In a normal year, the last of roughly 7,500 summer hikers would have just wrapped up their multi-day treks on the West Coast Trail.
The trail usually closes on Sept. 30 after a five-month season, but the pandemic kept it closed this summer to all but a handful of Parks Canada staff and Indigenous trail guardians, who continue to maintain the 75-kilometre trail to prevent it from becoming overgrown.
Parks Canada also has a series of remote wildlife cameras in the area that observe wildlife activity. In the winter, they plan to analyze the images as well as observations collected on species such as wolves, cougars and bears.
They may notice some different behaviour by wildlife in the absence of humans, said Brian Starzomski, director of the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria.
Starzomski said research has shown plenty of examples of changes in animal behaviour as a result of a decrease in human activity, because wildlife adapt their habits in the presence of humans — for example, some become more active at night to avoid people.
With fewer humans around, they may use the beaches and coastline areas more, he said.
“Animals may respond to that, effectively by taking back the environment, I suppose a little bit.”
The trail’s closure has also affected people, such as Justine Etzkorn, the lighthouse keeper at Carmanah Point, in the middle of the trail.
Etzkorn said it’s been a strange summer without daily chats with hikers passing by her home, and the work crews, scientists and rescue crews who are often around.
“Just walking on the beach, it’s like your tracks and the wolf tracks, and that’s it,” she said. “Normally it’s just completely covered in people.”
The trail is seeing less erosion this year without thousands of feet trampling the same track, she said, but a resident wolf pack and other wildlife seem to be around as much as they would be if hikers were coming through.
Wayne Aitken, who has hiked the West Coast Trail more than 25 times since 1985 and helped write the guidebook on it, said that from what he has seen on the West Coast Trail Facebook page, hikers — while disappointed — agree that keeping the trail closed to protect remote Indigenous communities from COVID-19 was the right call.
The trail winds through the territory of the Ditidaht, Pacheedaht and Huu-ay-aht nations. Ditidaht and Pacheedaht are both part of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, which has closed its borders to tourists to protect residents during the pandemic.
Aitken, who co-wrote Blisters and Bliss: A Trekker’s Guide to the West Coast Trail, said hikers have little effect on the area around the trail, but where hikers step is so well-trodden that the ground is a few feet lower in parts.
That’s not something that will rebound in just a year without hikers, Aitken said.
Parks Canada and the Ditidaht, Pacheedaht and Huu-ay-aht nations are still determining if the trail could reopen safely next summer.