor services, adventures and rentals are already hearing from potential clients for the 2021 summer season, and they think that the push to get outside might last well beyond the end of the pandemic.

“We didn't think we were going to get any bookings last year because the borders were closed, they couldn't go nowhere and they started to realize what we have here in the Northwest Territories. We have beautiful nature, natural wonders in the Northwest Territories, right in our backyard,” said Joe Buffalo Child, president and CEO of North Star Adventures.

Even with the borders closed to the territory, they were able to maintain business and show people living in the Northwest Territories the natural beauty it has to offer, which was a real boost for North Star Adventures because their expeditions are usually completed by visitors.

“Ninety-nine per cent were from outside the territory,” he said.

As an Indigenous owned and operated business, they offer special insight into the land and are the only tour company offering canoe expeditions down the Mackenzie River. They also offer aurora borealis packages where you get to “hunt” the northern lights.

“We are North America’s original tour guides,” he said.

While the northern lights might not be visible to all Canadians, other tour groups are making up for it by offering a wide variety of pandemic-safe events.

In Manitoba, Sayzoons offers equipment rentals and outdoor guides to rural Manitobans.

“We've actually revamped our whole entire service to be able to accommodate communities for sport and recreation activities for people to operate in their own households and bubble up, physically distancing from everybody else,” said Season Kirkwood, owner operator of Sayzoons.

Sayzoons offers a service, called the 'rec wagon', where they provide various games and activities set up outdoors like a circuit, where each family can play at a station with their masks off before sanitizing and moving onto the next station.

“We're really trying to pivot towards catering to the families that can't necessarily go out to a big box store and buy a bunch of stuff to entertain themselves,” said Kirkwood. “Especially in rural Manitoba, there are no agencies who rent out equipment like this.”

The Metis outdoor group is also working to open up trails to Manitobans in an accessible and sustainable way that won’t disturb the environment.

“We really want to do this sustainably and gently in our region,” they said.

Kirkwood recommends that people look for local outdoor activity groups to get their summer fun in this year as they’ll know the area best.

Gord Baker, assistant general manager at Algonquin Outfitters, has seen a real uptick in interest in outdoor rentals and guided tours, and there are lots of newcomers to the activities.

“Lots of people are getting into things they hadn't done before like camping, biking,” said Baker.

He said they saw an increase in customers last year, but this year, people aren’t waiting to book last minute.

“They're booking early, as soon as they can,” he said.

CANADIANS EXPLORING THEIR OWN BACKYARD

Canadians are being forced to take their explorations to their own backyards, especially as some provincial and territorial borders remain closed.

Buffalo Child said that even within the Northwest Territories, there are many people who’ve never set out to explore the territory to its full extent, who haven’t been able to see and learn about the territory’s vibrant Indigenous culture.

“We're hoping longtime residents who haven't gone out to explore outside of Yellowknife are going to do that this summer because of the pandemic,” he added.

In Ontario, most of the guided tours put on by Algonquin Outfitters were taken by international travellers before the COVID-19 pandemic, but now things are different.

“Everybody that went on one of our guided canoe trips was a family from Ontario,” said Baker.

Most, he said, would have been on trips abroad to visit family, or sending their kids to summer camp, but opted for a family canoe trip in light of the travel restrictions.

He said that some of the people who booked their first guided trips last year are booking non-guided trips this year.

In B.C., Wayne Sawchuk, an ecotourism operator, is seeing similar things. People in B.C. are joining his remote, fly-in, horse-back expeditions and getting a taste for the backcountry that’s part of their home province.

“There’s a much stronger interest from British Columbia. And, no question about that,” he said.

He’s also seeing repeat customers on his expeditions.

“People who have come with us before they know what to expect and they know it's safe and COVID safe,” he said.

But with recent border closures in B.C. and the government trying to prevent inner-provincial travel, his summer of booked expeditions may end in cancellations.

SAFETY FIRST

Despite a new interest in outdoor adventure activities, there is concern that some might be taking on more than they can manage, which can be dangerous. It’s important to do your research before choosing an outdoor activity. It’s easy to get lost, weather can change quickly and brushes with wildlife can turn a fun day into more than you bargained for.

Sawchuk said it’s important to do your research before embarking on a new adventure.

“I think that a little bit of research ahead of time can save a lot of trouble,” he said.

It’s not as simple as grabbing a tent and pitching it, groups need to plan for emergencies, and remember that some areas don’t have cell phone reception in the event they get lost.

“There's a whole lot of things you need to think about here. And a lot of things that might be out of your control,” said Baker.

He doesn’t want to discourage anyone from getting outdoors, and him and his team at Algonquin Outfitters are happy to help people get outside, he just wants them to be safe.

“On one level, that’s cool, like, hey, great for people getting into this stuff,” said Baker. “On the other hand, it was scary because there are people heading out that had never done this.”

A GENERATION OF OUTDOORSY PEOPLE

With the COVID-19 pandemic putting an end to indoor activities for the foreseeable future, it seems like outdoor activities are here to stay and some guides think it will create a generation of people who enjoy the outdoors.

“I think more and more people are getting into it. More and more people are just aware that outdoor activity is a good thing,” said Baker.

Kirkwood thinks that when people see the benefits of getting outside, they’ll want to keep doing it.

“So I think people are going to really see the value and the money that they're saving just by sitting outside when it comes to their own physical and mental health,” they said.

Especially with truth and reconciliation and more Indigenous people connecting to their past and the land, they added.

“All around, this whole world is gonna have a nice reset to get back outside and out of their houses.”

Sawchuk thinks this push to get outdoors will create a new movement in younger generations who are looking for a more simplified life.

“I think it might actually spawn a kind of a back-to-the-land movement in a small way,” he said. “Not what we had in the 60s or 70s, but I think that's going to spawn, I really do.”

And for those who don’t, there’s always online marketplaces.

“On the other hand, there might be a lot of used equipment for sale next year,” said Baker.