New Year’s Day Respite

img_1616My 2017 started with a ride in the snow – several inches of it – making for some epic cardio.  The impetus behind the ride wasn’t exercise, however, it was for a mindful escape from my relentless to-do list, a list that is ready to quantify my worth as a human being dependent upon how much of it is actually attended to prior to the end of the holiday season.img_1622

I found a quiet spot with a bench, and sat for a few minutes to view the river at its best: when it is frigid and slow, the surface as smooth as coffee table glass.

This cold morning will be complemented by a warm evening: there is a roast in the oven; a fireplace to be lit; and a bottle of red to be savoured.

 

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Book Review: Starting Out in the Afternoon

soitaI’ve been on the lookout for non-fiction written by women who have undertaken solo wilderness treks: I want to read something in the same vein as Cheryl Strayed’s notable memoir Wild. Despite the promising look of the cover, Starting Out in the Afternoon by Jill Frayne unfortunately isn’t it.  That said, Frayne’s story of adventure to and through BC  and the Yukon is noteworthy in its own right.

Firstly, the primary criticism I want to get out of the way is this: the book bills itself as “A mid-life journey through wild land.”  Wrong.  If a road goes there, then it ain’t wilderness. Most of the author’s destinations in this book are accessed via roads with a car as the mode of transport (with the occasional use of bike and bus).  Granted, the author’s kayak trip around Haida Gwaii definitely constituted exploring true wilderness, as likely did some her longer day hikes in the Yukon.  The majority of her adventure, however, took place in small towns, front country campgrounds, and in one instance a new age yoga retreat in the Gulf Islands: hardly ‘wild land’.  This bit of snipery aside (said snipery being fueled by my disappointment at this not being a ‘real’ wilderness story) Frayne’s travel memoir is still inherently interesting and gutsy in a different way.

Starting in her home province of Ontario, Frayne drove westward with the purpose of exploring the BC coast, Northern BC and the Yukon.  I admire her spirit of undertaking this trip solo, and her ability to rough it along the way by tenting.  Her tenacity in kayaking Haida Gwaii particularly impressed me: this junket of her trip was challenging in terms of both physical demands and skill, and the author rose to the occasion admirably.  The best part of Starting Out in the Afternoon, however, is undoubtedly Frayne’s writing.  She is a writer in every sense of the word: landscapes described by her become visceral, haunting scenes.  Frayne is intelligent and astute.  She is also broody and unflinchingly honest as she narrates her internal journey and challenges (she was grieving the loss of a long-term relationship when she undertook the trip) along with the external journey.

It is because of Frayne’s excellent writing that I stuck with the book as long as I did.  The more the book progressed, however, the more it grated on me.  Throughout much of the first half of the book are numerous reflections and lamentations about Leon, the object of her failed relationship.  The mention of Leon is understandable – it was the loss of this long-term relationship that in part sparked the desire for the author to do a major trip on her own in the first place.  But then, during the author’s sojourn through Northern BC, we encounter Bill: a campground worker with whom she has a brief fling for a few weeks.  After the fling is over, and it is clear that Bill wants to go his own way, the reader is then subjected to pages of the author’s despair regarding this, and numerous reflections of all aspects of Bill, including at one awkward point, his genitals.  Leon, I get.  But Bill?  Bill was just a dude – yeah, sure he had his good points: outdoorsy, charming, unpretentious, and according to the author – a decent kisser.  But ultimately he was just a dude she knew for a few weeks.  A dude, who in that few weeks also had noticeable faults: his penchant for driving drunk at all hours of the day and night being one of them.  So why all this grief over him?  By the time the author then moved on in her journey from Bill to someone named Jack, I was done, even though I was a scant 30 pages from the end of the book.

