Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Further Reflections on the Swift Current to Battleford Trail Walk




I’m still thinking about the Swift Current to Battleford Trail walk and the reasons I found the experience so meaningful. I’ve come up with several, and it’s likely that if I keep thinking about the walk I’ll come up with others. But this is what I’m thinking this afternoon.



I’ve lived in Saskatchewan for almost 20 years, but my life in Regina has given me few opportunities to make connections with people in rural areas of the province. The walk helped me to understand more about the lives of those people, their concerns, their needs. I was moved by the pervasive sense that rural Saskatchewan’s best days are behind it, and I came to admire the way that the people living there are defending their communities and their way of life. Hearing the stories of ranchers and farmers was an important part of the walk for me. At the same time, particularly towards the end of the walk, I noticed a stark division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, and seeing that division first-hand has helped me understand some of the uglier aspects of life in rural Saskatchewan, such as the killing of Coulten Boushie last year. The walk, in other words, was an important learning experience for me.



Getting to know the landscape by walking through it was a powerfully intimate experience. This might be hard to explain to someone who hasn’t participated in a walk of this kind, but when you walk through a place, you engage with it using all of your senses. You don’t just see the landscape, the way you might through the windshield of your car; you hear the birds and the wind, you smell the sage, you feel the dust and the heat of the sun. Moreover, you experience place with your body as you walk. A hill isn’t just a hill; it’s something you feel in your legs and back as you ascend or descend. A walk of this kind is a visceral and physical experience, and the Swift Current to Battleford Trail walk was powerful for that reason.



The walk was also a physical experience of history, and the physicality of that experience was important. One could learn about the Trail by reading about it, for instance, but walking the route of the trail—particularly walking in the ruts created by the wagons and Red River carts 130 years ago—is a more powerful experience of that history. At times we were literally walking in the footsteps of the teamsters and soldiers and settlers and others who used the trail, and I found myself thinking about the differences between our experiences and theirs. So the walk became an example of the past coming to life.



At the same time, the walk gave me a chance to think about the events of 1885. That history is still hot, still controversial, especially around Battleford. And thinking about the different users of the Trail—the soldiers marching to Fort Battleford, for instance, or the Métis freighters who brought the Trail into being—helped me realize that the stark divisions between the ways that different groups view that history have their roots in the events of that history, in the events of the 1870s and 1880s, and that those events continue to shape our ways of seeing each other.



All this thinking happened in part because a long walk, even with a group of people, gives one a lot of time to think and imagine and consider. That too is part of the nature of a long walk, part of what makes that kind of walk so valuable.



I’d also like to think the Swift Current to Battleford Trail Walk had an effect on the communities the walkers passed through and the people they met. One would have to ask the people living in those communities, of course, but my sense is that it’s rare for outsiders to take an interest in the history of those communities, and that by engaging with that history the way we did, we showed those people that their history is important and valuable and worthwhile. It’s even possible that by showing an interest in those communities, we helped to confirm their value and purpose. I think that’s true of the settler communities we passed through, but it might be true for the people we met at Mosquito First Nation. When you listen to someone’s stories, you confirm that those stories are worth hearing. And those stories are worth hearing: we need to pay more attention to each other, to listen to each other.



Given the logistical complexities of the walk—the need to make arrangements for places to camp, or to organize sources of water—it would’ve been difficult for any of us to have these experiences without the support of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society, and in particular the detailed planning of Hugh Henry. I’ve said that in previous posts, but Hugh worked for a year to make that walk a reality, and nothing would’ve happened without him. Plus he can find his way through a community pasture like nobody else. So thanks again, Hugh!




Swift Current to Battleford Trail: Herschel to Fort Battleford



I set out to write a straightforward narrative of the second half of our journey in this post. Of course, the time to write that kind of narrative would’ve been during the walk, if I’d had the time and the cell signal and the battery power to write a blog post every day, which I didn’t. So instead, while the photos in this post are in chronological order, the text is more reflective, a series of musings on what I learned while walking from Swift Current to Battleford.



We arrived at Fort Battleford on Sunday afternoon after walking some 350 kilometres. At Battleford, we were met by two very different groups of people: folks from the local historical society, on one hand, and Cree drummers, singers, and dancers, on the other. It was as if we were seeing the history of the area, and by extension the history of western Canada, from two very different perspectives. And not just history, either: we were also seeing two different versions of our present and future, too.



As we got closer to Battleford, the conflict between those different visions of our past and present and future seemed to become more stark. After Hugh’s presentation on the Battleford Trail at Cando, for example, a friendly woman told us how frightened she’d been when she saw us walking past her farm. Strangers had recently come into her farmyard, she said, and she’d wondered who we might be and what we were up to. That remark reminded me of the shooting of Colten Boushie last summer–another stranger who wandered into a farmyard–and of the fact that my white skin would likely protect me if I entered a farmer’s yard uninvited. What’s behind the fear she described? Who was she describing with that word “stranger”? Is her fear related to the proliferation of signs reading “No Trespassing” as we got closer to Battleford? As an outsider to that part of Saskatchewan, I couldn’t help feeling that we were seeing the outlines of a deep racial or cultural divide. “There are 13 reserves around the Battlefords,” one fellow reminded us–a suggestion, perhaps, that the settlers in the area feel surrounded. Of course, it was the federal government’s decision after Treaty Six was signed in 1876 to force chiefs who would have preferred reserves somewhere else to settle around the Battlefords. The federal government’s subsequent behaviour led to the tensions that erupted in 1885, despite the efforts of chiefs like Poundmaker and Big Bear to prevent violence. And the town of Battleford was one of the centres of the events of 1885.



