Some of Canada's most beloved national parks and historic sites are going online in hopes that allowing people to hike the woods on their computer screens will encourage them to do it in real life.
A deal between Parks Canada and Google Maps is allowing the global Internet giant to take its special cameras to natural and historic wonders, from L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland to British Columbia's Pacific Rim National Park.
"It's a way that we see we can step into the psyche of a lot of Canadians and really be able to show these great, iconic places that belong to all of us in a new way," Andrew Campbell, vice-president of visitor experience for Parks Canada, said Wednesday.
Google staff plan to drive the roads, hike the paths and peer into the rooms of 120 national parks and historic sites by the end of 2014 using backpack-mounted cameras .
"The [camera] is capable of going anywhere a person can hike," said Google spokesman Aaron Brindle. "It really will be a big part of this collaboration as we go through backcountry hiking trails, drive-in camping sites, campgrounds and all these nooks and crannies of historical properties."
Virtual visitors will be able to stop and look around just as if they were actually there.
"You are virtually immersed in these environments," Brindle said. "You can pan around 360 degrees and see exactly what you would see if you were standing right there."
Faces of hikers will be blurred, as will licence plates from passing cars.
The parks and historic sites that Google plans to map are found from coast to coast, including Gros Morne in Newfoundland, Grasslands in Saskatchewan, Banff and Jasper in Alberta and the historic walls and citadel of Quebec City. Filming is to begin next month at Cape Breton Island's Fortress of Louisbourg, which celebrates its 300th birthday this summer.
The Louisbourg map should be up some time this summer, Brindle said.
The Google maps – which are being created at no cost to Parks Canada – will give people an idea of what's involved in different hikes or drives and allow them to plan better. They're also intended to lure foreign tourists by giving them a taste of what Canada has to offer.
The online maps of historic sites could become a valuable classroom resource, Campbell said, or give people some sense of places they might never get to see.
Still, he acknowledges it's no substitute for the real thing.
"There's a big difference between going on a vacation and sitting down at your computer."