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.

Level Up

I don’t write about it much (or ever really) but I enjoy the odd video game in my downtime. When I need to relax or spend time with my daughter, the controllers come out and we play. When I don’t have the mental energy for a book or for writing, I flip on the PlayStation. And I usually go in for either puzzle games or, when I’m feeling ambitious, role playing games.

The conceit of most role playing games is experience gathering.

The idea of “leveling up” comes from taking on the role of a character in a game who needs to practice skills or abilities over and over again as the story progresses to become better, stronger, faster, more agile, or smarter.

Real life doesn’t often work much like a video game at all, but I do tend think one trope from the realm of digital entertainment translates quite succinctly from the real world in a way that is useful. It probably goes without saying that practicing any skill can make one better, stronger, faster, more agile, or smarter.

What was your biggest
achievement of the last year?

I could make a list of all the interesting skills and abilities in which I’ve challenged myself to “level up” this past year, but one only needs to scroll through the archives of this blog to see the writings I’ve already left here about many of them.

Instead, I’d simply suggest that the very act of trying to become a better learner, the notion of taking on new things, digging into interesting problems, tackling the unknown, and diving into literature and documentation to figure out stuff I didn’t know before, that act itself was a grand achievement of a sort.

It is notably easier to sit on the couch and watch other people do interesting things on television.

Heck, I often click over to YouTube and watch some other outdoorsman or culinary amature share their video blog of adventure, exploration, and investigation. It really is mindless to watch someone else cook a great dish. It is absolutely simpler to let the video run as someone else pitches a tent in the wilderness and roughs it in the winter weather while they narrate their camping trip to the camera. That’s basic.

What is far more difficult is writing down that recipe and trying to prepare it yourself.

The real challenge lies in conquering one’s own wilderness, be that deep in the woods or a campfire out the backdoor.

So what is my best achievement of 2021? I don’t want to brag, but tackling some interesting challenges has definitely left me (at least a little bit) better, stronger, faster, more agile, and possibly even a little bit smarter.

Thirty one topics. Thirty one posts. Not exactly a list… but close. In December I like to look back on the year that was. My daily posts in December-ish are themed-ish and may contain spoilers set against the backdrop of some year-end-ish personal exposition.

Day Hike to Troll Falls

Springtime in the mountains is unpredictable. It could be sunny. It could be snowing. It could blow in with a thick fog and lock the world into a magical claustrophobia inside the vastness of unseen towering rock castles.

Our first twenty-four hours in the mountains in 2021 saw all of those types of weather here, and more. We’re in the mountains for a short spring getaway, including some spring-slash-winter walks in the wilderness to refresh our souls for the upcoming adventure season.

Adventure Journal.

We woke to a spitting rain that was trying it’s darnest to be a snowfall, but by breakfast the weather had settled into a mere hazy overcast sky. Just down the road from our hotel (no camping for us this time of year!) was the trailhead to a short day hike into the woods to a waterfall we’d visited a few months ago in warmer days.

Troll Falls is a popular easy hike for all ages. In fact, we saw as many dogs and kids on the woodsy walk as we saw adults. And we brought one of each… to be fair.

There is some story behind where the name “Troll Falls” originates, too, and it’s linked back to the rocky cliff walls near the waterfall-proper pocked with small holes fit for the likes of the mythical trolls that might live there. I assumed they were all still hibernating during these still chilly days. I didn’t actually see any, though a deer crossed our path once.

Leading into the woods from the parking lot, the still-frozen path led us into a sparse, bare wood.

The trees here are a mix of pine, fir and poplar, the latter being still to early on for any sign of foliage, and the formers notoriously spartan even on a good day. Between the bare trees and the well-trod path (it is a very popular place to visit for most everyone who comes here after all) all this made for a sheltered but bright route.

There is nothing particularly remote about the trail, though. Apart from the fact that one is out and about in the fresh mountain air and at least a hundred kilometers from the nearest city, the trailhead is a mere fifteen minute stroll from a four-star resort hotel, and the route itself traces the lower perimeter of a former Olympic ski resort. Yet for the solitude and clear mountain air one may as well be tucked into a remote valley far from civilization.

