The Ontario Parks backcountry reservation system must change

The backcountry reservation system for Ontario’s bigger parks is insane. It encourages abuse, requires exceptional long-term planning, and yet makes it impossible to plan. It must change. This is a rant about why.

The backcountry reservation system for Ontario’s bigger parks is insane. It encourages abuse, requires exceptional long-term planning, and yet makes it impossible to plan. It must change. This is a rant about why.

The agent was friendly enough but the content of the voicemail was pure evil. “Hi, I’m calling from Ontario Parks. We were trying to do a manual reservation for you but there was a conflict with the information at the park and it seems that Killarney Lake was booked…” blah blah blah “…so you’ll have to call back and make a new reservation.

It was follow up to a half hour phone call of comic proportions I had made to Ontario Parks’ reservation system to book a trip in Killarney this summer.

I would name a lake, and the agent would say it was booked. I would name a nearby lake and he would say it too was booked. I would say “well, is there anything nearby that isn’t booked?” He would name a lake half the park away.

At the end of the call my reservation was a wacky criss-cross of the park, with many days of impossibly long or ridiculously short travels. But I had a reservation. Or so I thought.

So are there really hordes and hordes of people who want to do a ten day loop through Killarney? Nope. It’s just the reservation system.

The system lets you reserve a back country site for up to 16 days (down from 23 – yay for small mercies) up to five months in advance. So people book a lake for 16 days, then phone back the next day and book another lake for 16 days, and so on until they have their route. Then, a month, two months, or any time up until a day before the reservation starts, when they’ve figured out their summer holiday plans, they drop the reservations they don’t need. All for six bucks – that’s the change fee.

It’s true you can’t book a lake more than five months in advance, but you can always book at least 16 days into the future.

The first time I tried to reserve, of the nine nights of our trip, I had gotten only three that were on our route. Only one of those was actually in the park. The other two were on the boundary and they didn’t have them on their list.

But after he had taken my credit card information the agent announced that there was a problem. There was conflicting information at the park, and one of my lakes – one that he’d reserved for me – apparently wasn’t available. But he didn’t know which one.

Then came the voicemail.

Today the agent wouldn’t even let me use George Lake as my access point. When I expressed some frustration, she said, “Well you are booking for July 29, and we’re reserving today for August 14th.” So I asked her if there was anything available for August 14th. She said no, it was all full.

I asked her if George Lake had been booked today. She said she didn’t know but admitted that it could have been booked any time in the last 16 days. It wasn’t available any time until the 24th of August. But I couldn’t book it for then. Only on the 24th of March. And if it became available before then, someone could book it for a further 16 days.

The agent insisted that they’d done research that had demonstrated “people want the whole 16 days, they don’t cancel.” I find that hard to believe. But what do I know?

Clearly if the park is this popular, there needs to be a more fair way of allocating space in the park. Maybe it’s no longer fair to allow people to park themselves on a lake for two weeks and two days if it means many others get no time at all in the park.

When I hiked on the Bruce Trail last summer, sites in the national park were also reserved. You could only book a site for one night. And the spots were reserved by number. That’s harsh, but to allow all interested people a fair share of park time, it’s necessary.

The system we have now is insane.

To reserve the route I want, I will have to start calling every day on or about the 28th of March, when Ontario Parks starts taking cancellations and changes for the dates I want, to see if anything has opened up. That’s a lot of phone calls. A lot of staff time and a lot of nuisance. Whatever.

I’d like to canoe in Killarney this summer. It’s called the jewel of Ontario’s park system. I used to think it was because it’s so beautiful. It’s actually because getting a booking is like finding a diamond in a field of mud.