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Mother and daughter walking on the beach at Pike Lake

Coping with COVID-19: People seek out nature!

March 25, 2020  |  Topics: Spotlight, Stories

Story and photos by Eddee Daniel

It didn’t take long after the declaration of the Coronavirus pandemic for everything to change. Among the many more obvious changes, such as closed schools, shuttered stores and restaurants, there has been a somewhat subtler one: People are spending a lot of time outdoors.

Oak Leaf Trail, Hoyt Park, Wauwatosa
Oak Leaf Trail, Hoyt Park, Wauwatosa

In Hoyt Park, a block from home, there’s been a constant stream of people walking, jogging and cycling on the Oak Leaf Trail. Day after day, no matter how cold or cloudy (including the morning after a snowfall), people of all ages have been out in the park. I’ve even seen kids hammocking in their parkas.

Mom and two young kids on a boardwalk at Pike Lake State Park
Pike Lake Unit – Kettle Moraine State Forest, Hartford

Because I make it my mission to document our parks and preserves for A Wealth of Nature, I’ve gone out daily to observe and photograph what’s happening. It’s been the same nearly everywhere I’ve gone. Last Saturday, waking up to a 17° temperature reading, I headed out to Pike Lake State Park. Although the temps never rose above the mid-twenties, the place was as busy as on a warm summer day—except for the beach, of course! Mostly families, everyone bundled up in winter clothes, hiking and maintaining their social distance from others sharing the trails.

Yesterday, at Grant Park, even the beach was busy!

A young man skipping a stone on Lake Michigan at Grant Park, South Milwaukee
Lake Michigan at Grant Park, South Milwaukee

Why this particular change? To a nature-lover like me it comes as no surprise and seems to substantiate my belief in an innate need for a greater connection with the natural world. However, it was hardly a given. Although the “shelter at home” order doesn’t require staying indoors all the time and most parks in the area remain open to the public, one could understand if folks remained hunkered down inside with their streaming services and social media. After all, it’s been less than two weeks since schools closed, hardly enough time for cabin fever to drive everyone out of the house.

What will it be like after a month? Or two.

Two young men and a boy playing soccer at Estabrook Park
Estabrook Park, Milwaukee

With so much free time on their hands, it seems to me that families are rediscovering not only the joys of nature but also of spending time together. Is it a quarantine or an enforced vacation? I’ve witnessed children from tiny tots to teenagers recreating with their parents. And while walking and cycling are the most common activities, they are far from the only ones. Fishing is popular. Parks also enable family members to play soccer and disc golf, to name just a couple of the things I’ve seen, while still maintaining appropriate social distances.

Beerline Trail, Gordon Park, Milwaukee
Beerline Trail, Gordon Park, Milwaukee

Some cities have closed parks because too many people were congregating in them. It would be unfortunate if we came to that. In my experience, while the parks are definitely more crowded than usual, social distancing is generally being followed. And if you are concerned about going to a crowded park—or if you prefer the solitude more commonly found in your favorite one—we can help. Our Find-a-Park map can guide you to places less well-known. There’s a wealth of nature in our community, after all!

Three hikers on Ice Age National Scenic Trail - Holy Hill segment
Ice Age National Scenic Trail – Holy Hill segment, Hubertus

Many of the photos accompanying this story were taken in very popular parks. For a quieter stroll away from the hue and cry try a State Wildlife Area or one of the many private preserves that are open to the public.

A man riding a fat tire bicycle in Washington Park
Washington Park, Milwaukee

Today it did finally turn out to be warm and sunny. Knowing it to be one of the most popular parks in SE Wisconsin, my wife and I went to Lapham Peak. We were completely blown away! The parking lots were full and overflowing onto grassy fields reserved for the purpose. Many of the trails felt like parade routes, with staggered groups of marchers keeping their distance from one another. It was impossible to find a secluded trail for a quiet hike alone, as we would normally do. We were stunned and fascinated by the spectacle.

People hiking at Lapham Peak Unit - Kettle Moraine State Forest
Lapham Peak Unit – Kettle Moraine State Forest, Delafield

Pundits are having a field day trying to decide if the Coronavirus pandemic will be a turning point in history. Some suggest that working from home and studying online will become the new normal rather than a temporary adaptation. The economy may be profoundly affected. I’ve heard it said we may never shake hands again as a greeting. Okay, some of these ideas are farfetched. But what if this is the moment we’ve been working towards? We nature-lovers at Preserve Our Parks and other environmental organizations. What if everyone discovers how marvelous it really is to hike in a nature preserve? And they decide to continue doing it long after COVID-19 goes the way of the Spanish Flu.

A man fishing in the Rotary Centennial Arboretum, Milwaukee River Greenway
Rotary Centennial Arboretum, Milwaukee River Greenway, Milwaukee

It is hard to consider that a pandemic that is killing thousands and wreaking economic upheaval could have a silver lining, but I’ve heard several suggested. Human resilience and creativity are being touted. As nearly always happens in an emergency, people chip in to help one another. With so much industry shut down and auto and airline traffic reduced, air quality has seen a dramatic improvement. What if this is a template for how to deal with climate change?

Preserve Our Parks launched A Wealth of Nature two years ago with the intent to encourage residents of Southeastern Wisconsin, as well as visitors to the area, to go outside and enjoy nearby parks and preserves. In two weeks the pandemic has given us a run for our money. Maybe that’s a silver lining.

Two boys running up a wooded hill at Holy Hill
“Race you to the top!” Holy Hill, Hubertus
Brown Deer Park, Milwaukee
Brown Deer Park, Milwaukee
A man doing a wheelie on a fat tire bike in Kletzsch Park
Kletzsch Park, Glendale
Mother and daughter hiking into a woodland at Greenfield Park
Greenfield Park, West Allis

If you missed our previous COVID-19 message, go to “Schools are closed, events cancelled, but parks are open!

Two cyclists on Hank Aaron State Trail in Three Bridges Park
Hank Aaron State Trail, Three Bridges Park, Milwaukee

Stay tuned for further updates. And go to Find-a-Park to, well, find a park or preserve to visit.

A man sitting next to the lake at Pike Lake Unit - Kettle Moraine State Forest
Pike Lake Unit – Kettle Moraine State Forest, Hartford

But wait! There’s more. To see more images from this series taken during the COVID-19 shutdown, go to Eddee’s Flickr album.

Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks and A Wealth of Nature Project Director. All images in this series were shot since March 20, 2020.