I go walking: Day’s end

I have finally touched down after ten days of swirling in a self-imposed tornado of Doing.  Too. Much.

I knew I would overdo it, in the same way I know I will always eat just a bit too much at Christmas Dinner. I have been alternating between volunteering at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and happily gorging on the overwhelming buffet of theatrical treats ranging from lovely to thought-provoking to “well at least I only spent ten dollars on THAT.”

Oh and this was after a full day at the office.

As usual, my sleep deprived immune system has punished me for my excesses by conspiring with a nasty head cold. But I’ll live.

Meanwhile, viral disciplinarians notwithstanding, life is pretty good. Daughter #1 is riding high on a prime new job opportunity, and daughter #2 has been safely dispatched to camp for four weeks. I am even feeling considerably less panicky about my grading deadline now that I am nearly halfway through my virtual “stack” of e-papers. (Funny– as much as I like not having to sacrifice so many trees on the altar of higher learning, I do miss the physical satisfaction of watching the “done” pile rise as the “to be done” pile wanes.)

Most of my walking over the past ten days has been Fringe Festival walking– treading the downtown pavement from my office to my volunteer venue to another venue to see a play to the food vendors gathered in Old Market Square. It’s a different kind of walking: a getting-somewhere walking as opposed to the more contemplative going-for-a-walk kind of walking that fuels my writing.

Tonight, however, I managed a loop around the golf course.

The old concrete sidewalk that formed the path under the bridge has, in the past few weeks, been chewed up and replaced with a pristine strip of asphalt twice the width (the better to accommodate bike traffic to the stadium, methinks.) There are enough little brown rabbits grazing the lawns along the riverbank to populate the entire works of Beatrice Potter. A pelican floated by on the river. I was surprised to see a group of pelicans in a nearby retention pond a few days ago. This summer is the first time I have ever seen them in city limits. Perhaps because there is so much excess water this year?

On my way back, the sky was beginning to redden, and I reflected on how little time it takes to notice the days begin to grow shorter. I was reminded, as I often am at dusk, of the time my youngest astonished her camp counsellor by being the only seven-year-old in the history of Zoo Camp to arrive already knowing how to use the word “crepuscular” in a sentence.

Ok boys and girls, we call owls and bats “nocturnal” because they come out to feed at night. Does anyone know what you call an animal like a deer that comes out to feed at dawn and dusk…?

And then, as if cued by my reminiscence, there were the deer. Two of them–one young and one full-grown.

Sometimes it’s good to slow down.

Blurry -- because my phone battery was dying along with the daylight, and my subjects were not interested in a close-up.
Blurry — because my phone battery was dying along with the daylight, and my subjects were not interested in a close-up.



Envirothon: “It’s a life thing”

I’ve just spent two hours driving down the Trans Canada highway with four 16-year-old girls. We were on our way home from a province-wide competition in which they (together with a fifth team-mate) placed third, and they spent much of the ride doing some intense debriefing. When they weren’t doing that they were, with equal intensity, already planning their strategy for next year’s competition. And then, as we drew closer to the outskirts of the city, this happened:

“Do you remember that really nice shelterbelt we saw on the way out of the city? I really want to see it again.”


“Yes that’s it! Look at it! Isn’t it beautiful?”

Whereupon my carload of city-kids proceeded to enthuse over the characteristics of a well- planted, well-tended shelterbelt until we hit city limits. And all I could think was, “This. This is why I think Envirothon is just about the most amazing thing ever to hit high school.”

What is this is phenomenon that had my suburban crew chatting animatedly about the finer points of agricultural land-use practices? The Manitoba Forestry Association website explains:

For 17 years the Manitoba Forestry Association has offered the Manitoba Envirothon which has provided Manitoba’s high school students a unique and fun way to learn about the environment and current issues. Envirothon is a hands-on learning program which helps students develop important skills such as critical thinking, study skills and team work.

There are two components to the Envirothon competition, a field test and an orals competition. The trail test is a hands on activity, students apply their knowledge to answer questions in the field. The oral competition combines public speaking with the students’ learning experiences to develop and present a solution to a current environmental issue.

I  have twice been fortunate to be able to accompany my daughter’s team to the provincial competition and view first hand the tremendous talent that kids from across the province bring to this activity —  as well as the equally tremendous effort and dedication on the part of the team of organizers and volunteers who toil year-round developing curriculum, designing field tests, and planning multiple events in order to maximize the number of kids who are able to benefit from participation.envirothon

When I talk about my daughter’s experience with Envirothon, I get every bit as excited as my young passengers did about that lovely shelterbelt (which, even without their level of technical knowledge, I could appreciate was quite spectacular.) I’ve watched these kids grow, not only in their knowledge of how to responsibly manage the world they live in, but also in how to strive for a goal, care for your team-mates, and think on your feet. I have witnessed these young women learn together to approach their defeats with perspective and resolve, and their victories with humility and grace. It is, as one of the organizers reflects in this video, “a life thing.”


