Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024
Ontario Parks staff looking over a cliff.

Today’s post comes from park naturalist Roger LaFontaine, a highly trained DROP specialist who assists in the recovery of endangered or imminently endangered technology.

With so many people coming to our amazing parks last year, social media was filled with photos. They took pictures of the landscape, wildlife, their families and friends, and themselves (many of themselves).

And shortly after our spring visitors returned, we started getting calls.

On average, they said something like this: “Hi, I was with my family in XTrail, and walked over to the edge of the cliff to take a selfie of our group. When I was trying to take the photo, I dropped my phone over the edge. “Can someone come get it for us?”

At the time, Ontario Parks did not have a specific cell phone recovery plan, but by the July long weekend, the first Ontario Parks Device Recovery Unit (DROP) was established in Algonquin Provincial Park.

Man on a boat looking through binoculars.Before arriving at the location, it is important to determine the possible access route.

Enter DROP unit

That first week, the unit, consisting of myself and fellow naturalist Brent Travers, recovered 11 phones, 2 digital cameras, and a Super 8 camera (the camera was destroyed, but we recovered the film safely!).

The drop of devices in the parks was so widespread that we were asked to lead seminars and training sessions on how to set up and equip similar units in other parks.

Ontario Parks staff looking over a cliff.Staff at several parks receive hazard assessment training for DROP Unit

By Labor Day, there were six additional parks with DROP units ready, and some of them even made trips to other parks.

The recovery process

We usually arrive at the location to find the visitor in distress. They give us a description of their device (make, model, case color, visible cracks in the screen protector, ringtone, etc.) and where they last saw it, and then we come up with a plan to recover it.

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Parks staff plan around a conference table.The DROP Unit preparing the on-call schedule for the August long weekend. While it should seem simple, there are some complexities to consider. Make sure equipment is prepared and available, radio batteries and flashlights charged, and abseiling ropes are in good condition.

Depending on the location, we may even bring climbing equipment to rappel down the cliff. We usually carry the snorkeling equipment in the truck as well, as we have also had several aquatic recoveries, although unfortunately the devices are no longer working properly.

snorkel in the water

We’ve even had to invent our own tools for some of these recoveries.

  • mouse trap on a fishing rod and line
  • pole with various extensions
  • heavy duty recovery magnets for other items

Calls from the interior of the country are particularly difficult, as reaching these remote lakes is difficult and sometimes requires being flown.


The reason we do this is twofold.

Obviously, gathering people with their devices quickly reduces the stress and panic of not having them, and they can post their selfies with cool filters on social media as soon as possible.

The other reason, the most important, is because ecological integrity.

Sendero del paseo marítimo Spruce Bog en Algonquin Park<br

E-waste is a serious problem and the plastics, batteries, minerals and metals found in phones can be quite harmful to the natural environment.

It’s even worse when they’re in the water, so keep very close control of your devices around our lakes and rivers. (We also noticed when recovering phones from the lakes a disappointing amount of bottles, fishing gear and other trash in the lakes. Remember to pack what you pack and don’t leave trash behind!)

We were very busy in Algonquin last year with the DROP unit. Brent said: “A quick survey last summer showed that 1 in 20 visitors lost or nearly lost a device during their stay at the park. We have approximately 1 million visitors, so 1/20 = 5%, or 20,000 people. An average phone weighs 160g, therefore 20,000 x 160 = 3,200kg of e-waste.”

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That’s a ridiculous amount of potential e-waste, not to mention the normal trash produced in parks.

We recovered most of the devices that called us, but some were lost. Future archaeologists and historians will try to reconstruct the lives of our visitors based on their phones and cases.

Help recruiting

Some devices land in places that are very difficult to access. For 2021, we are working on getting a specially trained service animal that can fit in tight spaces.

Brent’s best choice is the American marten, as it can climb trees, get into small crevices, and swim if necessary.

Weasel looking through the branches at the cameraA DROP Unit trainee?

No one has yet to train a marten, but Brent says he’s up to the challenge. (I don’t think it is, and besides, there’s a very poor track record for service weasels.)

There is a report of a common crow in Kap-Kig-Iwan Provincial Park picking up a cell phone from the base of the falls.

crow sitting on a snowy branchEvaluation in progress

The report says the phone case was dazzled and that crows like shiny objects. It is unknown if they will collect non-glossy phones. This spring I will be checking some crows’ nests for phones.

The search for a team member continues.

Practice safe selfies and protect our parks

In the end we want people to enjoy our protected areas, but to be careful with their personal belongings.

Person taking a photograph on a trail.Practice safe selfies. Know where you stand and know what is below you.

Garbage in all its forms is not acceptable, nor is electronic waste.

Accidents happen, but unsafe selfies can be downright bad for the environment, as well as dangerous for the photographer.

Help us disband the DROP Unit for the 2021 season by keeping tight control over your devices and keeping a close eye on your surroundings.

Day of the Innocents!