So much of the history of Battleford looks back to 1885. I suppose that’s not surprising: it was an important event, one of the few times that Indigenous people and the Canadian state engaged in open warfare. The fellows from the historical society showed us the land titles building, the first brick building constructed in Saskatchewan and the only structure from the original town of Battleford that still stands. Much of the town was burned in 1885, and as a result it was moved across the river, closer to the fort. More recently, vandals burned down the few remaining buildings, including the former Government House. After the capital of the Northwest Territories was moved to Regina in 1883, Government House became an Indian Industrial School, and many former residential schools have burned down, by accident or on purpose. That wasn’t the only way Government House was used–after the Industrial School closed in 1914, it was a Seventh-Day Adventist boarding school, and in the 1930s it became a Catholic seminary–but as I looked at the foundations of the building, it was the Indian Industrial School I was thinking about, and its nearby graveyard, where some 50 students at that school are buried. “Students got a top-notch education at the residential school here,” one of the local historians told us, and I had a hard time squaring that description with the school’s deliberately genocidal purpose–and those graves. I walked away and left some tobacco at the bottom of the building’s chimney in honour of the children who’d been incarcerated inside those walls. I would’ve left it at the cemetery, but that’s on private land and we weren’t allowed to go there.





The fellows from the historical society were primarily interested in the settler’s perspective on the 1885 Rebellion, or Resistance–the different connotations of those words are signs of our continuing divisions–and the military details of that conflict, rather than in its causes or what it might tell us about Indigenous-settler relations, then and now. They pointed out chips in the land titles building’s bricks that were, they said, caused by rifle fire from First Nations warriors. Later, they showed us trenches on the other side of the Battle River where Colonel Otter’s Gatling gun and riflemen had been positioned. Then we walked up Colonel Otter Drive to Fort Battleford, where settlers took refuge in 1885. There we were treated to a demonstration of Plains Cree dancing, singing, and drumming. We were told how the dances and songs have developed over time, where they came from, and what they mean. There was a sense of a living and changing tradition, and an openness to the future that was absent in the descriptions of the past we’d heard earlier that morning. Then Hugh and Rick spoke about the walk, about what we’d tried to accomplish, about what reconciliation between these very different perspectives on our past and our future might look like. Afterwards, we began to say goodbye to each other. We’d been strangers to each other when we met in Swift Current 19 days before, but we’d become a little community as we walked together, and it was sad to see that community break apart.




Perhaps the settlers’ focus on the past isn’t surprising. After all, rural Saskatchewan’s best days might’ve been some time before the disaster of the 1930s, which led to a process of depopulation and abandonment that appears to be accelerating. We passed many cairns and signs commemorating towns or schools or post offices that had disappeared years before. We stayed in ghost towns and abandoned farmyards and in communities that were struggling to survive. There’s no surprise in any of this, of course. Given high costs and tight margins, the only way to survive in agriculture is to operate the biggest farm you possibly can, and the fewer farmers there are, the harder it is for villages and towns to survive. And most of the communities we visited lost their elevators and rail lines decades ago, when the grain handling industry shifted to bigger inland terminals. When that happened, those communities also lost their economic purpose. Ever since this land was pulled into the global capitalist system, it has seen wave after wave of rapid change: the fur trade, the extirpation of the buffalo and the destruction of the grassland ecosystem, the forced relocation of First Nations people onto reserves, the development of homesteads and towns and grain elevators and rail lines and their subsequent abandonment. The signs of that abandonment, the decaying buildings and empty farmyards and struggling towns, create a pervasive sense of melancholy.






The landscape we walked through was spectacular–huge fields of barley and wheat and canola beneath incredible skies–but at the same time it’s an industrialized landscape. Nature has been pushed to the margins, for the most part, to road allowances and ditches and occasional patches of native grassland. That doesn’t mean nature isn’t present. Badgers and skunks crossed the road in front of me. Hawks kept us under surveillance, suggesting there must be mice and voles and gophers, too. We saw lots of deer and antelope, and listened to the songs of coyotes every night. But it does mean that the landscape is devoted to a single purpose: producing food. Sometimes that means the road allowances and ditches disappear under cultivated fields. And it almost always means that the fields have been treated pesticides and herbicides and desiccants–as we walked, we saw crop-dusters flying overhead and spraying rigs in the fields, looking like huge, ungainly insects. Someone must be making money from all this activity, but it isn’t the farmers. I remember Harold asking one fellow who’d stopped to chat with us about the yield he was getting from his fields of peas. “Oh, maybe 20 or 30 bushels an acre,” he replied. “Well, that’s enough to get your inputs back,” Harold said. Whether that was encouragement or commiseration, I wasn’t sure, but one thing was clear: breaking even is sometimes all you can expect when you’re a farmer in this place. It’s a hard job, one I could never do. I just don’t have the necessary skills, or the fortitude and optimism that’s required.






