Walking the River Valley

I live in a divided city—the North Saskatchewan River cuts Edmonton in half from the southwest to the northeast. It’s a physical divide, but even more it’s a psychological one. I grew up on the north side of town, but I’ve spent most of my adult life living on the south side.

It’s hard sometimes not to think of the river as a barrier. And the most dramatic view of the North Saskatchewan is from the top of the High Level Bridge. But if you get down inside the valley, then you begin to understand it as a living, moving body of water over and around which the city gathers.

From the Blog Archive, A Ghost Walk

Ghost tours are always fun. And now that it’s October, you can find a number of ghost tours happening around town.
In 2016, I was part of the Ghost Walk at the University of Alberta campus. The best thing about such tours is the stories you will hear from your guide. You can read more about that walk here.
And if you want ghost stories with a local flavour, check out Barbara Smith’s books, ghost Stories of Alberta and More ghosts Stories of Alberta. Happy October!

A Walk at Beaverhill Lake

Every summer, my friend Tom and I find a place to walk and enjoy the natural world. Last year, it was Newfoundland, but we don’t usually stray so far afield. This year we decided on the bird sanctuary near Tofield, just east of Edmonton.
It’s a short drive, as far as Alberta drives go, and we find the entrance to the sanctuary around noon. We pass through two gates and park in a farmer’s field to begin our walk. The rain has been absolutely incessant this summer, and this is one of the few sunny days in more than a week.
Good shoes, rain gear, and water are necessary on such a walk, but bugspray is essential in these woods. We follow what appears to be an old car track. The sun is out, and the trees are thick to either side of the path. We tramp along, me with my white cane and Tom with his walking stick. We talk, at first about the woods, the sound of the wind in the trees, and that we expected to hear more birds. We soon begin talking about books—books we’ve read, books we are reading
We walk for maybe two kilometres until we come to the bird observatory. Tents are set up to one side of the building, which turns out to be a group of teens enjoying a week of birding at the sanctuary.
Inside, we meet a lovely young woman who works at the observatory. She explains the work they do, showing us into what looks like a living room, where a whole crew is gathering for lunch. Apparently, the observatory has already started its fall migration banding program.
It’s a relief to be inside and away from the mosquitoes, but we don’t stay. We get some directions: they tell us the summer rains have flooded the paths nearer Beaverhill Lake, but we can take another path out to Lister Lake where we will find a rise that overlooks the marsh. And off we go.
***
We pass another set of birders on our way—this small group led by another young woman who stops to say hello. We ask about the practice of netting and banding small birds, and she explains how it’s done and how records are kept. No gloves and sharp beaks means sore hands and fingers for these birders.
As we get closer to Lister Lake, the path shows more evidence of flooding—the mud and water here is deep enough to lose a boot if we’re not careful. We have to move off the path, which is now under water, and make our way through the bush that crowds either side.
Eventually, we come to a low hill that overlooks the lake. Its more a marsh than a lake—crowded with cattails and bulrushes, with bits of open water among the reeds. We stop and listen. A deep silence underpins the sounds of the marsh—bird calls, the splashing of ducks, and the rattle of reeds in the breeze. The silence of this land has a quality, a shape left by retreating glaciers and countless days of sun and rain and snow. And this is, in part, what we came here to find, and what we will take with us when we leave.

A Postcard from New Zealand, The Man on the Mountain

We follow a path and steep steps going up the side of the hill. A tall, fibrous plant grows everywhere here. The educational centre at the parking lot tells us that the Maori peoples used this plant to make baskets, mats, and clothing. After passing a soccer field, we begin the climb up the side of the volcano.
My daughter and I are climbing Mangere Mountain, an extinct volcano near Auckland, New Zealand. This is one of nearly fifty extinct volcanos in and around Auckland. We climb higher along the rim, and we can see the remains of the terraces the Maori people built around the inside of the ancient crater for growing food. As we get to the highest point of the rim, we can see down one side across the city to the harbour, and on the other down into the centre of the volcano, where the lava dome is visible as a hummock of land.
As we stand, a man joins us on the rim. He walks with a staff, a twisted length of wood that he says was gifted to him by a Maori friend. He shows me the staff.
“My friend made this,” says the man, “and he just handed it to me and said it’s yours.”
The man has a long beard, with eyebrows to match. He is full of information about this place, this long-dead volcano that was sacred to the people who lived here.
He stands and explains the view, the harbour to the south and west and other volcanos in the distance. He says the lava dome at the centre of the volcano, with the two smaller craters to either side makes the inside of the crater look like a face.
“they call it the face of the god,” the man says, and he shows me the Maori symbol he wears around his neck. He tells us he is from the English midlands, and came to New Zealand eighteen years before, following is sister
We thank him and shake hands. We tell him our names, and he bids us a good journey. And as we walk away down the rim, we look back, and the man is no where to be seen. It occurs to me later, he never told us his name.

