The Mystery of Big Island (Part Three)

It’s been nearly a year and a whole long winter of impassable trails through the river valley since I posted an update about the work being done to turn a small bit of land with a big local history into a small provincial park.

The last time we thought about that effort on this site, a small group of us had gone off on a short adventure run to test our prospects of finding a runnable trail between my house and the bit of natural space clinging to the edge of the river.

What we found instead was a dead end. And a furthering of the mystery behind this bit of future park where it seemed our odds of future adventure were good, if not simple to find.

You can read about the first two parts of that adventure here on this blog in The Mystery of Big Island Part One and Part Two.

The mystery seemed as if it would continue to allude us with no more media coverage and limited ability to drop into a snow-filled river valley for our own fact-finding-fun prior to May. My aim was to start up my investigations once again this summer with some alternative entry options and perhaps drag along a friend or five to continue our search for elusive access to Big Island.

And then I was meandering through Twitter this morning only to discover this (politically charged) tweet of how one of our local, bumbling politicians had accidently (really?) posted a confidential planning map with some clear intentions for the ongoing work around Big Island.

(Screenshot of the tweet archived here.)

The little grey blot in the middle of the sea of appropriately-coloured blue land marks the Big Island proper with some surrounding farmlands clearly marked for possible buyout or annexation or something relating to creating a protected public zone around this little natural treasure.

I’ve been studying maps of this exact area, trying to understand if there is a good place to park and find access into the valley .

Clearly if I have a government sticker on my truck (which I do not) parking near to and descending upon this bit of land wouldn’t be a problem. Looking at the tweeted photos it’s clear that if a politician can clamber down into the area in his work clothes, a handful of runners with trail gear must be able to find a way too.

Of course, this accidental leak implies that multiple people are thinking much bigger than I am about this little future park. I’m working on a video about a different river valley park and some time I spent there recently, but seeing this information has made me even more determined to bring some friends and a camera back on another summer adventure, an adventure to uncover the mystery of Big Island… preferably before they plow a road there and everyone figures it out.

Stay tuned for Part Four…

Hiking: Mountain Bunkers

Back in March of this year, 2022, we made yet another long weekend into a family adventure getaway to the mountains. With few plans besides a booked hotel suite and our hiking gear, we landed in the town of Canmore after a four hour spring drive.

A year earlier we had zipped off to the same general area (but a different side of the mountain and a different set of plans) and had done some fun, easy hikes but then had a crazy winter drive back home at the end of it all.

While the forecast turned out to be more cooperative this trip, we were a lot less prepared for what to do with our relatively pleasant weather. So when I suggested a short hike to try and find the mysterious nuclear fallout bunker on the side of a nearby mountain, there were few objections.

for whatever one photo is worth:

If you stand at the mouth of the Heart Creek Bunker and look North (and down) you can easily see the Trans-Canada Highway snaking by in the valley below, rounding the corner of Lac des Arcs and disappearing around the far end of the same mountain upon which you are standing.

The bunker is not difficult to find, though the route is not clearly marked as to what you will see when you embark on the short two kilometer trail part way up the side of a cliff face.

In fact, if it wasn’t for various social media and independent hiking guide sites I doubt many people beside the locals who live in nearby Canmore would know about this odd little gem.

As the story goes, the bunker was started (but never finished) in the late 1960s as “part of a Cold War-era plan to keep important government records safe in the event of a disaster, up to and including a nuclear bomb.”

But it leaked, water dripping through the porous rock, and then too political tides changed and I’m sure the whole endeavor became financially unfeasible so… now there is a cave dug out a couple hundred meters into the side of a mountain, and a narrow, unmarked trail through the forest leading to its entrance.

There were three other hiking parties there when we arrived in the mid-morning, and also about a half dozen other dogs. We chatted and let the dogs play and took each other’s photos at the mouth of the cave.

Then we went in.

It was pitch black inside save for the lights we carried with us.

I took as many pictures as I could in the dim light and recorded some video:

The walls were marked with graffiti and messages from past visitors as the site is apparently popular with locals for parties and late night fun and light painting and boondocking.

The dog was spooked by the whole experience and she needed to be carried out after less than ten minutes in the pitch black and eerily quiet cave.

And then … we turned our back and returned down the mountain path to our car. On the ride home, spotty mountain internet service stretched to the limit, my wife who is usually a planning and research guru for our travels took the chance to finally look up the weird history of the strange mountain bunker we’d just visited. Even our server at dinner later that evening perked his ears and seemed curious that a trio of tourists had made their way up to the secret Canmore bunker.

Off-the-beaten path sights are not necessarily rare, but they are always weird and magical and mysterious when you find them… especially if you didn’t even plan on looking in the first place.

