How to Plan a Local Adventure

So you’re stuck at home during travel restrictions but still need something exciting to do close to home. I don’t know where you live, but adventure lurks nearby if you know how to plan for it.

Choose Your Activity

I needed a good excuse to keep running…

…but, last year as the pandemic restrictions ramped up, the running store (where we’d been meeting and running from) shut it’s doors. It was geographically convenient and had ample parking. Plus everyone knew to meet there on certain days and times so that we could run together.

The simple approach might have been to just keep running as we were, meeting from a parking lot, and for many runs over the past year we did. Yet, I wanted something more, and I suspected a lot of the crew might start to get bored and go off on their own plans if nothing more exciting happened.

Invent a Concept

Instead of panicking or just running solo, I decided it might be interesting to find somewhere new and interesting to run as we no longer had any good reason to keep running from a closed-up retail store. I also decided I’d like to see more of the city trails that I had never bothered to check out because they were not particularly reachable on a short run distance from that store.

I called it adventure runs.

Plan a Goal

A running adventure sounds like a self-evident concept, but in fact it encompasses so much potential… and potential for disappointment.

I was working full time (I still am) and didn’t have time nor motivation to sit down and plot out full miniature courses each week through locations I’d never spent much time traversing.

Instead I set the goal as something simple: if we ran somewhere new, down a new path, in a new neighbourhood, and saw something or somewhere we’d never seen (or hadn’t seen in a long time) then the adventure run was a success.

Pick a Starting Point

The second part of that concept was picking a good starting point.

It had to have access to trails. There needed to be enough parking (since we could not carpool during the restrictions and transit was still not running at full capacity.) Later in the summer a nearby ice cream shop or coffee stop was requested for afterwards. And of course, it had to be somewhere that felt remote-ish or like we were about to embark on some crazy adventure.

Invite Willing Participants

The gimmick then became about the mystery and the invite.

We have a group chat that has been around for years with a tight knit group of runners who have often been up for exactly this kind of adventure.

I would keep the suspense up. Eventually, as the summer progressed, folks would ask in the lead up week “where is the adventure run this week?” or “what are you planning for Wednesday night?”

The rule quickly followed: “The plan would be announced the morning of the adventure run. Keep your calendar open and check your messages.”

Show Up

On our best days we had as many as a dozen or more people show up.

I always did.

Rain or shine.

If I felt like leading a run or not, I was there.

And this morning, the first good spring Wednesday post-restrictions, I just sent out that notice once again.

Season two of the adventure runs, by enthusiastic request, start tonight.

Weekend Walking Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary

The Canadian prairies have a long and storied history that has been felt through the countless ecosystem changes in flora and fauna, and punctuated by the lives and actions of a handful of various peopled cultures that have lived and settled here for some recent thousands of years.

I state it in this particular way to draw attention to the very idea of a nature sanctuary.

A nature sanctuary is a space that has been set aside for the specific purpose of drawing a line around a bit of the map and deciding, as much as it is possible, to pause the progression of history or preserve a piece of it.

We drove to the nearby Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary on this recent sunny Sunday afternoon to wander the trails here and enjoy the day.

The parking lot was full to overflowing.

The sun was hot but the breeze pushing through the trees was still carrying the coolness of late spring.

I turned on my camera.

Located 33 km southwest of Edmonton’s city centre, the Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary protects 348 acres of marshland, open meadow, aspen parkland and pine forest. The varied habitats of the Sanctuary attract a diversity of animals, including more than one hundred bird species, and provide excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing.

This particular nature sanctuary was a space that was new to me. I’d never made the trip out here previously.

There is a particular patch of wilderness here. It is crammed between the city-proper to the east, a trans-provincial highway to the north, and the twisting North Saskatchewan river to the south.

The land is a mix of marsh and forest and seemingly poor agricultural space because it is speckled with acreages and nature preserves and the local University’s botanic gardens.

There is a local ultra marathon that runs annually through the “river’s edge” tracing along the bottom of the above map tempting local runners with an eclectic single-track adventure on trails regularly inaccessible except with permission of the land owner.

And when I was much younger, the scoutmaster of my troop knew of a bit of land (or likely knew of someone who owned a bit of land) in this area where we frequently winter-camped as teenagers.

In short, when I think of nearby wilderness, it is this block of a few hundred square kilometers that often jumps into my mind first.