I was struck with a memory of what was probably one of the only moderately insightful lines from the show Sex and the City: “Why is it always about them?”  The line was uttered in complete frustration and disbelief by the character of Miranda, who was complaining about men being the reference point for virtually everything in the lives of her and her friends.  And so it is with Starting Out in the Afternoon.  Jill Frayne is intelligent, strong, independent, insightful, and resourceful.  Throughout her trip she had numerous breathtaking and unique experiences.  And yet it was up to the man she left behind and the men she met along the way to provide a focus for any meaning – even though her travels and the challenges she faced were meaningful on their own. Frayne’s flaw, if it can be called such, is a need to ascribe an overdose of meaning (with the Bills and the Jacks) where there is only a finite amount, at the expense of missing part of the meaning that was literally, in her case, all around her as she made her way through some of the most extraordinary landscapes on earth.

 

Winter River

img_1490Plummeting temperatures can be a boon to those seeking solitude outdoors: the more frigid the weather, the less far one needs to travel to find a tranquil spot outside.

Most of the populace here sequester themselves indoors as much as possible in winter (daytime temps of minus 24 degrees Celsius being not uncommon in my part of globe), and I’m certainly not knocking the appeal of the fireplace, NetFlix, coffee, rum and other indoor delights when the cold sets in.  For me, however, any indoor indulgence is always greatly enhanced by the power of contrast: getting out on the bike for a winter ride first, and then curling up with a book, blanket and a glass of red afterwards always makes that garnacha taste ten times better.  img_1518

On cold days the pathway that runs along the Bow River is noticeably silent, devoid of all but the most stalwart souls.  Perfect.  This is the river is at loveliest.

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Single Track Adventures in Bowmont Park: aka a 40-Year-Old Uncoordinated Woman Tries to Learn How to Mountain Bike

This morning I had my first wipeout on the trail.  I’m also down a pair of leggings after after they got chewed up in the chain ring on my bike.  And then there’s the humbling reality of being forced to face how out of shape I am to even be attempting a sport like mountain biking.  By all rights I probably shouldn’t be here: but I was – and will be again.

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View of river from the trail.

I went to Bowmont Park: a natural environment park which lies on the northern bank of the Bow river.  There are extensive single track trails that run along the escarpment here.  I was wanting to try a bigger challenge than the short, wide, gentle slopes of Nose Hill park.  The trails at Bowmont are still classified as being beginner level, so off I went to give it a go.  The trailhead is about an hour bike ride from where I live.  The wonderful mountain biking app Trail Forks saved me from making a zillion wrong turns, and got me to the trail head in good time.

At this point things took a down turn, as I was not very far along the trail before I encountered a section that I knew instantly would be completely unrideable by someone like me.  It was a steep  uphill climb along a trail strewn with scree and river rock.  I dismounted and proceeded to push the bike up the incline, sweat pouring in a constant rivulet down my back by the time I reached the top.  At that point my fatigue turned to dismay: the trail then dove in an equally steep downhill run, over more of the same scree/loose river rock.  I am learning how to take steeper downhill runs, but I don’t have the skills (or, quite frankly, the courage) to attempt downhill on scree and loose rocks.  At this point I then had to walk the bike back down the hill, trying to ignore any dog walkers or joggers who might be actively witnessing this spectacle.

I found my way back to the paved bike path (which roughly parallels the single track trail), and rode along it a little ways, trying to see if I could get a sense of what the trail would be like further up.  At one point I caught a glimpse of a couple with kids mountain biking on the trail, and my mood improved.  The youngest child looked to about eight: the trail must be very different and rideable at this point, there’s no way young kids could ride anything as steep and full of scree/loose rocks as what I had encountered earlier (or if they had ridden it, I am glad for my ego’s sake that I remain in blissful ignorance).

After spotting the family I found an entry point to the single track trail, and from this point onward all was well.  Better than well – exhilarating.  I was delighted to let the bike careen at top speed over the undulating crests and troughs of the escarpment.  The only hiccup was I got a bit too over-confident with my speed, and ended up riding off the trail while trying to make a turn – the result was that I had to bank the bike to avoid plunging over the side of the escarpment.  The ensuing wipeout didn’t hurt however, and as far as wipeouts go, it was pretty minimal.  I was a bit shaky, but I got on the bike again right away and my confidence returned.