The theme of today’s Daily Prompt is “Texture.”

Freezing 4Back in mid-November, when the river was just beginning to freeze along the edges, I stumbled upon a fascinating textural effect along the shoreline. There must have been a wind blowing as the clay along the river’s edge was freezing, because frozen into the ground were distinct ridges capturing in solid form the ephemeral texture of the water lapping against the muddy shore. I was lucky to catch this sight– the conditions must have been just right to create the effect. A day or two earlier the ground was still malleable. A few days later the frozen ripples were hidden by a blanket of snow.

When that snow melts in the spring it will raise the river and saturated the shore, so this particular texture will no longer be present on this surface. The surface itself will be submerged, hidden by real ripples of surging water.

freezing 2Even if I walked the same path every day, the magic of nature is that it continually offers up new gifts. Some of those gifts, like my rippling water frozen both in temperature and time, are ephemeral. If we don’t stop to notice– to accept the gift– we may not be offered a second chance.

I go walking: to work and back

Since my hip healed and my leave ended, I’ve been back at work for five weeks. No more leisurely strolls along the riverbank every morning after breakfast. No more quiet weekday afternoons to sit and write. It didn’t take long to slide back into the vortex of Being Too Busy.

As I expected. November and December are always busy months at my work. They are busy months at home too, with holiday preparations and school and extracurricular commitments. And now that the snow has arrived, it seems to take twice as long to go anywhere. (Put on boots, put on coat, put on mitts, brush snow off windshield, get stuck in traffic behind the over-cautious winter drivers, get stuck in the snow…)

But I’m still managing to walk nearly every day. It helps that the bus ride to work is sandwiched in between two ten-minute hikes. To get from home to the bus I traverse an expansive strip mall parking lot. It’s not a bad walk, so long as the wind is not blowing from the west. Even that is bearable thanks to my toasty new dollar-store earmuffs. There aren’t many cars in the lot in the morning– well, with the exception of last Friday, when the Black Friday shoppers were pushing their overflowing carts out of Toys ‘R Us and past the lineup at Future Shop before 8:00 am.

This is a "yak track." It's like strapping chains to the soles of your feet. Big traction!
This is a “yak track.” It’s like strapping chains to the soles of your feet. Big traction!

The sea of concrete has now been replaced with an ocean of ice and packed snow, so I have invested in a pair of “yak-tracks” in recognition of my difficulty staying upright on slippery surfaces. I really do not want to risk a fall on my new hip joint!

The trip downtown is one quick express bus, and then I set out on the second leg of my morning walk. This one zigzags around several blocks of hotels and office buildings. I have been in the habit of taking a shortcut through a downtown shopping mall, but lately I have taken the outdoor route, mainly because walking indoors on a tiled floor wearing chains on your feet is actually more treacherous than walking on ice, and it’s too much of a hassle to be pulling the yak-tracks on and off. Instead, I take outdoor shortcuts down lanes and between buildings. Here there is evidence that, while these routes are fine for rush hour, I would probably want to avoid some of them late at night. I can’t even begin to speculate on the story behind the abandoned pair of Y-fronts in one back lane. Much easier to imagine the story behind the sheltered corner littered with empties from some form of cheap liquor.

For the days when the temperature dips to the “unexposed skin will freeze in minutes” zone– guaranteed to happen at some point in a Winnipeg winter — I have the option of making the trek from bus stop to office though a comprehensive system of skywalks that link up downtown.

The skywalks have been my saving grace when it comes to keeping up some semblance of a walking routine. On the days when I can muster a proper lunch break, I can leave my desk and walk, indoors, far enough to feel as though I have had some actual exercise. I’m not alone on these walks — no contemplative riverbank scenes here. Here it is a river of people– other walkers-for-the-sake-of-walking like me, mixed with walkers who are purposefully en route to something. A meeting. An appointment. A lunch date. It’s not what you’d call peaceful, but the people-watching opportunities offer another form of contemplation.

At this time of year it is dusk by the time I leave the office. The dimming light softens the hard edges of stone and concrete, and the people clustered at the bus stop look weary and impatient to get home. By the time I get off the bus it is dark. If I have an evening commitment to get to, I stride back across the parking lot, which now involves weaving strategically through row upon row of parked cars. But if I’m not in a hurry, I take the long way around, down the street to the far end of the dike. There is just enough light from the streetlights on the bridge to illuminate the frozen surface of the river, framed by the skeleton-trees along the banks.

