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?