My consensus of this outing is that this trail is a bit beyond me – but I feel a quiet happiness because it is not beyond me by much.  

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Fun part of the trail.
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Escarpment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Aspen grove at base of escarpment.

 

 

 

An Introvert’s Quest for Quiet Spaces and Hiding Places Part 4: Edworthy Park

img_1247I haven’t been doing a lot of exploration of urban parks lately due to a lingering cold that leaves me hacking like an octogenarian smoker every time I exert myself.  That said, I can only take being cooped up indoors binge-watching Netflix for so long, so this morning I made myself go for a very gentle bike ride to Edworthy Park.  Located in the SW just across the river from Shouldice Park, I find it interesting how much the two parks differ in terms of feel.  Edworthy is moodier. There are far more spruce trees here so it is denser, darker.  There is beauty here as with the other parks I go to, but be warned if you are feeling sad or a little depressed: Edworthy won’t let you escape those emotions or provide a distraction – it will take them and act like a living signal booster.

The Calgary landscape in late fall is a sobering  blend of blond, charcoal and bone white. img_1240The poplars, devoid of their leaves, look like naked crones hunched shivering in the shower, waiting for a cheap landlord to fix the hot water. The only splashes of vividness were the late fall colours of the wild roses and their hips. img_1258
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I stumbled across a dirt track that meandered along with the river to my right and the railroad tracks to my left.  Part of the track was covered with an archway of caragana.  The track led to a spot with a bench that was perfect to sit and watch the sluggish river and listen to the noisy chickadees.

The entire outing, however,  was not all romantic reflections of leaf-dappled pathways and mournful late fall landscapes.  Upon sitting on the bench and pouring my cup of Earl Grey tea, I proceeded to dump the entire contents of the thermos on my crotch.  Fuck it. Biking home with sodden nethers tended to cut short my appreciation of the landscape.  Unpleasant soggy bits aside though, I’ll be back this way.

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Nose Hill Park: Reprise

img_1150I made a sojourn to Nose Hill Park again this morning, this time to see the aspens and cotoneasters dressed up in their fall finery.   The colours did not disappoint, and as an unexpected bonus there was still some blue flax in flower.flax2img_1160

 

 

 

 

 

 

After breaking a sweat on the bike going up and down trails, I paused for some hot tea I had packed along.  The visual symphony combined with the cold air and the strain of exertion is why going for a fall bike ride remains one of my favourite things.

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An Introvert’s Quest for Quiet Spaces and Hiding Places Part 3: Shouldice Park

img_1095Fall in Calgary does not run red – gold is the predominant colour that beats through plant veins here.  The city is lit with poplar, aspen, saskatoon, and ash that are burning bright, putting up a fevered defiance before leaf drop.  Shouldice Park, located in the northwest along the river, provides a great excuse to experience fall at its best by bike and is an easy escape from urban drear. 

 The ideal time, from an introverted perspective, is to hit Shouldice at 9:00am.  This is late enough that most of the frenzied, gear-obsessed bike commuters who pass through the park en route to work downtown have been and gone, but still early enough for mums with young unruly kids to be blessedly absent (note: I do not hate young families – they are just not what I want to encounter when I need quiet time).  This is what I refer to as the ‘optimal zone’ for visitation at this park.

