PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — Memorial Day weekend is the traditional kick off for summer fun. Picnics, boat rides, biking, camping and swimming are activities Minnesotans typically enjoy.

Kim Pleticha, assistant director of communications for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said residents should start making plans to enjoy outdoor adventures while protecting themselves and others from COVID-19.

“Going to the cabin and spending time on the lake are time-honored traditions,” she said. “But our cherished outdoors traditions will be there when this is over. What we’re asking folks to do is instead of going to the big lake, choose a lake closer to home. It won’t take long to get there, so you will have more time to fish. This summer doesn’t have to be a time without fun. It should be just the opposite. We need to look for ways to teach our kids how great it is to be outdoors, while at the same time teaching them we’re doing something different because we’re protecting our fellow Minnesotans. That’s every bit as important as teaching them how to fish. Now is the time to stick close to home and find places to explore while building new traditions.”

During the stay-at-home order, people have been encouraged to recreate close to home.

“That’s someplace you can go and return on one tank of gas,” she said. “Gov. Walz also made it very clear in his last executive order, 2048, where he says very specifically do not travel long distances to go to your cabin. It’s not that we don’t want people to enjoy the outdoors. It’s that we really need to protect these small communities from the spread of this disease. This is not a time to be traveling long distances and putting pressure on small, rural communities. In many cases, these communities do not have the medical infrastructure. One case of COVID could really be devastating there. So we’re cautioning people to stay as close to home as possible.”

In addition, Pleticha said an influx of visitors may overwhelm small town grocery stores.

“People say they can go to another area of the state and be socially distant. That may be true, but if a whole bunch of people travel to another area of the state it puts too much pressure on local facilities,” she said. “So we’re asking people to really think about their fellow Minnesotans and remember that we’re recreating close to home to protect people from the spread of this virus, especially people in small rural areas who have higher incidences of elderly people, Native Americans and those with underlying health issues.”

Finding new adventures

Pleticha said her family has been using two phone apps to find new places to explore.

“One of my teenagers is in college and one is in high school and they always want to be out,” she said. “Recreation Compass is very cool, and it’s on our DNR website as well. Let’s say you get to a state park and it’s crowded. Pop open Recreation Compass and it will show you what else is in your vicinity. GreatOutdoorsMn lists everything throughout the state, including DNR properties. We have been using it and love it. I can’t believe it took a pandemic to get me into these apps. I live right by Aspen State Park and love doing the outdoors, but this year I’m doing the outdoors differently. I have fired up those apps and found places close to home.”

Pleticha said Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) are managed by the DNR. “While there are no amenities, if you are looking to get away from it all and just commune in pristine nature, those are the places to go,” she said.

Turkey hunting is currently allowed on WMAs, so it is not a good idea to go hiking there right now.

“SNAs are open for hiking though,” she said. “There are no toilets, you can’t bring your dog and you can’t picnic, but if you just want to go for a lovely hike, they are beautiful places to explore. Go on Recreation Compass and you will be surprised how many WMAs and SMAs are around you. Minnesota has so many jewels. State parks are wonderful, but right now is the time to seek out those less crowded areas.”

She challenged those who love the outdoors to try something new.

“The thing I am most excited to do this year is go canoeing,” Pleticha said. “I typically canoe anyway, but with some areas closed I’m finding smaller lakes to explore. It’s up to each individual to make this a fun summer. Maybe try something new like paddleboarding. There are so many things you can do while maintaining social distancing.”

Family members who live in different areas could even share their individual experiences camping close to home over Zoom. “Something like that can be a lot of fun,” she said.

State parks and social distancing

Itasca State Park sees over 1 million visitors annually. This summer, Pleticha said it’s important for those visiting Itasca to keep six feet of social distance. One way to do this is to visit during “off peak” times.

“If you’re looking for a nice, quiet, peaceful commune with nature, go early in the morning or during the twilight hours,” she said. “Between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. the park is usually extraordinarily busy.”

Those visiting state parks should also have a plan B. “If you get to the Headwaters parking lot and it’s full, it’s really better to go someplace else in the park,” she said. “It’s awfully hard to social distance when you’re with 500 other people. These state parks are huge, so get off the beaten track and recreate in other areas. We are trying to encourage people to stay away from the normally crowded places.”

She said at the present time state parks remain open but pretty much everything in the park is closed. “That includes lodging, camping, visitor centers and tours and naturalist programs,” she said.

“Bathrooms that are typically open during the winter remain open. That’s often the outhouses. But we are cautioning people that if they need to use those facilities to bring their own toilet paper and sanitizing wipes just to be on the safe side. This is really not the time to be using shared facilities like bathrooms or picnic tables”

Pleticha said if people are boating it should only be with members of their own household. “At public water accesses, pay attention to social distancing there as well and do not crowd,” she said.

Outlook for Memorial Day

Pleticha said looking ahead to the Memorial Day holiday things are “really up in the air.”

“We don’t know at this point whether the governor will choose to extend the May 18 stay-at- home order or lift it with modifications, but what I can tell you is this,” Pleticha said. “Let’s say the stay-at-home order expires May 18. That doesn’t mean that everything at parks will open immediately. It’s not like flipping a switch. We will have to recall all of our seasonal workers and start getting things ready to open again. It would be a process. I can’t even speculate on whether we’d be able to open in that time frame because we’re just not there yet.”

She said decisions on what will be open in the park are not made solely based on the stay at home order. “It’s also the social distancing requirements,” she said.

Anyone planning to visit a state park should go to the DNR website for the latest updates. At the top of the page click on the yellow alert button for the COVID-19 section.