National park attendance, student activities, reflect outdoor habits adopted in the pandemic


The Minnesota DNR used technology to get Minnesotans outdoors again. Photo: Jim Brekke (Jim’s outside photos) via Flickr.

By Borjana Alia, Abigail Comar, Mackenzie DeRaad, Camryn Evans, Sierra Moore, Emile Rizk and Kyle Wasielewski

Visits to national and state parks in the Great Lakes Basin surged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio hit a record high of 2.8 million visitors in 2020, as did Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, with 1.2 million visitors in 2020.

In addition, the pandemic sparked individual decisions to spend more time outside, according to some students at Michigan State University – and some acknowledge that they’ve cut back on their outdoor ventures since pandemic-related restrictions ended.

Before the breakout of COVID-19, Ben Rapai, a fisheries and wildlife student, spent most of his time outdoors.

Ben Rapai doing what he loves — working outdoors for the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University. Image: Mackenzie DeRaad

Being forced out of the house by his parents and out of his own boredom, Rapai fished, kayaked and hiked more than he did pre-pandemic. He also took up foraging as a new hobby during the lockdown when he wasn’t attending classes via Zoom.

Similarly, Peter Keiser, a political theory and constitutional democracy student, had always enjoyed the outdoors as a kid, running around, hiking, swimming and helping in his family’s garden.

Once the pandemic hit, Keiser’s passion for the outdoors reignited. “I got to appreciate it with my COVID buddies, my roommates,” he said.

Evan Bose, a finance major, spent most of his time pre-pandemic on the soccer field kicking the ball around with his friends.

When the pandemic no longer allowed for his friends to be around, he was forced to return home to Fenton, Michigan, where his family was his only source of social interaction.

While playing with his brother and sister, Bose found his family shared his competitive drive.

On the other hand, Alicia Fu, a first-year student, had little interest in the outdoors until the lockdown was initiated.

Now, she has a new appreciation for what nature has to offer. “I found more solidarity in nature, I go on runs and ride my bike outdoors more.”

Many Michigan residents who increased their time outdoors contributed to a spike in state park visits during the pandemic.

What better to do than check out the state parks nearby?

Belle Isle State Park in Detroit hit a record 5.2 million visitors in 2021, while Mackinac Island State Park hit 200,000 in 2021.

With a greater respect for nature due to the pandemic,observers can spot MSU students more active around campus— whether that be biking, walking or hiking.

However, an appreciation for the outdoors didn’t come naturally for everyone during the pandemic.

Anthony Turner, an environmental zoology student, spent a lot of time outdoors camping, fishing and running prior to the lockdown.

Anthony Turner returned to his regular outdoor activity levels after pandemic restrictions lessened. Image: Abigail Comar

When the pandemic forced schools online, Turner’s time outdoors decreased. He was mostly inside on Zoom and couldn’t participate in outdoor extracurricular activities like cross country and Boy Scouts anymore.

Now that restrictions have lessened, some students have returned to their old habits. For Turner, that means spending more time hiking and fishing outdoors again.

On the other hand, Keiser wanted to return to his indoor lifestyle. All that time outside during the lockdown left him feeling like he “may have outdoorsed” himself.

Meanwhile, many students are maintaining their newfound relationship with the outdoors.

Ben Rapai is an active member of the Fisheries and Wildlife Club at MSU, where he continues his fishing, hiking, kayaking and foraging.

“I didn’t really get into foraging for mushrooms until partway through COVID, but I probably go foraging once a week now to use the mushrooms in new recipes,” Rapai said.

Cara Zahnleuter, a supply chain management major, used to go on walks, hikes, play frisbee and swim at the beach before the pandemic.

Now that the restrictions are not as severe, she’s continued her outdoor activity, “especially on campus because I walk and bike as a way of transportation and getting outside.”

As for Bose, his deeper appreciation for outdoor activity has led him to establish a better connection with his brother and sister.

“They were actually a lot better at soccer than I thought they would be,” Bose said. “ It’s really fun getting to have my family and friends around while doing the thing I love.”

At the end of the day, MSU students’ outdoor activity levels were affected in various ways due to the pandemic. Whether spending more or less time outdoors, adjustments were made.

This same sentiment transferred to attendance levels at public lands, where a strong spike was seen in visits to national forests in 2020, and are still high post-pandemic.

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