 Shouldice is a short 25-minute bike ride away from the downtown core.  Cold morning air combined with bright sun make for perfect biking conditions.  Pack along a thermos of hot ginger tea, and you have set yourself up for a blissful mid-morning break.img_1057

 By arriving in the ‘optimal zone’, I only encountered four other people on my most recent trip to the park.  One was a jogger whose presence was fleeting.  Next was a couple, talking fixedly about domestic concerns, walking along the path until they eventually left my field of view.  Last was an elderly man, dressed all in white ceremonial robes with red trim who greeted me good morning.  Eventually he too was gone.

 img_1099I parked my bike and climbed up onto the top of a picnic table and opened the thermos.  The contrast of cold toes and hot tea coupled with nothing to do but look at the river is the best form of img_1094revitalization achievable in under an hour I can think of.

An Introvert’s Quest for Quiet Spaces and Hiding Places Part 2: Nose Hill Park (aka introversion in the 4th dimension)

An important factor in finding a place sequestered from the masses doesn’t always depend on the intended location’s spatial coordinates but, sometimes more importantly, can rely heavily on the space’s temporal status.  Enter the super star of all possible timeframes palatable to introverts and you have the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning.  This is a time when many folk remain passed out in semi-drunken slumber, discontent with the knowledge that the weekend is a fading ghost of freedom soon to be exorcised by the onslaught of another soul-sucking work week.  Let them snore, drool and eventually rise to face the lineups of people queuing for greasy Sunday brunches – you have better things to do.

Enter Nose Hill.  This vast natural area is located in the northwest part of the city. IMG_0960.JPG  Go there at dawn and you’ll find it’s more than worth the pain of hauling your arse out of bed at an ungodly hour.  Nose Hill is comprised of rolling swaths of grassland interspersed with aspen valleys.  The early hour all but guarantees you’ll see multitudes of deer and numerous bird species.  I was lucky enough on today’s trip to see a Cooper’s hawk close up (alas, I wasn’t quick enough to grab a good photo, hence the bird-like spec in the photo below).  Coyotes are also in abundance on the hill, but unfortunately they chose to be reclusive (I do not judge them for this).

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For efficiency, and for the personal challenge, I chose to explore Nose Hill by bike. At dawn there are few visitors to the park, but what individuals are there can be easily outpaced and left behind (usually dog walkers or joggers) should they stray near one’s periphery.  Should contact be imminent (rare)  it will usually be by others who, like yourself, are wanting to escape the crowds and commune with this island of nature bordered by the seething sprawl of the city.  Polite greetings may be exchanged; enthusiastic remarks about the surroundings may be uttered; and in special instances a photo of wildlife may be shared if the photographer has been lucky enough to grab an exceptional shot with his/her iPhone. Inevitably, however, the respective need for large circumferences of personal space will be tacitly acknowledged and obeyed – this is what I like about early morning wanderers.

Nose Hill has many short trails of easy rolling single track which adds an element of fun to the experience if exploring by bike. I had a great time letting the bike fly down some gentle slopes.

IMG_0962The flora of this naturescape also made for a pleasant morning of discovery. Native lupines, blanket flower, and potentilla are a charming counterpoint to the grasses.  Rose hips have formed on the wild roses. Fall will be here soon.

 

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I left the hill at 9:00am – the parking lot was starting to fill up by then.  Time to go home and grab a morning nap – I’m glad I chose to get my sleep later.

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An Introvert’s Quest for Quiet Spaces and Hiding Places Part 1: Inglewood Bird Sanctuary

I am an unintentional city dweller.  I loathe crowds, tall buildings, traffic, and the noise and light pollution that is inherent to the average metropolis.  Save for the odd arts/cultural event, most of the charms of city living are lost on me.  Opulent shopping districts? I need a shower to wash the taint of overconsumption from my skin even at the thought.  Pretentious ‘theme’ restaurants and bars?  Yawn. Professional sports teams? Completely irrelevant in my reality.  I live in a city of over 1 million people by necessity, not by choice.

As a nature-loving introvert, my preferred escape lies out of the city in the surrounding foothills and mountains; however, as I don’t own a vehicle these escapes are limited to a handful of times of year, when I am able to borrow a car.  In order to maintain my somewhat tenuous sanity the remainder of the time, I have made it my mission to seek out and take full advantage of quiet green spaces in my city.