Farming isn’t the only industrial use of this land. I remember my surprise when we saw our first pump jack, on the third or fourth day of the walk. For a while they were commonplace, along with oil storage tanks and oilfield service vehicles and a railway siding filled with black tank cars for carrying petroleum. We passed signs identifying the oil companies responsible for particular wells, and everywhere we saw signs telling us that we were crossing oil or natural gas pipelines. The money that comes from surface leases might be important to some farmers, but others clearly wish that industry wasn’t there. “I don’t like looking at those tank cars,” a woman at Otter Springs told us. “They don’t belong on the prairie.”





Otter Springs, in the Bad Hills, had been one of the stops on the Swift Current to Battleford Trail. A roofed dugout there had accommodated passengers on the stage coach. It was comfortable enough, apparently, as long as you didn’t mind sharing your bed with a host of mice. The place got its name because of the fresh water that flows out of a spring in a coulee. There’s a wooden well there, but we tasted the water straight from the spring. I was apprehensive about doing that, because of the cattle wandering around the pasture, but the water tasted sweet and clean. We were told that Indigenous people sometimes conduct ceremonies at the springs, and in such a dry land, it’s not surprising that fresh water would be considered sacred. After all, the water in most of the sloughs we passed would be salty and undrinkable, even without the addition of chemical runoff from the surrounding fields.




Water was a constant concern on the walk. In some places, there was no water available, and we had to rely on the water we were carrying in our support vehicles. In other places, the water wasn’t fit for consumption: signs over the sinks at the community hall in Cando warned us to use hand sanitizer after washing our hands. But while we had enough water for cooking and drinking, we rarely had enough to wash ourselves or our clothes. When we decided to stay in hotels–at Kyle, Elrose, and Biggar–it was primarily for the luxury of hot running water–and because we needed showers. Badly.






Even though we needed those showers, the people we met along the way were always friendly. The people from the historical society in Battleford bought us coffee and doughnuts and sandwiches. As we passed a Hutterite colony, the women came out to greet us and give us cucumbers and carrots from their garden, and cinnamon buns from their kitchen. That same rainy day, we were invited into a farmer’s home for hot soup and coffee. Several times farmers invited us in for muffins and coffee or cold water–so welcome on a hot day, when the water you’re carrying is, at best, lukewarm. When we stayed at Mosquito First Nation, the community provided us with supper and allowed us to stay inside their community centre because the weather forecast was calling for cold and winds too strong for tenting. The drivers of passing vehicles always waved, and sometimes they stopped to ask how we were doing and if we needed anything. And many people we met shared stories with us, which helped me, as an outsider to rural Saskatchewan, to understand something about what it might be like to live there. We heard stories about ranching and farming, but also about what it’s like to live on a reserve and to be a residential school survivor. Those stories enriched our experience of the walk, especially the ones that were difficult to hear, and I’m so grateful to the people who shared them.






I’m going to keep thinking about this walk, about what I learned, about the community we created as we walked, about the landscape we walked through, about the kindness of the people we met. I learned a lot during the walk, but there’s still much I don’t know, much I don’t understand. And I’m going to keep feeling grateful for the privilege of making this walk, for the people I met and the people I walked with, and for Hugh Henry’s work in making this pilgrimage possible.



Swift Current to Battleford Trail: Swift Current to Herschel, continued

When you walk close to home, you begin to develop a deeper intimacy with a landscape you already know–if only slightly. It’s quite different from walking in Europe, for instance, where I find myself guessing at the names of plants and birds. Here, while I  struggle to distinguish durum from barley at a distance, and I find myself wondering if the dominant grass in a patch of unbroken grassland is rough fescue or something else, and although I can’t distinguish birds by their song very well, I still feel a kinship to this place. At times that kinship is a burden, and at other times it’s a gift. I find myself being constantly reminded of the history of this place, a history that, as Candace Savage says in her book Geography of Blood, encompasses an ecocide (the destruction of the buffalo and much of the grassland that existed here before settlers arrived) and a genocide (the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from this place, their incarceration on reserves and in residential schools). People like me have benefitted from those events, because they’ve made it possible for us to live here in the style to which we’ve become accustomed. We might not be responsible for them–we are not our ancestors, after all–but because we’ve benefitted from them, we’re still answerable in some way. Exactly what that answerability might look like is something we’ve talked about after our morning smudges. There’s some general agreement that feelings of shame and sadness aren’t productive, but still, when we stopped to look at a buffalo rubbing stone on our third day of walking, and as Rick made an offering of tobacco there, I felt overwhelmed by those emotions. It was the most powerful experience I’ve had on this walk.

Our departure from Swift Current coincided with a Métis culture camp, and after words were spoken by representatives of groups that used the Swift Current to Battleford Trail–a Métis elder, an RCMP officer–a large group of people followed us to the edge of town. Then they turned around, leaving only the most foolhardy to continue walking north. Hugh had let a Hutterite colony know we were coming, and they invited us to have iced tea and cookies. It was a hot day and the cold tea was delicious. They showed us their preserves, too–each bottle a work of art.