Sometimes I just stand on the dike and breath in the cold air, the view, and the peace I find in walking by the river–even when my life takes me walking in other directions.

Other people’s junk

Today’s Daily Prompt from the WordPress Daily Post is “Junk.”  Coincidently, I’ve been thinking about that very topic…

bottlesThe public stretches of riverbank attract folks with fishing poles and buckets of bait. Frankly the whole idea of fishing in the river makes me kind of squeamish. Lovely as it is to look at, it’s not the cleanest of rivers. And I’m not just talking about the mud.

But what I really mind about the fishers is what they leave behind.

Someone has abandoned two broken lawn chairs in one popular fishing spot. Someone has constructed a makeshift platform out of old plastic milk crates, presumably to provide some footing when the muddy bank is slick. Someone has left behind cups and bottles and cigarette butts.

chairThere’s a garbage can just up the hill by the path.

But hey, it’s up the hill, right? Who’s going to go to all that effort?

It seems like the effort to deal appropriately with junk is way too “uphill” for many people. It’s easier to abandon that worn out couch or mattress behind the dumpster instead of arranging to have it hauled away. It’s easier to pitch that big cardboard box into the dumpster than to take five minutes to break it down into smaller pieces that will fit in the recycling bin.  It’s easier to dump that old TV that no one wants than to carry it to the car and drive it to the e-waste depot.

cratesToday while I was out walking I passed by an empty bottle from some “good for the environment” biodegradable dish soap—lying by the road. Oh, the irony.

I also spied a neatly tied plastic bag—of the kind that come in long rolls that you tuck in your pocket when you walk the dog. Someone had gone to the trouble to clean up after their dog, and then for some reason left the bag and its icky contents sitting under a tree. Nice try folks.

And you really don’t want to get me started on cigarette butts. It was hard to be polite when I finally asked my upstairs neighbour to quit flicking his down onto my patio. Seriously buddy, how would you feel if I started tossing my garbage up onto your balcony?

Some days I’m tempted to take a garbage bag down to the river’s edge and clean  up the mess from the fishers myself. I may yet do it, because if those chairs are still there at freeze-up they will most certainly end up in the river when the ice thaws in the spring.

But it saddens me to think that if I clean it up—if anyone cleans it up—then those who created the mess in the first place will have gotten away with leaving me their junk. And spring will come. And there will be another coffee cup. Another broken chair. Because look, we dumped them here before and everything looks just fine.

I catch myself wondering how often I pick up other people’s junk and spare them the consequence of their own bad behaviour? And it occurs to me: I don’t think I’m talking about coffee cups and cigarette butts any more.


I go walking: North

(The first of a series of reflections based on striking out from home in each of the four directions)

River view 1The river outside my door runs northward. Sort of. That is, it starts to the south of here and ends up to the north of here, but along the way it does a lot of meandering to the east and west, and even the odd little southward switchback as it follows the path of least resistance along the gently sloping prairie. From where I live, a northward river walk begins with a stroll through a long narrow park that slopes down to my parking lot on one side, and farther down to the river on the other. The park is actually a dike, constructed many years ago to keep the river OUT of my parking lot (and my living room) during the annual spring flooding.  The dike is there for the utilitarian purpose of holding back the river – of protecting the neighbouring residents from harm, but the view from the top of the dike is spectacular, and every time I walk it I feel grateful to have stumbled on this location.

North - path 5Before long, the trail dips down off the top of the dike and winds through a wooded section closer to the river. Just a narrow dirt bicycle track, the trail snakes along the riverbank and reveals the back side of a series of apartment buildings that front onto the main north/south roadway in this part of town.

North - after flood 1Here you do see evidence of flooding. The clay-laden soil is cracked into a grey mosaic where the river has breached its bank and deposited a layer of silt along the shore. It can be hard to get close to the water. This cracked earth is difficult to walk on, and the shore in every direction is thick with ankle-stabbing thistles. But every so often there is a path through the tangled growth down to the shore and it is possible to get up close and personal with the muddy water.

The funny thing is that I feel no compulsion to actually touch the water. And not because it’s muddy, either. You see, having grown up in a house with a backyard that went straight down to the river, it was ingrained in me from a very early age to keep a conservative distance between me and the water’s edge. The result of this highly successful conditioning on the part of my parents was that I made it to the age of majority without drowning, in spite of our lack of a fence. But now as I stand—an adult— next to the sluggish late summer water, I know that muddy shoes are my biggest risk of going right to the edge.

North - mud 2Mind you it’s not a river you want to swim in, and I know that the placid surface masks a deceptive current. The river is to be respected. But I think I have internalized a greater degree of caution than the river warrants.

And it gets me wondering about all the other protective dikes I have built around myself. And how many times I have held myself farther back from the edge than was really necessary.