Paul Funston and Mary Lou Baldwin pose for a photo with their trailer in Fort Langley, B.C., Friday, December 18, 2020. The duo would normally spend the winter south of the border, but with the Canada-U.S border closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are spending it at a campground in southern B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel

Paul Funston and Mary Lou Baldwin pose for a photo with their trailer in Fort Langley, B.C., Friday, December 18, 2020. The duo would normally spend the winter south of the border, but with the Canada-U.S border closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are spending it at a campground in southern B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel

Senior snowbirds congregate in B.C. when wings clipped by COVID-19 border closures

At least 50,000 full-time recreational vehicles users usually spend their winters in the U.S.

VANCOUVER — On a small island in British Columbia’s Fraser River is a campsite packed with Canadian snowbirds who found refuge when the border with the United States was shut because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unlike other years, all 118 full-service sites at Fort Camping in Langley are occupied, said Marilyn Stone, the manager of guest services at the campsite.

It started in March, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians around the world to come home, Stone said.

Travellers from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and B.C. came to quarantine and before they left for the summer, they booked for the winter, she said.

The Canadian Camping and RV Council said at least 50,000 full-time users of recreational vehicles who usually spend their winters in the United States had to find a site north of the border.

Thousands of those snowbirds have converged on southern B.C., packing full-service campgrounds to wait out the winter, say tourism and lodging groups in the province.

Mary Lou Baldwin and her partner Paul Funston normally head home from Arizona to an RV site in Grimsby, Ont., but it was closed.

Instead, she “begged” Fort Camping to allow them to come in to quarantine this spring, said Baldwin, 79.

She took no chances on the border reopening and booked Fort Camping for the winter.

“I sensed that we were going to be in deep trouble come this winter because everybody, they can’t go south and they’re going to come here. They’ll want to get into B.C.”

Funston, 78, said the relentless rain in Metro Vancouver in November and parts of December has made it easy to quarantine in their trailer, but they wouldn’t want to stay anywhere else.

“There is no place in Canada from the East Coast all the way to this area that doesn’t have winter. So, there’s no escape until you come here,” he said in a telephone interview.

Doug Overholt, 74, would normally be in Palm Springs, Calif., this time of year, and said he considered getting on a plane to head south while having his 12-metre motorhome trucked across the border. But he had health insurance considerations and instead decided to sit out the winter at Fort Camping.

“I’ve got satellite TV and radio and whatever I need there. They have wonderful internet service here.”

Joss Penny, the executive director of the B.C. Lodging and Campgrounds Association, said about 100 private-sector campgrounds are open year-round, most of them in southern B.C.

He said the snowbirds in campsites are treated just like any other family would be if they were living in separate condominiums.

“We don’t have the clubhouse open, we don’t have the washrooms open, they’re in their own self-contained RV and home. They aren’t supposed to mix and mingle with other people in the park.”

The Gallagher Lake Camping & RV Resort, near Oliver, usually has just a few winter visitors, but manager Jamie Cox said the phone started ringing endlessly one day in March. They set up a quarantine location, arranged a grocery system and overnight, all 80 of their sites were full, he said.

“We were literally in a necessity position and went to the provincial government to get an essential service designation,” said Cox, who’s also the chairman of the B.C. Lodging and Campgrounds Association.

He said many of those spring campers returned for the winter.

Rob Littlejohn, part owner of Living Forest Oceanside Campground in Nanaimo, said by mid-July, there were 100 people on their winter wait-list.

“They’re from everywhere in the country that’s cold,” he said.

Full-time motorhome residents have been wintering on Vancouver Island for decades, said Anthony Everett, the president of Tourism Vancouver Island. The difference this year is snowbirds had nowhere else to go.

“We realized that we had a situation on our hands,” Everett said. “Our motivation was to make sure that snowbirds understood all the places they could go on the Island. They also needed to understand there were places on the Island that weren’t actually ready to have people come back to see them.”

With tourism down by 60 per cent, Everett said the snowbird migration is one bright spot in what has been a horrible year for their businesses.

At Fort Camping, Connie Axelsen and her partner are planning a quiet holiday season when they would normally be celebrating with the group of friends they have made in Arizona.

“I look at the positives, you know it could be a lot worse. We’ve got a nice warm home, we’ve got nice neighbours, we’re in a beautiful area. Would I like to be down south, oh you bet. But until they lift the restrictions and the vaccines are out, we’re staying put.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 24, 2020.

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