Then we spent the night in a farmyard, where we were served the most delicious chili I’ve ever eaten–and it wasn’t tasty only because of the day’s walk. The following night we spent in another farmyard. Gord, the farmer, told a story about his father’s experience of farming back in the 30s. “He shipped two cars full of lentils and got a bill for $17,” Gord said. That was the end of his father’s career as a farmer, but he was still drawn to that way of life, and made sure that his three sons each had a farm.

In the morning we pushed on, across the South Saskatchewan River towards Kyle. It rained a lot that day–and even though that makes walking inconvenient and uncomfortable, in a dry land like this one isn’t allowed to complain about rain–so we stayed in the hotel and treated ourselves to supper and breakfast there. I was particularly exhausted that second day, because I was carrying a heavy pack as a test to see if I could make a walk similar to this one alone, without support, at some future date, and I learned that at this point I’m not fit enough to carry 20 kilograms over 30 kilometres. I’d better make this walk, I thought, rather than treating it as a dry run for some future walk that may or may not ever happen, and in the morning I switched the heavier pack for a much lighter one. Much happiness has followed that decision.

On the way out of Kyle, we met Amy, the proprietor of the Kyle Times, who warned us that the dessicants farmers spray on their fields of peas and lentils aren’t good to breathe. “There’s always drift,” she said, “and you’ll need to have something to cover your faces.” But so far we haven’t run across any dessicants being sprayed or any herbicide drift of any kind, although while we were looking at the petroglyphs today a cropdusting plane was buzzing back and forth on the horizon.

We spent the night in Sanctuary, a ghost town that has metamorphosed into a large farmyard. Most of the buildings are gone. We made camp next to a lumber shed, one of the few remaining structures. Despite the drought this year, the nearby slough is in flood. That’s been the case throughout this walk: the land is still working through the consequences of the past several wet years.

We were scheduled to spend the following night in a farmyard at Otter Springs, one of the important stops on the Swift Current to Battleford Trail, but the weather forecast was calling for rain, so we stayed in nearby Elrose, where we had a communal meal of chili and rice and red wine. On the Camino, communal meals help to develop connections within the group, and the same was true for us in Elrose. That made a difference the following night, in Greenam, another ghost town, where we all slept on the floor of what had been the local school and is now a community hall. It’s a small room, and the chili was working its magic on everyone’s digestion. The farts and snores were easier to take now that we knew each other better–and besides, I was wearing earplugs.

The next night, we slept in an abandoned farmyard known to the locals as Cappie’s Trees, after the family who homesteaded there in 1917. They’d abandoned the farm in 1937–a year many farmers finally gave up struggling against the drought and low prices–and the foundation of their home is still there. We’d walked across the Fairview Community Pasture to get there, and it had been a great if exhausting day of walking. Several local farmers and ranchers came by to say hello. One was the grandson of the people who had lived there; another was a retired RCMP special constable, who walked with us for several miles the following day; and another was a local rancher who is part of the group who now leases Fairview from the provincial government. He told us that just an hour or so before we got there, a bull had been lost in the caraganas that sheltered us from the wind. They’d tried everything, he said, and they simply could not get him to cooperate and return to the herd. “We knew you folks were coming and we were getting a little worried, but eventually he went back to the cows by himself,” the rancher said. He told us about ranching and about the management of community pastures and the conflict between farmers, who till the land, and ranchers, who prefer to see it left as grass. “This was pretty fair country until the farmers found it,” he told us, and thinking about our hike through the community pasture, across the Bad Hills, I found myself agreeing with him.

The next morning, we headed for Fiske. Hugh was giving a talk at the community hall there that night, and we set up camp on the lawn outside. It was a good campsite: there was running water inside and a flush toilet, something I missed at Cappie’s Trees, where I found myself having to relieve my bowels the way most of the rest of the world does it. I felt a connection to the majority of humanity and broke through a psychological barrier, although I’m not keen to repeat the experience right away. There’s a bar in Fiske, and we ate dinner and breakfast there. Then we started walking to Herschel, where I’m typing this on a long table in a sunny room at the Retreat House. Tonight we’re having another communal supper–spaghetti and meatballs, I hear–and tomorrow we start walking north again. I’m glad we got this break, because I needed a rest, and there’s a huge, broken blister on the sole of my left foot that needs some attention, or at least a respite from walking. And I just heard someone say that there’s cold beer in the fridge. That seems like as good a reason as any to stop writing and find something else to do with the rest of my afternoon. The next time I get a chance, though, I’ll pull out my keyboard again and let you know how things are going.

Swift Current to Battleford Trail: Swift Current to Herschel

My intentions were to blog every day about this walk, but I hadn’t taken into account the amount of time it takes to set up camp and cook. I’d thought that it might be hard to find a cell signal, but that hasn’t been much of a problem. And the solar panel that’s attached to my pack has been doing a pretty good job of keeping my phone charged. But aside from a few cryptic Facebook posts, I haven’t had much of a chance to share stories of this walk–until now. We have a rest day today, at the Herschel Retreat House, and assuming the cell signal here holds out, I’m going to pass along a few stories and photographs from the first half of the Swift Current to Battleford Trail walk.

