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…

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.

Sky Light, Sky Bright

A few nights ago (back when I was still wallowing in the afterglow of a turkey dinner and mentally preoccupied by an upcoming puppy surgery) I was laying in bed, reading, when my phone buzzed on my nightstand.

“Northern lights are aglow tonight if any of you are still up.” One of my running crew posted on the group chat.

I rushed to the backyard and did not see this.

Instead, I saw the wisps of some green light over the tops of the trees in my backyard and the roofs of the houses that back onto ours. Hints. Not actually anything worth remarking upon.

I was already settled, garbed in my pajamas, and tired … so I went back to bed.

When I woke up the next morning another running friend had shared the included photo on the group chat. He lives a few blocks away from me, but apparently has a much better northern view.

I was in the backyard tonight again for a few minutes, looking upwards and hoping that the northern lights might make a reappearance. All the night sky had to offer me though was a few bright constellations. Cassiopeia. Ursa Major.

But no more northern lights.

Alas, earlier this week the solar winds crashing against the atmosphere offered us a one night show … and I missed it.

Hymenoptera

I sometimes tell people that while in university I unofficially minored in bugs.

As a biology student I had many options for my options, but my interest veered sidelong into a course of courses in the entomology department. I exited with a bachelors degree in genetics, but the extra educational suitcase I had brought along was stuffed full of souvenirs from my study of insects.

Packed in that suitcase, I’ve always adored the word Hymenoptera.

hai - muh - NAAP - ter - uh

Or, the order of insects that contains wasps, bees, hornets, ants and other similar six legged critters.

The summer of 2021 was apparently a good year around here for a particular kind of yellowjacket wasp.

Popular opinion was that there was more than just an uptick in the aggressive insects population over the last few months. Call it a surge. A bumper year for hymenopterans. Nearly everyone had a story of being stung, dealing with a nest, or even the consequence of the crop of pandemic puppies encountering angry bugs for the first time either in their campsites or own backyards.

A nearby neighbour must have had a nest in their yard and for a couple weeks solid the little drones took over a corner of my backyard and harassed the dog (who never did seem to figure out that they were never going to play nice with her.)

I reluctantly put a trap on a tree and caught a few hundred, but to be honest it neither made much of a dent in the population nor made me feel good about myself.

There is a balance to everything, and I noted this most acutely when (after dealing with weeks of wasps and yellowjackets in and near the city) we vacationed in the mountains and hiked for hours without seeing so much as a hint of those black and yellow stripes.

Our attempts to control and manicure the local suburban ecosystem with the species of plants and critters we think we like, the ones that are pretty or simple or tasty, has a side effect of throwing into chaos the nature tug-of-war we can’t quite see, and which manifests as weeds and coyotes and mosquitos and wasps terrorizing those same spaces as we eliminate natural predators or encourage invaders to take refuge in the vacuum.

The mountain ecosystem, by contrast, has seemingly still not tottered onto its side and the result is that we were able to hike without much fear of being stung.

Eaten by a bear, maybe, but stung… less so.

Yet now, twenty years after graduating from university I don’t do much with or recall many facts from my biology education but I have this vague sense that I can see the loose threads of the ecosystem imbalance, that I can talk and write about it with some confidence, and that one of the hundred dollar words I can always lean on is Hymenoptera.