Stewards of the Trails

While volunteering as a course marshal at a local trail race yesterday, I stood in the same spot in the woods for nearly three and a half hours. Much of that time was spent clapping and cheering and directing racers away from a detour where the path had naturally washed out near the river bank. But a lot of the rest of that time was me incidentally and casually investigating the condition of the local trails.

The Inspiration

A few weeks ago I watched a mini-documentary video by Beau Miles called Run the Rock, wherein the filmmaker stepped out his front door in his running kit, loaded his wheelbarrow up with tools, and ran about ten klicks out to a remote trail to dig up a rock. The story is told much more thoroughly by Miles in the video but the short version is simply that after a friend tripped over an obstacle on their running path it only seemed right that someone go remove the obstacle.

He did just that.

The nine minute video runs the viewer through the story and motivation behind what turns out to be a kind of drive towards the moral stewardship of the spaces we share.

Miles ran the equivalent of a half marathon, out and back to where a small boulder was protruding from the path, and on the return trip he not only lugged the same boulder clear of the woods but did so knowing that he had done a bit of work to make the trail a safer place for himself, his friends and anyone who used it.

The Parallel

Standing in the woods for three and a half hours yesterday, minding a curve in the path where the intersection of five distinct trails (one of which had been part of the race course until it was washed out by rain last season) gave me a lot of opportunity to inspect the place thoroughly.

In roughly six square meters of trail intersection there was:

… an official survey brass marker the circumference of a tennis ball protruding nearly ten centimeters from the dirt in the middle of one of the paths

… the shards and remains of at least two broken bottles, crunched to bits the size resembling loose change scattered into the dust

… a pothole at the edge of, but still on, one of the paths large enough to place a car tire inside and clearly awkward enough to trip anyone who wasn’t paying attention as they strolled by

The park itself is a bit of reclaimed semi-industrial land that now lies fairly embedded in the southwest suburbs of the city. Remnants of strip mining that ended at least fifty years ago are shrouded like ancient ruins in young tree cover and meandering paths that sometimes lead past chunks of concrete footings. The area is now an off-leash dog park, boat launch, and recreation area snaked through with bike paths, hiking trails and open spaces (great for hosting trail races.)

It’s also well-used and only lightly serviced.

All of which means that if one stops to stare at one’s feet for any length of time it’s going to become obvious that the trail conditions in some of the highest traffic areas are lagging.

The Solution

The answer, if there actually is one, is probably something to do with personal responsibility.

To be fair to the overall condition of the park, the spot where I was stood for the better part of my morning was not only a convergence of many trails and a highly travelled part of the deep trails of the park, but a particularly nice lookout and vantage point high up on the banks of the river looking north. In other words, a lot of people go this way and stop here for a rest or a photo.

Yet, that seems all the more reason that such a spot should be made safer.

Dogs could cut their paws on the broken glass.

Anyone could stumble in the pothole.

A cyclist who hit the protruding survey marker could easily find themselves ass over tea kettle and tumbling down a steep riverbank.

If only someone could find, say, a Friday afternoon later this week when he had the day off work to wander out there with a pair of gloves, a trash bag and maybe even a shovel.

I may need to check the weather forecast to see if that someone is me.

Travel: Galaxy’s Edge

It’s May the Fourth, which nerds and geeks like me all around the world celebrate as Star Wars Day in honour of the forty-fiver year old film franchise created by George Lucas and now recently owned and enhanced by Disney.

Four months ago, almost to the day, I was having a different sort of Star Wars day as I wandered through the modern theme park experience in Orlando, Florida, the hyper-themed Star Wars land in Disney World known as Galaxy’s Edge.

I’m not nearly as big of a Disney theme park fan as my wife, but I agreed to a two week Disney World vacation in the middle of a global pandemic for two reasons: (1) because I wanted to run the Disney World Half Marathon and (2) because I wanted to check out Disney’s effort to recreate the Star Wars film vibe in theme park form.

As to the latter of those travel dreams, we delved into the fantasy world of Star Wars for the better part of a day on New Years Day 2022.

I spent many of my first hours of this year wandering among rusty sci fi space ships, meandering among future-rustic market stalls, being chased by storm troopers on the Rise of the Resistance ride and again on Smuggler’s Run aboard the Millennium Falcon, and sampling weird beverages at the overpriced, but authentically themed, cantina bar (where they don’t serve droids!)

For any fan, myself included, it was going to be an enjoyable experience.

Yeah, it was crowded and, yeah, there was far too many enticing ways for Disney to separate fans from their money.

But for a fantasy adventure, and a way to spend a few hours as a Star Wars fan, I don’t know that there are many places like it on this planet.

May the fourth be with you.