Either way, we’ll take what we can get these days.

It was an ideal hike for the pup, tho. At just six months old she’s had a whole checklist of new adventures over the past thirty-six hours: a four hour car ride, a visit to two new cities, an overnight in a hotel, meeting a deer, the fresh mountain air, and now a wilderness hike up to a frozen waterfall. We’ll work up to bigger things and longer adventures slowly. An hour an a half through the woods tuckered her out solid.

The final stretch of the inbound hike brought us to the base of a small waterfall.

In the summer we had hiked up to the upper falls which were much more spectacular, but the steep ascent and the sketchy footing in the still-frozen spring meant that the interesting portion of the trail was still closed for the season.

Instead we crept carefully up to the foot of the frozen shards of falling water and snapped some photos at the base of the view. The cliffs all around it are only about ten meters tall, but they overhang with a teetering perspective that felt as though the whole thing could have collapsed in over us without a moments notice, snoozing trolls and all.


And as we made our way back along the icy path, the weather changed its mind yet again, the fog swelling up like a crashing wave over the nearby mountain and the snow spinning in the springtime breeze.

A short morning adventure concluded before lunch, and just in time to beat that unpredictable weather.

March Melt in the River Valley

So desperately am I looking forward to two things: being able to travel further than my neighbourhood and the now-six-month-old puppy being able to tackle a long hike.

Adventure journal.

The spring is being generous to us this year.

Last year (and I remember this specifically because it was the first couple weeks of local lockdown and I was keenly aware of the weather and the time I spent outside because of being stuck at home) we had a slow, wet March melt.

The snow lingered. The ice slipped up the sidewalks. Regular dustings of snow teased a late spring.

And I didn’t yet have a six month old puppy who needed long daily walks.

I live in a city of almost a million people, but I doubt more than ten thousand of them delve very deep at all into our local wilderness.

The local municipal government made some smart decisions a number of years back and created a kind of zoning exclusion to private development along the river. There are some houses and properties grandfathered in, but for nearly fifty kilometers of river it is managed wilderness, threaded with asphalt paths, single track trails, foot bridges, parking access, picnic areas, and boat launches. The single connected system has been calculated to be twenty-two times the size of Central Park in New York City.

And we live a ten minute walk from any of about six nearby access points.

I Took the Afternoon Off.

The dog needed a long walk as much as I did.

We slipped into one of the lesser known river valley access points, the kind where you step onto a gravel trail between some houses tucked into the back corner of the neighbourhood, then your take the left fork away from the main trail and out into what seems to be a small strip of unused agricultural land, follow a narrow single track trail into the trees and then wander your way down a moderate descent to the main asphalt path.

I’ve walked (or run) it a hundred times.

It was new territory for the pup.

And I was being cautious, of course.

The pup is still not fully grown, and she’ll always be somewhat small. Evidence of coyote scat leftover from the winter was all over the place. I’ve seen the wild hounds out there a few times, too. She wouldn’t make much more than a snack for one of them, though they’d be fighting me tooth and nail to get ahold of her. Fortunately they didn’t seem to be lurking nearby and are generally timid critters. We’re going to have an encounter eventually, though. It’s their habitat and I built my house on it. But it doesn’t mean we don’t keep a couple pairs of eyes and ears on alert even when we’re enjoying our walk.

The ground was squishy and the air was fresh.

As I said he March melt has been particularly generous to us this year. The temperatures were in the mid-teens and the wispy clouds let enough sunshine through to make the day more than enjoyable, particularly after that long, long winter.

But mounds of unmelted snow still huddled in the shady bits.

And the ground was soft and soggy where drainage was less cooperative.

The mud caked on my pant cuffs and also in the tuffs of fur around the pup’s ankles.

We trekked down through my familiar route, into the valley and meeting up with the trail where more people had the same Friday afternoon idea as I.

Five kilometers later we had circled back to the house, both tired but refreshed from the spring air, and had a small collection of photos to swipe through as we dozed together on the couch.