Yes, the first half. We’ve covered some 150 kilometres–and one of the interesting things about this walk is the way that those kinds of numbers become less important over time–and we have about the same distance left before we reach Fort Battleford on the 20th of August. In fact, we usually use Imperial measurements to assess how far we’ve walked, because that’s how the roads we walk along were surveyed back in the nineteenth century: a mile between roads running north-south, and two miles between roads running east-west, except when there’s only a road allowance, or when there’s some kind of obstacle, like a slough or a coulee. Occasionally we walk on roads that deviate from the grid, and that’s always a treat. And sometimes we walk across pastures or on road allowances. But mostly our path takes us along hard, stony grid roads.

Who are “we”? Who is crazy enough to attempt this journey? Well, Hugh Henry from the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society is the primary organizer of this pilgrimage. He’s been planning this journey for more than a year, researching the history of the Swift Current to Battleford Trail, figuring out where it ran and determining a route that follows its path as closely as possible–because most of the trail is now beneath cultivated fields. Hugh has also been talking to landowners about our trek, getting permission for us to camp in their farmyards. It’s been a tremendous amount of work and we’re very grateful to him, because without Hugh, there would be no walk.

The other instigator of this journey is Matthew Anderson, who teaches courses on pilgrimage at Concordia University. Hugh and Matthew organized a walk along the Wood Mountain-Cypress Hills Trail two years ago. I heard about that pilgrimage when it was happening, but at the time I was still a full-time student and couldn’t get away to walk with the group. When I heard about this walk, I was overjoyed, because after walking through the Haldimand Tract last year, I became very interested in the possibility of pilgrimages close to home, pilgrimages that don’t require a flight to Europe or Japan, pilgrimages through the territory where I live–in the case of this walk, Treaty Four and Treaty Six territories in southern Saskatchewan. I contacted Matthew, who put me in touch with Hugh, and I’ve looked forward to this experience for the last year. Matthew leads his students in a pilgrimage to Kahnawake, south of Montreal, every June, and some day I’d like to tag along on that walk.

Harold and Rick walked the Wood Mountain to Cypress Hills pilgrimage in 2015, and they both decided to be part of the current walk. Rick is from Regina. He’s Métis and has led us in smudges and prayers every morning. Before beginning this walk, an elder told me to smudge every day, and Rick has made it possible for me to do that. Harold’s from Swift Current. He’s 81 years young. He would never accept this description of himself–he would wave it away with a dismissive gesture and say it wasn’t accurate– but we all admire his toughness and his wisdom and the speed at which he walks. I find it hard to keep up to him, and invariably he’s the first one to reach our destination. Both Rick and Harold end their walk here in Herschel, and we’re all going to miss them very much.

The other walkers who started out in Swift Current are Don, from Regina; Fred, from Waterloo, Ontario; Connie, from Frontier, Saskatchewan; my partner Christine, from Regina. We were mostly strangers to each other at the beginning of this walk, but we’ve formed a tight Camino family over the past week.

Others have joined us at different times: Phil and Lorne and Kay. Lorne walked with us across the Bad Hills and the Fairview Community Pasture, and his partner, Linda, made dinner for us when we reached the community hall in Greenham, where we spent the night. And we’ve met with local people throughout this journey. Hugh has made presentations to audiences in Kyle and Fiske, and at Greenham we had an impromptu talk on the pilgrimage that Matthew, Harold, and Hugh made in Iceland last year. The interest people have shown in our quixotic trek has been gratifying: cold water or iced tea when we’re thirsty, waves, visits to our campsites. People have shared their knowledge with us and I’ve learned a great deal from them.

Don has to return to Regina for a few days because of work commitments, but he intends to join us again further up the road. The rest of us will lace up our boots tomorrow morning and start walking again.

We’re going to be taking a tour of a local archaeological site in a little bit, and I have to get ready. I’ll post more photographs of our pilgrimage this afternoon. In the mean time, here is a handful of images from yesterday’s walk.

Another Training Walk

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We leave today for Swift Current and the long walk to Battleford. Yesterday I had one last chance to walk with everything I’ll be carrying in my pack, and I took it.



I had to visit the credit union, so I took a slightly different route from Sunday, and I walked the loop counterclockwise instead of clockwise. That meant I got to walk past the house in our neighbourhood where sunflowers seed themselves in the cracks of the sidewalk every year. Those sunflowers are one of my favourite things about this city.

On a gravelled front yard, a merlin was eviscerating a headless pigeon. He flew to the neighbour’s front porch and glared at me. “It’s okay, buddy,” I told him. “I don’t want your breakfast, and frankly I support the good work you’re doing, keeping the pigeon population down.”




I walked north on Albert Street. After a while I turned west. I passed someone’s plastic raincoat, somehow caught high in an elm tree. I started to feel hungry, so I stopped at a convenience store and bought a little bag of peanuts. I thought about my current writing project and wondered what the Swift Current to Battleford Trail Walk is going to be like. Eventually I found myself on Rochdale Boulevard, where I ate lunch.