Part 1 is about Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, one of Calgary’s most vital natural areas. In addition to providing much needed avian habitat, it is a true godsend for those of us who would otherwise go apeshit trying to live a meaningful life in a hive of asphalt, concrete, and steel.IMG_0920One of the best things about the Bird Sanctuary is that you don’t need to travel to the outskirts of the city to get there: it is a mere  20-minute bike ride from the downtown core.  As an added bonus: it’s free.  The sight of this preserved wild space verges on surreal – it is so unexpectedly enchanting to find this kind of natural beauty in the heart of an urban hub.

 

 

Over-arching poplars shelter a vibrant understory of wolf willow, buffalo berries, IMG_0933and saskatoons. Herbaceous perennials in bloom include goldenrod, yarrow, and cattails.  The riverbank is lined with sun-bleached deadfall: nature’s lawn ornaments.

The pathway has several nooks with benches, perfect for spending  long moments shunning people (few will cross your path, particularly on weekdays,  making this a reasonable haven for misanthropes) while basking in the feeling of sun on one’s earlobes and the sight of innumerable shades of green, truly a colour created by the gods.

The only evil that keeps this place from being pure perfection is the white noise of traffic along the busy roadways that are close to the sanctuary, but given that this haven is so close to the heart of the city this is to be expected.

IMG_0938Recommendation: listen to tracks of nature sounds on your iPod while visiting the sanctuary.  On the one hand, it seems silly to listen to nature tracks with the sound of rustling grasses and bird calls when you are in an environment with, well, rustling grasses and bird calls, but for me this augmented the experience and successfully allowed me to mentally kill the last vestige of the city: traffic noise.
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Book Review: Alone Against the North

Adam Shoalts’ stunning piece of adventure travel writing/memoir Alone Against the North should be required reading for all Canadians: particularly for those of us who spend the majority of our lives in the limited geographic range of the 49th parallel.  There is a harsh and wondrous counter-reality that exists beyond all amenity, community, familiarity and comfort that most of us will never touch.  Shoalts enters this realm of raw wilderness and gives us an insight into a land unseen.

 

aloneAlone Against the North details Shoalts’ exploration of the Again river in the Hudson Bay Lowlands.   Shoalts was the first to explore and create a detailed map of the river, and was likely the first person, period, to traverse the entire course of the Again.  Interspersed throughout his narrative are doses of geographical history of the area, lending scope and context to his exploration.

The most striking part of Alone Against the North is how far Shoalts stretches the boundaries of physical and psychological endurance, boundaries that are repeatedly challenged by Shoalts’ unrelenting and at times feverishly obsessive drive.  In several places along his expedition the author has to portage his canoe and supplies through, over, and around chest-high brush, with each single portage requiring three trips to move all of his gear.  Shoalts frequently encounters unexpected waterfalls and rapids which smash him and his battered canoe against the rocks.  He has to contend with a half-starved polar bear who is tracking him.  Add to the above the misery inflicted by of all forms of biting insects indigenous to the Lowlands, painful injuries, and volatile weather and Shoalts could be forgiven many times over if he had said ‘fuck it’ and radioed for a bush pilot to take him back to civilization.

The author did this trek completely solo.  The physical risks inherent with this are obvious and numerous.  There are mental risks too: it takes a high level of self-awareness, naked honesty, and self-acceptance to be completely alone with oneself anywhere for long periods of time.  Shoalts is not a man who is afraid to be alone with himself in an environ completely devoid of human contact.  He accepts intense, continuous discomfort as a necessary tithe to be rendered in order to experience, what is for most of us, the incredible.

Alone Against the North left part of me wistful: if I could do my life over again, I would wish to live it in a similar vein as the author.  Mostly, however, the book left me awed.  Alone Against the North tops the must-read list for Canadian non-fiction writing.