The nature sanctuary itself was only established in the late 1970s, and set aside as a block of land that has been expanded and shifted stewardship over the years.

It was hardly a pristine snapshot of undisturbed local wetland history however. The space has a multi-kilometer elevated boardwalk, picnic areas, bird houses and bird feeders, viewing platforms, plastic toilet boxes, and meandering families straying from the designated paths and being humanly-terrible by littering and trampling.

Yet an imperfect preservation is better than no preservation.

There were countless birds (and baby birds.) The elevated boardwalk was a photographic splendour. The marshland failed to excite my teenager, but I could have stood there for hours and watched the life in and around the murky waters. And spring was in its full groove on Sunday, new foliage popping from the trees, ground and swamp.

This nature sanctuary is a space that seems to have been set aside for the specific purpose of drawing a line around a bit of the map and deciding, as much as it is possible, to pause the progression of history or preserve a piece of it.

Resource extraction sites dot our landscape. Hundreds of houses hide in the woods on small plots of land just out of reach of the city. Roads and highways twist through the countryside. Jumbo jets climb into the sky on their way to explore the world as they take off from the international airport runway a few dozen kilometers away.

It has been preserved for not just Sunday family walks in spring, but to draw our attention to the long history of these spaces, to help us recall the wilderness that was and the future we might want to recapture.

If nothing else, it’s a nice place to escape the city for a few hours.

Beaver Watchers

We run hills on Wednesday evening, and in a prairie city full of creeks and a river valley, the only proper hills are where the roads and paths cross the water.

It is not surprising then that our hill training brings us close up to nature, the bottom of our training hill being a bridge that crosses one of those creeks.

The creeks are still a little frozen, but nature never really stops working.

Last night we paused our multiple running repeats to watch this big guy, a beaver, paddling around the murky thaw of a spring creek still partially iced.

This is the same creek where in the winter we did a small snowshoeing adventure.

It’s amazing to me though, how even for people who routinely encounter nature on our runs, crossing paths with the likes of anything from birds, squirrels and hare to more substantial critters like coyotes and moose, we’ll all just stop what we’re doing to spend a few minutes admiring a lonely beaver in a creek.

Nature captivates… or at least you know you hang out with the right people when you are all captivated by similar things.

The Mystery of Big Island (Part One)

I had other writing plans this morning, but a mystery has been unravelling in my own backyard that has piqued and diverted my interest for an upcoming summer of potential exploration.

Backstory.

I live near the mighty North Saskatchewan River, a twelve hundred and eighty-seven kilometer long ribbon of glacial water that flows, stretches and merges with it’s sister as it’s waters drip off the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains and eventually drain in the Hudson’s Bay.

I can walk a mere thirty minutes from my house and dip my feet in it’s brown hued muddy waters and I often do…. though the wet-feet part is not always on purpose.

I took this photo from a footbridge suspended under a highway river crossing. The city’s ring road cuts across the river twice, and this bridge located in the southwest is one of those spots. The bridge also marks an interesting point in the city’s remarkable river valley parks system: the south-side edge of where it is uniformly accessible. Behind me in this shot is a network of maintained asphalt trails, benches, waste bins, signage, and friendly fellow residents enjoying the the park system.

Ahead of me, in the trees pictured, the trails look more like this second photo:

Much of this is a mix of crown land and private property, often merging and tripping over each other in unclear boundaries. I’ve walked and run through there a few times.

It’s as close to local bushwhacking adventure as I can get on foot and still be home for lunch.

Big Island.

Go back to look at that first photo.

The wedge of trees that seems to slice across the river (where the river actually bends South a bit) is a piece of land that is called Big Island and apparently has something of a local history. You can also read more about it at citymuseumedmonton.ca.

The green arrow highlights the view of the photo from the bridge I had referenced earlier.

I fully admit, I’ve been curious about these parts, and have wandered through the woods with my cameras (particularly through those trails on either side of the arrow I’ve drawn on the map) looking for something interesting.

However, renewed local chatter in the last few days that our provincial government may be working to designate Big Island as a protected provincial recreation area has me digging deeper into this mystery: the Mystery of Big Island (and why after fifteen years living so close I have never gone to check it out!)

I think I might officially have a summer exploration project. Visit. Take some photos. Learn more about this amazing local treasure that has been hiding right under my nose.

Stay tuned!