After lunch, I headed back south. The clouds and occasional breeze promised some long-needed rain, but none fell while I was walking. I surprised three men resting in the shade of a sign announcing the project they were supposed to be working on. I saw joggers and cyclists and people walking their dogs, as usual. At one point a peloton of four bike cops on what must’ve been a training ride passed me.




After six hours and 25 kilometres, I was home. A few weeks ago, a friend told me I must be very fit, what with all the walking I do. “Not really,” I replied, thinking about all the things I can’t do, like haul myself into the gym in the winter. But it looks like I might be fit enough for the walk that begins tomorrow. Fingers crossed.




30 Degree Training Walk

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When you’re on a long walk, you take what comes. If it’s hot, you walk. If it’s cold, you walk. If it’s raining, you walk. There are alternatives–taking a day off, although there’s no guarantee the following day’s weather will be any different, or catching a lift or taking a bus, something that’s hard to do in today’s Saskatchewan–but neither of those appeals to me. I want to walk every step of the Swift Current to Battleford Trail Walk, whatever it costs.

We leave next week for that walk. It’s August, so it’s going to be hot. And we’re in a drought, so there probably won’t be any cooling rain. So today, we walked 24 kilometres in 30 degree heat, to see if we’re ready for what’s coming. I carried the pack I intend to carry. It was only half full–a tent, sleeping bag and pad, after-walk sandals, a reserve supply of Milk Bones, my iPad, and other odds and ends–but I’m not quite ready to walk in the heat with a full pack. You see, I just got back from ten days in a playwriting workshop at the Sage Hill Writing Experience. It was fantastic, and the manuscript I’m working on is much improved, thanks to the workshop facilitator, two-time Governor General’s Award winner Catherine Banks, and her clear thinking and incisive and insightful comments, delivered with kindness and gentleness. I can’t say enough good things about Catherine, or about Sage Hill. Still, sitting and writing and eating cookies hasn’t exactly prepared me for the walk. I’m behind in my training and I have to catch up. And I haven’t been walking in the heat. Something drastic needed to be done.

So this morning, we set out for Rochdale Boulevard’s infamous pho joints. We’d be there by lunch, we thought, and we’d be back before the worst of the day’s heat. We were wrong about that.




I’ve walked this route many times, on the footpath along Wascana Creek until that footpath ends, and then on sidewalks and desire paths as far as the strip of restaurants on Rochdale Boulevard in the city’s northwest. You’d think there were no surprises left. But there were. We walked past a gaggle of geese that seemed to be mourning one of their own, a bird in convulsions after some terrible accident. We watched for a while, until we realized that the goose was merely cleaning its feathers. Later we surprised a pod of pelicans resting in the shade of a footbridge over Wascana Creek. They came splashing out from their hiding place, dipping their beaks into the creek in unison, a behaviour neither of us had ever seen before.



Inspired by my Sage Hill colleague Kate Sutherland‘s wonderful photographs of paths and roads around Lumsden, where the writers’ retreat was held, I took lots of photos of the paths we walked. I always do that, anyway, but Kate’s photographs made me think there might be something of aesthetic value in those images. Of course, I could be wrong about that.





At Sage Hill, Catherine led us in a guided timed-writing exercise every morning, which tried to get us to engage senses other than vision in our writing. As I walked, I thought about Catherine and the sounds and smells I was experiencing: birdsong, the wind, the sweet scent of yellow sweet clover and thistles, the occasional hint of the creek’s fetid stink. It’s good practice to engage the senses while you walk, and Catherine’s exercise reminded me of that.




We ate lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant and then headed back south, towards home. There were few walkers or cyclists braving the afternoon heat, compared to the morning, when we chatted with several people walking their dogs. One woman asked what I was training for and was surprised by my answer. But after lunch, the sidewalks and paths were mostly deserted. Everyone with any sense was somewhere cool.




The big concern you face when you walk on a hot day is heat exhaustion. We were five or six kilometres from home when I saw Christine begin to flag. More water, more electrolytes. Pour some water on your wrist, on the inside of your elbow. Take a rest in a shady place, if you can find one. Take some ibuprofen. She recovered, and then it was my turn to suffer. I’m not used to walking with a large pack–hell, I’m not really used to walking at all, not after Sage Hill, where my longest walk was a four-kilometre stroll along the Saw Whet Trail–and the heat and the weight I was carrying really hit me with just a kilometre left to walk. But a kilometre? You can stagger that far without too much trouble, and I did. When I got home, though, I took off my boots and had a nap. When I woke up, Christine was sleeping. My legs are a little stiff, but I’ll be fine tomorrow.

It’s the heat, I think, that sapped our strength, rather than the distance. And it’s that same heat we’ll be facing as we walk from Swift Current to Battleford. But we knew it would be hot in August when we signed up. I hope we get used to it, quickly. If we don’t, the walk won’t be a lot of fun, will it?