The One Thousand Kilometre Walking Challenge

Summer is a time for many things—working in the garden, lying in the sun, going on road-trips. This summer I decided to set myself a walking challenge. I walk every day, but I thought a challenge would help me walk more consistently.
Back in May, I came across my cousin’s Facebook post about the walking challenge he set for himself. I thought, what a great idea. My IPhone counts my steps, so I’ve been using the Health app to keep track of all my walking—whether it’s to the mall, to the train, on the treadmill, or just Out there walking.
My goal is one thousand kilometres by September 22. Thus far, since May 23, I’ve clocked six hundred eighty-one kilometres.
I’ve thought for years that Edmonton is too much of a car-town. As a pedestrian, parts of this city—depending on where you need to go—are practically inaccessible. Edmonton has a decent transit system, but the bus or train can’t get you everywhere—at least not in a hurry. And some places, not at all.
When my daughters are home, I have the luxury of a car. Much of the time, I rely on foot and transit. Edmonton is reasonably accessible, more than most cities in other parts of the world. I can’t speak for people using wheelchairs or walkers, but as someone married to a white cane, Edmonton isn’t bad. The endless construction, of course, is an obstacle for everyone.
If you want to set yourself a challenge this summer, make it a walking challenge, or even a pedestrian challenge. Walk and take transit for a week, and see how fast your life gets reorganized. Even if you just make an effort to walk more, you will be better off.
And as you fight the rush-hour traffic and the road-rage, watch out for pedestrians. According to a City of Edmonton website, on average, three hundred people in Edmonton are hit by motorists each year, and most of them in crosswalks.
I’ve had many close calls with vehicles, some of which ended in my cane getting mangled by a car. I’ve always thought my cane makes me more visible to drivers—but not always. Enjoy the remaining days of summer, and embrace the slow life by walking whenever you can.

Spring Walking, Spring Reading

As the days get longer, and the university term winds down, I find myself walking more and more. These days, I’m stress walking. It’s the kind of walking I do in the spring to help me recover from the year at the university. My average is ten to twelve kilometres a day—or so my IPhone tells me. That’s enough to help me sleep at night.
Apart from the stress, spring is the best time of year to walk in Edmonton. The days become longer and longer, while the geese, robins, and crows fill the evening air with a sound like longing.
The end of term is a transitional period—a stepping out of one thing and into another. It’s also that time of year in which we, who choose to live in these northern climes, embrace our seasonal amnesia and forget the six months of winter we’ve just left behind. We see the detritus of winter littering the ground, the dull nakedness of trees, the brownness of fields, and we think it’s spring. And every year it snows in late March, April, or May, just as it did this passed Easter weekend. But do we care? No, because the sun will shine and the snow will melt and soon the world will explode in a profusion of green.
In the meantime, I walk; I walk, and I read. I have to manage myself in these transitional periods. If I don’t, I will fall on my face from exhaustion as soon as the marking is done and the grades are posted. Reading and rereading is one way I manage myself. As I’m walking this spring, here are some of the books I’m reading.

Station Eleven
By Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven was the MacEwan book of the year for 2016-17. I read the book for that reason, but I also love dystopian fiction—and this one is by a Canadian. And, I was able to hear St. John Mandel read at MacEwan this past March.

The Handmaid’s Tale
By Margaret Atwood

And speaking of dystopian fiction written by a Canadian, I’m finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m not a big Atwood fan, and I had trouble getting through Oryx and Crake, the first book in her MaddAddam trilogy. However, I’m determined to read this book. I have a softer spot for Atwood after seeing her very disarming and personal talk at last year’s Kreisel Lecture in Edmonton.

Great Schools of Dune Series
Sisterhood of Dune
Mentats of Dune
Navigators of Dune
By Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

Herbert and Anderson continue their stories in the Dune saga, created by Frank Herbert. None of the books by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson match the books in the original series, but if you want to immerse yourself in a science fiction universe, this is one place to do it.

The Underland Chronicles
By Susanne Collins

Before she wrote The Hunger Games, Collins wrote The Underland Chronicles, five books about Gregor and his adventures in the underworld that lies deep below New York city. This is a lost civilization series, populated with giant bats, cockroaches, and rats, all in a battle for control of the Underland. Great coming of age stuff.

Warriors of the Storm
By Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles are set in the Britain of Alfred the Great, and each one is a wild ride—battles, horses, long boats, Northmen, and a mostly corrupt Christian church, all narrated by Uhtred of Bebbenburg. This is the ninth book in the series, and I’ve loved them all. Again, if you want to lose yourself in another world, and another time, check out this series.

Happy spring, and happy reading!