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.

Last Day of Summer

And just like that the leaves turned yellow, the air felt crisper, and another summer drifted into memory.

In three short months we managed to squeeze in quite a lot of action, particularlly considering that the world was still fairly locked down with this pandemic.

We visited the mountains for two weeks across two separate trips, completed a modest list of hikes, kayaked on a couple mountain lakes, photographed glaciers, and enjoyed the wilderness.

We cooked outdoors on our new backyard fire pit, roasting a crazy variety of meats, a gardenโ€™s worth of vegetables, and too many marshmallows to count.

We hosted friends in our backyard, spending lovely afternoons or evenings with (on different occasions) family for elaborate meals, co-workers for beers, friends for campfires, and my running crew for a brithday party.

We met our neighbours in the park, new friendly relationships spurred on by the magnetic conversation starting magic of a cute puppy who makes pals with anyone and drags me into it at the other end of a leash.

We ran as I hosted at least a dozen weeks of adventure runs around and just outside the city, encouraging a dozen (give or take) of my running crew to join me in exploring new trails and unfamiliar routes, often with an ice cream or beer at the end of it.

We enjoyed our own backyard.

We toured our own city.

We lived in our space, not always by choice, but making the best of the situation.

The summer of 2021 ends in a couple short hours and it may not have been perfect, but it certainly was not wasted.

Inflatable Summer

Our adventuresome summer is nearing an end as the last day of August brings that calendar page flip into sharp focus. The final third of the year is upon us once again, a time when the days turn shorter and crispier. And as hoped my writing and posting reprieve has given me a healthy backlog of blogging fodder which I’ll be dishing out over the next month or so.

Case in point: for us it took an unexpected turn into the summer of inflatable adventures.

Early summer, we bought two inflatable kayaks.

Mid-summer, we received just one.

Therein is a whole other story about the modern state of the supply chain and the demand for recreational equipment these days which I am mostly unqualified to write about. But if you’re reading an adventure and lifestyle blog, more than likely you are already familiar with the undersupplied market for bikes, skis, PFDs, things that float, things that grill, and all manner of consumer sporting goods.

We managed to snag one kayak from that panic, so for that I am grateful because the kayak we did receive quickly became a driving fixture in our weekend and holiday plans, stuffed in the back of our small SUV and pulled out at a dozen opportunities, both planned and emergent.

We inflated that bright yellow tandem boat beside multiple lakes, lakes in the mountains or on the prairies, out on open beaches, or pebble scattered shores, or on the grassy, wasp-swirled picnic areas while picnickers looked on curiously.

We bought the dog a floatation safety vest and she seemed to have found a curious comfort nestled between my knees as we rowed across the still waters of many random lakes.

We bought life vests, paddling gloves, and started talking seriously about things like paddle length and water clarity.

That first kayak has turned out better than I had hoped when I held my nose and clicked the “buy” button. After all, I had been comparison shopping kayaks for a few years, weighing the pros and cons of higher-end inflatables versus simple hard shells, comparing costs, transport and storage realities, quality, price, and a hundred other little things. The first kayak was us settling for something “cheap” because of those supply chain issues I alluded to earlier. We took what we could get.

The second kayak, the one for which the stalled shipping status never did change to a tracking number (and is still sitting in a vendor fulfillment queue somewhere!) is a kayak of marked superiority in both quality and function at least compared to the basically-a-toy rubber first kayak we did receive.

Yet the first kayak has brought us a heap of entertainment over the last month or so. I still check the delivery queue for the second almost daily, even as the days get colder and the kayak opportunity dwindles alongside the wait, but I’m all-but resigned to the one we have.

If I have learned anything of note from the experience of “settling” for a lesser product (and I don’t intend for that to sound entitled, merely that putting good money into bad equipment has always sat poorly with my frugal mindset) not getting the one you thought that you wanted after a couple years of thinking, planning, saving and eventually buying something, it is this: mediocre equipment is better than no equipment.

It is better to be sitting upon the water of a gorgeous mountain lake rather than standing on the shore watching. It’s better to have that inflatable summer than not.