Sunday South End Walk

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In less than a month, we’ll be walking some 300 kilometres through southwestern Saskatchewan, from Swift Current to Battleford, following the route of a trail used by settlers, Métis traders and buffalo hunters, and First Nations. (You can learn more about that walk here.) The days will be relatively short–just 20 or 25 kilometres–but it’s going to be hot and there will be little shade, and I need to get ready for both the heat and the distance. So does Christine, my walking partner. But we’re at different stages in our training. I’ve been walking 25 kilometres when I go for a walking, but Christine has been covering 12 or 14 kilometres. (I started walking before she did this year, almost as soon as the snow melted in April.) We wanted to walk together today, but how were we to do that, given our different needs and goals and distances?

Obviously, we needed to compromise. Christine is very methodical and concerned about getting injured. Injuries happen–a good friend of mine had to abandon a walk in France a while back because he ended up with a stress fracture. So Christine is right to be concerned. We talked about where we could go. I suggested we try walking around the lake and then through the neighbourhoods in the south end of the city. That should add up to 15 or 16 kilometres, I said. Christine thought that would be okay. And off we went.





We got to the only hill in the city–the Goose Island Overlook–and climbed it. You have to take your interval training where you find it, and unless you want to climb stairs in an office building, you need to make use of the Goose Island Overlook. Halfway to the top, a young fellow stopped us. He was in his twenties, from somewhere in south Asia. “Excuse me,” he said. “Can I ask you a question? You see, I’m new in this city, and I have to ask you: what motivates you to get up every morning and walk around the lake?” We explained that we were training for a longer walk in August, and that I’d walked 1,000 kilometres in Spain four years ago. “I could never do that,” he said. “It’s all I can do to drive here and then go home and have a cigarette.” “You’d be surprised,” I said. “When I was in my twenties, I couldn’t have imagined walking across Spain. But when I turned 50, I did it.” He wished us well and we finished climbing the hill.




We finished walking around the lake. We went through the university campus, past a stand of fireweed on the shore of the lake, and headed back into the city. By the time we got to Albert Street, some 12 kilometres into our walk, we were thinking about lunch.

“We could have salad at the Lancaster Taphouse, on the patio.”

“They have salad?”

“Every place has salad.”

“I don’t feel like sitting in a bar. What about the Japanese place in the mall?”

“That’ll be too much food. What about the falafel place in Harbour Landing?”

“Okay. Let’s go there.”

And that’s what we did. We walked along Gordon Road to Harbour Landing, a new commercial and residential development on the southwest corner of the city, right under the airport’s flightpath. We ate falafel. And then we turned north, towards home.



It was getting hot. And the walk had turned out to be longer than I’d anticipated–some 21 kilometres. But we made it home without any symptoms of heat exhaustion, without any injuries. All is well. And now it’s time for a cool drink in the shade.




A Different Route to Rochdale Boulevard

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More than a month goes by. It seems that every day something is going on that keeps me from going for a walk: errands, the garden, a sick cat who has to be taken to the vet–it’s always something. Finally, a free day. Well, not completely free. I have a few errands, but I can incorporate them into a walk. So off I go.

This time I try something new: I leave my walking sticks at home. I haven’t gone on a long walk without them for years–not since I bought my first pair, in fact, six months before I walked the Camino de Santiago. In Spain, there were two kinds of walkers: people with sticks, and people without sticks. I was always someone who walked with sticks. What’s it like to walk without them? I decide to find out.

I head up Albert Street. It’s not a nice place to walk, but that’s where my errands take me. Lots of traffic and few pedestrians. That’s no surprise: who’d want to walk up Albert Street?


I turn left onto Avonhurst Drive. I’m hungry and I know I have a long walk before lunch. So I buy a bag of peanuts at a south Asian grocery. I eat them as I walk. You can do that when you’re not using walking sticks.


I’ve never walked this way before and I miss a turn, going straight where I should’ve turned left. I check Google Maps. I don’t have to turn around; I can keep going and turn left after I cross the bridge over the expressway. I walk past a high school, and three girls point at me and laugh. Tilley hats, you see, are the opposite of cool.


I cross Pasqua Street. That’s another busy road, and there’s no sidewalk. I walk along an alley behind some houses on the west side of the road. The alley ends, but a road allowance continues north. The road allowance ends at a cluster of stores grouped around a Home Depot. I walk through the parking lot and turn onto Rochdale Boulevard. I’m close to the halfway point.

But first, lunch. I stop at the place where I had the delicious soup on my last walk. At the last minute, I decide to order tofu with ginger and onions. It’s colourful but otherwise a disappointment. Oh well. My mother always said, “What won’t fatten will fill.” I think that means that even if it doesn’t taste that great, it’ll keep me going. And it does.

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I walk to the end of Rochdale Boulevard and turn south on Courtney Street. This is the real halfway point, this intersection. A big sign announcing the new Coopertown development stands where Courtney ends at 9th Avenue North, but there’s no construction going on–not yet, anyway.


Now I’m on the footpath that runs along Wascana Creek. Cyclists pass me, along with a few people walking their dogs. I amuse myself by taking photos of the clouds.


I don’t see any loggerhead shrikes, but I see the sign inviting them to hang around (and inviting people to leave them alone, I suppose).


