Elk Island may be one of Canada’s smallest and oldest national parks but this summer is shaping up to be one of its busiest ever.

In fact, the influx of visitors is putting such pressure on the park’s flora, fauna and facilities that officials took the unusual step earlier this week to urge visitors to come visit later.

Like, maybe in the fall. 

“We’re seeing long lineups and visitors are faced with traffic and parking issues once you’re inside the park,” superintendent Dale Kirkland told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM on Friday. 

“Actually, the number of vehicles in Elk Island is often exceeding the number of designated parking spaces we have here.” 

In June, Elk Island joined most national parks in welcoming back visitors for day use, after being closed since the end of March as a measure to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Since then, the park, located 40 kilometres east of Edmonton, has welcomed almost 216,000 visitors — about 42,000 more than during the same period in 2019, Kirkland said.

It’s still shy of the whopping 249,000 summertime visitors in 2017, the year — widely acknowledged as an anomaly —that park fees were waived as part of Canada 150 celebrations. Elk Island saw a record 525,000 visitors in total.

There has been a boom in visitors to national parks. Elk Island is one such area that’s seen a huge increase in numbers. But it’s not all good news. The park’s superintendent is Dale Kirkland. 5:15

Elk Island was originally formed in 1906 as an animal park, dedicated to protecting one of the last big elk herds in the region. It became a national park in 1913 and eventually developed tourist-friendly amenities like a dance hall (now gone) and the nine-hole golf course built during the Depression.

Today Canada’s only fully-fenced national park is prized for its wildlife, including bison, elk and moose and 250 species of birds, as well as its diverse landscape of forests, lakes, wetlands and grasslands. 

Parking, porta-potties and PFDs

Attendance has been growing steadily since 2004 but generally hovers in the range of 200,000 annually. This year, the spike in visits is being attributed to the pandemic and accompanying loss of other summertime activities.

“Being in nature right now, during this time, provides a really important physical and mental health benefit,” Kirkland said. “Getting outdoors here at Elk Island is a great way to maintain health and wellness, get fresh air.” 

But the surge in traffic — human and vehicular — has created problems that go well beyond parking, he said.

Porta-potties have been rented to take pressure off the plumbing system and there has been significant littering in many areas of the park.

“Leaving waste and garbage and litter and scented items unattended, even for a few minutes, you know, really puts visitors and wildlife at risk,” Kirkland said.

The Astotin Lake beach area at Elk Island National Park. (Therese Kehler/ CBC News)

The calm waters of Astotin Lake — perfect for kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards and sailboats — have been busier than usual. So, unfortunately, have been the park’s water rescue teams, he said.

During a 24-hour period on the August long weekend, crews were called to help more than 20 individuals who’d gotten into trouble on the lake, Kirkland said. Most didn’t have life jackets or personal floatation devices.

“Exploring Astotin Lake is an absolutely beautiful experience when done safely,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are seeing an increase in visitors on the water — in kayaks, canoes, blow-up equipment — and visitors are just not carrying that essential safety equipment such as approved PFDs and life jackets.”

With the final weekends of summer upon us, park officials are urging visitors to plan ahead before jumping in the car: avoid peak times during the weekends, have another plan in case the park is full, and bring supplies like hand sanitizer and water safety gear. 

“What I’d like potential visitors to take away from all this is that on weekends in the summer they’ll need to be prepared for traffic congestion,” Cameron Johnson, a visitor experience officer with the park, said in an email.

“And that there are wonderful opportunities to visit on weekdays, and in the spring, fall, and winter — it’s really beautiful in the park then and there are great experiences to be had in all seasons.”