Snakes, Ditches, Mud, and Ticks

Each summer for the last few I’ve hosted a small adventure club for a group of my running friends. We call them Adventure Runs, though running occasionally turns out to be only a minor component of the adventure.

So…. once again it is summer, and once again yesterday morning I posted our secret meetup location in our chat server, anticipated all day long, then finally after work ended for the day drove to the secluded parking spot and waited to see who else showed up.

Adventure Journal

It had rained all afternoon.

Not just rained. It had poured, complete with thunder and lightning, clacks of huge rain droplets batting against the windows and sending coworkers on our video meetings running off camera to close windows and comfort pets.

At 5pm we were texting back and forth about whether to delay our running plans.

But by 6pm the sunshine was back and I was lacing up my trail shoes and trying to remember exactly how to navigate the city streets to where I’d agreed to meet up for a local adventure.

The thing about trying to find interesting and unique places to run in the suburbs of a big city is that we really have just two choices for trails that are not of the well-maintained asphalt or crushed shale-surfaced accessible recreational locales: we either need to drop into the river valley or we need to find a bit of wilderness trapped between the cultivated corridors of roads, housing and shopping malls.

A dozen years ago a major infrastructure project resulted in the city building a ring road encircling a major part of the established city-proper. The road itself is almost eighty kilometers long with access points into and out of town every three to five klicks, and while in most places it snakes by the clusters of houses with naught but a bit of grassy ditch to separate the two, there are huge swaths of road anchored inside what’s called a transportation utility corridor (TUC) where clearance has been maintained to build roads, power transmission lines, and oil pipelines.

I was also acutely aware of a spot not too far (but not easily accessible) where a particularly interesting swath of TUC had been combined with some natural preserve, an old, blocked off access road, and an interesting destination at the end of the connected trail.

Into the Woods

On any given summer day, the trail that led from the quasi-parking lot to the east access of the locally famous “graffiti tunnelwould have been a moderately challenging bit of dirt-based single track weaving through and around eclectic landscapes crushed between a busy highway to the south and a winding high-watered creek to the north.

An hour after our quadrant of the city had been doused in an afternoon summer storm, those same trails were glistening and muddy, the tall grasses were hung heavy with rainwater, and the protruding heaps of clay silts that marked the marshy landscape near to the creek were more slippery than had we been running on our familiar winter ice slicks.

As we descended into this twisting, wet, and perilous collection of intersecting trails, each of the seven of us often veering off course to find a bit of path we were individually more comfortable with, a mix of caution and excitement bubbled through the group.

At one point I stopped abruptly with two of my companions close on my heels, slamming on my brakes in the wet mud and barely avoiding stepping on a medium-sized garter snake soaking up the sun on the middle of the path. I shooed it away and “stood guard” as one of my ophidiophobic running mates inched by and squealed in fear.

Familiar Destinations

More tall grass (hiding nasty ticks!)

A scramble hand-over-hand up a small, nearly impassible hill.

A leap of faith over an ant hill the size of a small car.

And wet feet all around, even though we never did get very close to the creek at all.

While the west side of the graffiti tunnel is accessible from a gentle gravel path connected to some of our local neighbourhood running routes, the east side (separated by a muddy creek) is only found on foot by following the two-and-a-half klick route through the trees and grass and wilderness-laden ditch through which we had just run.

We ogled the years of overlapping graffiti that covered the old pedestrian underpass (yet to be connected to the trail system-proper even eighteen years after it’s installation), took a bunch of photos and selfies, and then contemplated our alternate routes back to the cars… ultimately deciding to face the known perils of retracing our steps back rather than trying to find a simpler (but far longer) route home.

It is almost a rite of passage for a guy who plans crazy running routes to listen to the grumbles and complaints, cursing and swearing of those silly enough to follow him into the wilderness.

And it is certainly rewarding to lead all of those people full circle to their cars and to realize that every single one of them just experienced something they’ll remember for long after we’ve all gone home and washed the mud from our ankles.

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…

Travel: Fruits, Wines, and a Weekend Half

Two years ago this past weekend the world was a very different place.