I cross under the CP bridge across Wascana Creek and have to make a decision. Will I carry on along the creek, or will I turn east onto 13th Avenue and treat myself to an ice cream? The ice cream wins out. I cut short my walk, and head for the ice cream shop, where I get a mango frozen yogurt. Then I turn for home.


My phone tells me I walked 23 kilometres. Would I walk that far without my sticks again? I don’t think so. Somehow I think it’s easier walking with the sticks. Maybe I’m just used to them. Anyway, I’m tired and stiff and I can feel blisters starting to form on the soles of my feet. When I get home, I take a nap. I’ll need to get used to walking longer distances and carrying a full pack if I’m going to enjoy the walk I have planned for August. I’d better get serious about training! Maybe another walk tomorrow?


Thinking About Boots


Since I finished Planetwalker, I’ve been thinking about boots. You see, John Francis started on his long walk across the U.S. more than 30 years ago, and footwear was different then. Francis wore heavy leather boots, the kind that, today, you’d consider old-fashioned. Now if you wear boots when you walk–and a lot of people prefer shoes–they’re probably lightweight, with GoreTex uppers and one-piece soles.

Heavy leather boots are, well, heavy. That makes them tiring to wear when you’re walking long distances. But they have advantages over fabric boots. They last a long time: I bought a pair when I was 17, and I was still wearing them 20 years later. They last that long because you can get them fixed: when the heels or soles wear out, a cobbler can replace them. That’s not the case with fabric boots. When the heels wear down, you have to buy a whole new pair.

When Francis walked across the U.S., he would stop and get his boots repaired when they needed it. He even carried spare Vibram heels with him, just in case a small-town cobbler didn’t have the right ones in stock. Two things about that are striking. First, 30 years ago, people still got their shoes fixed, because their shoes were designed to be fixable, and second, it wasn’t unusual to find a shoe-repair shop, even in a small town. Today, everything’s different. Shoes and boots are more likely to be designed to be disposable now. So if Francis were to walk across the U.S. today, he’d be replacing his boots every thousand miles, instead of repairing them.

We’ve gained something with lighter footwear designs: they’re more comfortable and not as hot. But we’ve lost something, too. Sometimes I wish I had the old-fashioned kind of boots. After all, isn’t it better to fix something instead of throwing it away?


planetwalkerIn 1971, two oil tankers collided in the fog beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. John Francis, a hippie living north of San Francisco in Marin County, caught a glimpse of the aftermath: oil coating the shore and volunteers trying to save dying birds. Those sights affected Francis deeply. He decided that by driving or even riding in petroleum-powered vehicles, he was contributing to a system that was destroying the planet. So he started walking everywhere. And for the next 22 years, he avoided trains and planes and automobiles. Instead, he walked, or occasionally cycled.

Most people thought that decision was strange, and that Francis himself, although harmless, was more than a little eccentric. But others got angry. Did Francis think he was better than everybody else? they asked. Who made him some kind of environmental saint? After walking, and arguing, for a few years, Francis made another big decision: he stopped talking. Not talking allowed him to learn to listen, he writes. That vow of silence lasted for 17 years.

Francis walked for some 10 years, including annual 500-mile hikes to visit friends in Oregon. Then he felt it was time to do more. With some friends, he established Planetwalker, an environmental education non-profit. And he started walking even farther: right across the United States, with stops along the way, in Montana and Wisconsin, to complete graduate degrees in environmental studies, including working as a teaching assistant. And he completed all that walking and studying without speaking a word. Instead, he communicated in sign language and with his ever-present banjo.

In Planetwalker, Francis tells his story. It’s a fine book, well-written and thoughtful and humble, with illustrations from the author’s sketchbooks. I’d heard about Francis–every book about walking makes reference to his story–and I’m glad I stumbled across Planetwalker in a tiny bookstore on the other side of town called Turning the Tide. No, I didn’t walk there–I was running errands, and so I was driving–but since I finished Planetwalker I’ve been wondering every time I get in the car to go somewhere: is this trip really necessary? Not that I could make the kind of commitments Francis did. I mean, I like walking, but going everywhere on foot? All the time? I don’t think I could do that.

One aspect of Planetwalker that interested me was the way Francis camped on his walks. In England, they’d say he was “wild camping”; in North America, it’s described as “stealth camping.” Francis would pitch his small tent wherever he stopped for the night, often on private land without permission. (Who can say who the owner of a particular plot of land might be?) Francis made his walk in the 1980s, and maybe things were different then, but he was rarely bothered by anyone, including law enforcement. I wonder if it would be possible to make similar walks now, camping behind trees or abandoned buildings or along roadsides, without getting arrested.

If you’re interested in pedestrianism, Planetwalker is definitely worth reading. And if you’re interested in the connection between the personal and the political, between global issues and local action, it’s worth reading, too. “The only person one has the ethical authority to change is oneself,” Francis writes. “When we change our self, we indeed change the world. As we continue our journey we can make a difference in our community and in the world, one step at a time.” If that’s true, it’s quite a hopeful statement. Planetwalker has given me a lot to think about, and I’m grateful to John Francis for writing it.