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.

Backyard: Start Line

In recognition of yet-another-local-lockdown due to the ongoing pandemic, I'm doing a week of feature blog posts about living in the backyard. From May 10th through 16th, my posts will be themed around life outdoors but as close to home as possible, a few steps out the back door.

Sunday Runday and my usual social weekend run date has turned into a solo expedition from my backyard.

But training calls, and has little respect for blips in the calendar like global pandemics and provincial lockdowns and excuses about being stuck in one’s own backyard.

Knowing a convincing distance run (by which I really mean a modest ten kilometers these days) was going to take some additional motivation, I gave myself a mission: I would visit the graffiti tunnel.

While I can hardly claim to had discovered a concrete underpass painted thick with years of graffiti, I’d like to think I may have seriously helped popularize this local off-the-beaten-path bit of culture.

The construction of a highway ring road around the city completed construction of this leg just over a decade ago, and in planning for future southward expansion of the park system, the designers incorporated a culvert-style concrete tunnel with a suspended walking path to accomodate the local creek and pass everything under the roadway above. The catch: the footpath was connected to nothing. It was little more than a bit of infrastructure for the future.

For years few people noted this as anything more than a strange sort of bridge on the highway passing over a bit of wilderness.

Then about five years ago I got adventurous. I went out on a long run (very much like I did today) and followed an old stretch of closed off road, went down through the trees, climbed down a grassy bank along the highway, and found myself in a graffiti-filled wonderland.

Obviously the countless people who had decorated the place had known about this secret for a while.

After sharing my photos on the socials and telling my run crew, I spent that summer leading multiple adventure runs into the off-trail wilds that led to the secret Edmonton graffiti tunnel.

The next year other run groups, led by runners who had been along on my previous adventure runs, were posting their own shots from their own treks with larger groups of people, and the summer after that my feed was routinely populated by people who had driven from across town or from different cities to run down to this photogenic secret spot.

By the summer of 2020 I started seeing the graffiti tunnel appear in semi-pro photo portfolios of local photogs I follow, blogs writing it into their local attractions guides, and even the radio stations promoting it as a hot thing to check out on a weekend.

It had become mainstream, even to the point that it’s not unsual to see cars (illegally) parked along the aforementioned highway as their occupants take the shortcut down the ditch path to check out the tunnel.

This morning, five klicks into my solo long run, I was the only one wandering through the graffiti tunnel, kinda like my first trip five years ago.

Very solo.

And if I couldn’t run with friends, at least I could visit an old favourite spot.

Addendum: as I was writing this, one of my running crew with whom I have been running cohort through the pandemic posted the update from her Sunday solo run. She had run from her backyard too, and made her way to the same tunnel. We’d missed each other by less than ten minutes.