The world was different enough that we had no issues hopping into the car, driving for nearly ten hours straight, and wending our way across the prairies, over the rocky mountain passes, and into the verdant Okanagan Valley in nearby British Columbia.

for whatever one photo is worth:

The official travel excuse was that I had signed up for an October half marathon in Kelowna. Yet my wife has a healthy collection of extended family who have located to the micro-climate over the past ten years and we were due for a visit.

As much as Canada sometimes deserves its reputation as a vast semi-arctic wasteland, even the locale in a radius hundreds of kilometers from where I sit writing this (which is frozen and snow-covered for half the year), there are places in this vast and diverse country which are fertile and lush.

One of those less-often-frozen zones is the Okanagan Valley, a longitudinally positioned string of deep lakes tucked between the high peaks of the continental divide rocky mountains to the east and the lusher coastal mountains nearer to Vancouver to the west.

The weather-stabilizing effects of this location and the nearby water features means that a climate zone amenable to ample fruit tree orchards and sprawling vineyards exists and makes the region both desirable as a home for hundreds of thousands and a tourist destination for multiples more.

I would move there in a heartbeat given the right opportunity, but two years ago we merely wedged ourselves into the tourist category.

Two days in the area was barely enough to get a taste of everything, though.

On Saturday we visited the local famer’s market in the morning, ate lunch on the pier, collected my race package in the park, wandered through a corn maze on a hobby farm, and visited a wine tasting at a vineyard (pictured) along the road to the house where we had set up camp.

On Sunday I toured a twenty-one point one kilometer stretch of waterfront and urban streetways on foot and recorded one of my better half marathon times in the perfect autumn weather, before slipping back to shower, change and pack the car for the push back across the mountains and home.

Our intention was to make it an annual trip.

A run.

A visit.

Good food.

Fresh fruit and great wine.

Somehow though, the last two years has made the world a very different place and, like so many others around that world, even nearby adventures have fallen to the bottom of our possibilities list.

Local Big (Part Two): Kielbasa

A couple weeks ago as I was getting ready for my summer posting schedule, I wrote about the local “world’s biggest” attractions that are dotted all around the rural countryside near where we live.

As it happens, we took the scenic route home from a weekend camping trip, driving for two an a half hours along the twisting and turning secondary highways connecting various small communities throughout the province.

One of our stops brought us to a giant sausage.

Yes, that’s right.

In the town of Mundare, Alberta lives the world’s largest sausage, or kielbasa to be precise.

The forty-two foot tall fiberglass structure beckons from a roadside park across the street from a gas station and nearby to a locally famous smoked and cured meats company (sadly, closed on Sundays!)

We pulled to the side of the road, parked, and wandered around the odd monument to the rich history of Ukranian immigration to the area. A hundred years ago the settlers who left eastern Europe to settle in the middle of the Canadian prairies staked their future on this sliver of their culture.

And today (well, yesterday) I am able to park beside an obscenely oversized statue of tube of garlic-seasoned meat and ponder why this is among the tallest human-made structure for a hundred kilometers in any direction.

I could probably write an entire series on the odd time-capsule-like effect created by mass immigration to Canada over the last hundred years, how cultural heritage seemed to have frozen-in-time as large groups of people moved here with their unique memories of “back home.” What started as serious traditions or means of income, have continued to be acted out in the foods, styles, dances, and other artifacts of their ancestry, having changed or evolved little, practiced almost exactly as they were from the moment they stepped on the boat, train, plane or whatever vehicle took them from their original lands. As such there is this entire pocket of people who come from, say, one region in eastern Europe in the early twentieth century embracing a cultural identity deeply rooted in the wonderful indulgences of, say, sausage and perogies and pysanka. Meanwhile (at least from what I’ve observed travelling) the generation of cousins who stayed behind have shifted and grown and evolved their culture… as humans are wont to do.

In other words, I have no idea if modern Ukrainians are as deeply connected to sausage, perogies, and pysanka as their Canadian relatives, but I somehow imagine that connection is much more multidimensional over there than over here.

I don’t mean to call out any of my friends of Ukrainian-ancestry because that sentiment seems true of most everyone here who “colonized” this place… well, besides noting that I just drove past a forty-plus foot tall statue tribute to garlic sausage in pretty much the middle of nowhere on the Alberta prairie.

If I come across a sixty-foot tulip, or a wheel of gouda as big as my house, you can bet I’ll be posting some pictures here.