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.

Local Wayfinding

We often joke with the running crew that among the group a few of us seem to have GPS chips in our brains: we’re really good at find routes and getting un-lost.

But for those less gifted in the skillful navigation of unmarked paths, finding one’s way through the trails and wild spaces of the city can be a unique challenge and intimidating enough that some might choose to stay home rather than attempt it.

This is why I’ve been delighted to see some new wayfinding signs appear on the paths near my house.

Just a few weeks ago we ran by some concrete footings that were being installed for these new trail markers. I went for a walk this morning and a new trail marker with some basic navigation and trail information had been installed.

Clear maps.

Simple icons.

Distances and destinations.

Signs like these make it more clear that these spaces are meant to be explored and enjoyed, a symbol that is not always clear to everyone who lives here. Some people may be intimidated by the ribbon of asphalt that disappears into the trees. Still others may be newcomers to the city or even the country and not understand that trails like these are meant for all to enjoy.

Wayfinding serves many purposes, but even for those of us who have built-in navigation instincts, they make these natural recreational spaces easier to enjoy when everyone can enjoy them together.

Nature Burger

Ahhhh… nature.

Living in the suburbs, and in particular a suburb that butts up squarely against a natural river valley preserved against development, it’s not uncommon to have the occasional run in with wildlife. I’ll often see coyotes or deer when I’m out running and extending my range into theirs.

When the reverse is true, those critters extending their range back into our habitat, things take a turn for the strange and curious.

You probably don’t know a lot about this guy yet, but Gaige is the kind of guy who upon running up against a midlife crisis here in the digital era has decided that he wants to get away from his work-a-day lifestyle and spend more time out and about in the wood.

In fact, he started a YouTube channel and has been uploading amature documentary-style videos of his wandering “adventures.”

To date, this is basically a lot of nature walks and campfire cooking tutorials.

And, I know what you’re thinking: “Gee whiz, this guy sounds a little bit like the author of this blog I’ve been reading. Are you sure they’re not connected somehow?”

To which I reply: “We all have our stories to tell, and this is one of those stories.”

Because as certainly as Gaige and his dog are just starting to meddle in some small local adventures, the moment will certainly come when he’s going to start stepping a little further… and further… and further out of his comfort zone and trying to tackle the interesting types of things that attract viewers and subscribers and …

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For now you’ll just need to be contented knowing that as Gaige steps out into the world he’s bound to encounter a whole swath of surprises. And wildlife doing wild things are just the tip of a very big iceberg.

Urban Creek Run Club

Sunday Runday, and the weather improved by about thirty degrees Celsius over last weekend. I’m not afraid of the cold, but since I couldn’t run with friends I’m not running alone in brutally freezing temps.

This weekend we resumed our small band of cohort runners for the second real run club of the year, and located some urban trails closer to the downtown of the city where we could enjoy the zero degree weather.

The run included some scenic views of the downtown. (I used to work in one of those buildings! I guess I still do, I just haven’t been there in almost a year.)

We navigated our way through some of the asphalt paths, still crunchy with a layer of dirty snow, up and into one of the neighbourhoods, and then back into the creek valley via a staircase. My calves were not impressed. I guess I should go up and down my stairs at home a little more frequently than to just refill my coffee.

During the fall this is a lovely canopy of colours rich with that scent of gently decaying foliage. Today it was a well-trod winter path, wide enough to socially distance.

None of us were feeling particularly fast, but it’s been a long, cold off-season. Most of these folks should have been running marathons this year, but thanks to the pandemic it’s more likely to be virtual 10k races.

And yes, those are shorts… anything warmer than zero is shorts-weather around here.

And the creek, still frozen, beckoned us for a short stretch of our total distance. The water underfoot is frozen for about thirty or forty centimeters of ice thickness. If it happened to crack though, no worries: the creek itself is only about a meter deep.

Cold yes, but not too deep.

We concluded with some lawnchairs in the parking lot, drinking some coffees from a nearby local and independent cafe, bundled up in our blankets and trying to keep at least six feet apart while we recovered.

Hopefully the running season keeps at this pace, even though my personal pace could use a lot of improvement.