Atirah Ally (13 September 2020)

Petrie Island: Then vs Now

Article by Atirah Ally, FOPI summer employee 2020

Everyone has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been quarantined since April and only now have been allowed to properly resume everyday activities with proper precautions. However, it is often overlooked as to how our environment has reacted to the decreased presence of the public during the quarantine in comparison to the effects before the stay at home order. In this article, we will compare the effects on the community and the environment before and after the quarantine period. This will include the foot traffic in the island throughout the months, car presence, engagement, and the overall effects on the nature of Petrie Island.

To begin, it is common knowledge to our community that Petrie Island floods every year. It is the reason why the island is classified as a Class 1 wetland and an important area that houses various species of rare plants. This year, the flooding reached a peak of 43.28 m and ceased mid-April, much earlier than last year. In fact, last year’s flooding had a record-breaking height of 45.17 m, and only started ceasing mid-June. Moreover, the summer staff remained operating out of the Queenswood Heights Community Centre until conditions improved, almost until the end of June. The road itself was closed for 57 days and the trails at 73 days. With the large flood, it greatly disrupted the ecosystem that encompassed the area. For example, the turtle nesting period was pushed back, there was a significant amount of beaver damage due to the flooding rising above the protected nets for trees, and smaller turtle basking counts during the nesting season compared to previous years. However, with the flooding ceasing earlier, it would mean that the staff could operate on the island earlier and it allowed for the environment to re-establish better and reintroduce the natural patterns of many species. As a result, the nesting period for turtles became more normalized with the nesting period beginning in May and peaking in June. There remained some beaver damage along the shoreline, chewing on the unprotected dogwood especially. There also seemed to be a larger presence/activity of animals in the area. Which include more groundhog, beaver, and turtle sightings.

Figure 1. Ottawa River water levels above sea level in metres per year. Data represents the peak level between the months of March-May (flooding season). (Ottawa River Regulation Board)

Petrie Island was closed to the public by the City of Ottawa during April 2020 as part of the pandemic shutdown. However, the park was opened to the public since May 7, 2020. FOPI started operating on the island on May 20, 2020. As soon as the island opened, the number of visitors has spiked. Based on FOPI data from 2020, it was clear that even with the quarantine in effect (April) and mandatory social distancing, there was a large number of individuals on the island. From May-July, it has been the highest attendance numbers ever seen. They abided by social distancing rules and most were wearing masks. There were even inquiries about the status of island, programming, and rentals. However, most kept to themselves walking the various trails on the island, especially the Bill Holland Trail. Even in sub-par weather, we would see families walking in the park area and on our trails. It was clear that emerging from quarantine, the public desperately wanted to be outdoors and to be within nature.

Figure 2.  Comparison of the number of attendees per month (May – July) from 2015 to 2020.

Due to most of the community working from home, schools were closed, and rules starting to ease, by the end of May through early June the population coming to Petrie Island has spiked. During nice summer days, there were many gatherings some abiding by the group restriction and others not. With most individuals working from home, there were more and more families coming down to Petrie Island. Social distancing became harder to achieve the busier the days became. Most picnic tables were occupied, luckily, the area does provide adequate social distancing space. If no picnic tables were available or to decrease contact with COVID-19, many have brought their own chairs. In terms of the business, July 1, 2020 was one of those days. Canada Day was the busiest day on Petrie Island for this year. In previous years, Petrie Island hosted a major Canada Day event, with fireworks and entertainment. In 2020, there was no official event in place; nevertheless, many individuals came down to celebrate with their families. The parking lot was full, with many illegally parked. There was also barely any rotation between the families that have come down to the park with many staying until 9:00 PM. It should also be noted that there were more families in the Al Tweddle Picnic Area this year compared to last year.

Many people came here for the first time and enjoyed their experience. We have had many families and individuals come up to the FOPI staff to ask about the trails here on the island and what sort of facilities there are here. With those discovering the island for the first time, there are also more regulars coming to visit the island. We have seen many couples coming down to enjoy the scenery and relax within nature.

                In terms of the difference with FOPI and the island. The staff were less involved in tour and naturalist programs, allowing more projects to be taken up among all our staff and volunteers. Meaning, the staff has had more time to focus on displays and various other maintenance tasks such as trail maintenance. There were also more projects taken on this year. For example, the tree inventory, a turtle study, a wildflower garden, re-vamping the fairy house, updating flower charts, and a trial program called Guided Meditation. In terms of Naturalist and our rentals, we have seen a decrease in those that have booked or attended for this year. This was predicted to happen due to health and safety concerns. The Naturalist program focused on individual families or groups all limited to 10 individuals, in order to keep the social bubble the same. Thus far, the Naturalist program has been very successful. We had many book tours throughout the summer, and they all had very positive feedback. The most popular tour was of course, turtles.  The picnic area rentals were occurring at a steady pace generating some revenue for the Friends of Petrie Island. The number of rentals was lower this year most likely due to concerns of COVID-19. Another significant difference was the maxed-out parking on weekends. This happened on occasion last year; however, this year the parking lot was always full on the weekends with many being illegally parked. There was also a larger presence of By-law officers frequenting the island for infractions, the majority of looking for parking infractions. Furthermore, the Oziles’ Marina has been seeing more kayaks and paddleboats being rented for the season. In fact, a category of inquiries that we frequently see are that of boat rentals, with which we redirect them to Oziles’.  Even with the increased foot traffic on Petrie Island, engagement between FOPI and the community has been lower than usual. Last year, the community engagement mostly stemmed from our Naturalist program and school/camp tours. With groups sizes restricted for our programming, there was less Naturalist engagement. However, in terms of promotions for the Friends of Petrie Island, it seems more promotions were done this year. We were more active on our social media outlets such as Instagram (@dailypetrie) and Facebook (PetrieIsland). Online promotions were better helped by the creation of a FOPI PayPal account. We have had many of our memberships and donations from online. Thus, there was more outreach this year online compared to the previous year. More word was getting out for Petrie Island.

                Overall, these are the general trends that have been seen throughout the summer as a result of the pandemic. Despite quarantine and group size restrictions, the public still found a way to get outside and enjoy nature. There was more interest in exploring their community and finding new, undiscovered areas such as Petrie Island.