Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Apple TV Walk

Christine read Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books a while back, and when we learned that they were going to be turned into a TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, she wanted to see it. The series is carried by Crave in Canada, but we’ve had trouble with Crave’s app not working on our TV–so much trouble that I abandoned our subscription in disgust. Maybe, though, it would work if we had one of those Apple TV boxes. It’s worth a try, I thought, and if it doesn’t work, we could watch Borgen, which everyone raves about and which is only available through Apple. So yesterday I walked to the big-box retail jungle of the city’s east end, a 20-kilometre round trip, to buy an Apple TV box for Christine.



After I left the house, I noticed the first flowers on the western Canadian violet that covers the shady areas in our front yard. I also noticed some creeping bellflower mixed in with it. I hate creeping bellflower–it’s a terrible weed, and if left alone, it will simply take over–so I put the walk on hold and started pulling it out. I didn’t get the roots, so it’ll be back, but I didn’t want to disturb the violets and wild strawberries too much, either. Around the corner, a jackrabbit was sitting in the alley, inspecting the neighbour’s vegetable plot.


The street elms are beginning to leaf out. In another week or two, the streets will feel like green leafy tunnels again.




The path around the small end of the lake was busy. The Sikh community was having a parade, and there was some kind of run going on, and the usual cyclists and dog walkers and families were simply enjoying the sun. The big end of the lake, though, on the other side of the bridge, was, as usual, pretty empty, with just a few runners and cyclists on the path. I did see my friends Katherine and Paul-Henrik on their bikes, but I didn’t think to try to take their photographs.



I walked past an ambitious prairie restoration project that hasn’t worked out very well. Where the native grassland has been ploughed under, the soil is now filled with the seeds of invasive Eurasian weeds and agronomic grass species, and those introduced plants will outcompete indigenous plants every time–unless the restoration project is managed very carefully, which never happens. So instead of a field of June grass and little bluestem and blue grama grass, of gallardia and coneflower and asters, you end up with an expanse of quack grass and thistles. It’s almost inevitable. The lesson I take away from this sad truth: stop destroying native grassland, because once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.




I crossed the highway and walked along Assiniboine Avenue. It’s one of my favourite places to walk in this city, because the sidewalk turns into a gravel path, which reminds me of walking on similar paths along Spanish highways. It’s only 300 or 400 metres, but I like the relative softness of gravel underfoot, instead of pavement.



A footpath runs through a park from Assiniboine Avenue to Arens Rd., and I like that walk, too. It runs past a planting of bur oaks and along Pilot Butte Creek. The creek is very low this spring, because last year’s drought is continuing, but it still provides a home for mallard ducks and red-winged blackbirds.





I stopped for lunch and then pressed on to Best Buy. Then, with an Apple TV box in my backpack, I started walking back west.




I’ve been thinking about the difference between walking and driving lately, partly because at a symposium last fall, a colleague talked about his experience of the landscape being framed by the windshield of his car, and how that framing affects that experience. My immediate response was to think, “then get out of your car and walk,” but that’s not an option for most people. After all, walking 30 kilometres will take six or seven hours, but you can drive that distance in 20 minutes. So, given its slowness, given the physical exertion that it takes, why bother to walk? The answer, of course, is that you walk because it’s slow, because it takes physical exertion, but more importantly, because it allows for a deeper engagement with place, even a place as relatively unappealing as the suburbs of a small prairie city. In the glass and steel bubble of an automobile, you don’t hear or feel very much. Walking is very different. As I walked yesterday, I thought about what I was feeling and hearing and smelling, about the kind of sensory experiences I wouldn’t be having if I were driving. I saw the same things–the sky, the grass, birds, other people–but without the enframing a windshield creates. I heard birds singing, mostly red-winged blackbirds and grackles, and the omnipresent hum of distant traffic, and the constant sound of the wind. I smelled charcoal burning, as family picnics began around the grills provided by the park authorities. I heard my feet crunching on the occasional gravel path, the thud of the rubber tips of my walking poles on the more typical concrete or pavement, dogs barking. I felt the warmth of the sun and, simultaneously, the coolness of the breeze, and the heat and sting of blisters forming, followed by the explosion of pain when one of those blisters burst. Yes, nobody wants to experience that, but discomfort and fatigue is part of walking, too. Besides, I haven’t figured out how to toughen my feet so that they won’t blister except by walking.





I walked through the park (including a climb up one of the city’s two hills–the other is the landfill) and into my home neighbourhood. I bumped into my friends Kerri and Jess, who were out walking their dogs, but of course I forgot to take a photograph. “People should have to walk if they’re going to buy something,” Kerri said. “That’s how I stopped drinking pop when I was at university–there was just no way I was going to carry it home.” They carried on with their walk, and I limped home on my blistered feet, where I had a well-deserved beer and watched the last two periods of the Jets-Knights hockey game. Today, I’m going to have to catch up on the yard work I didn’t get done yesterday–and I’m going to have to set up the Apple TV thing–but all of that is a fair tradeoff for being able to walk across town yesterday.



A Pennine Journey


September 1938. The Munich Crisis. Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. Europe teeters on the brink of war. In England, people are forming civil defence units and preparing for the conflict that will begin if Hitler’s demands are not met by his deadline: October 1. And Alfred Wainwright, a clerk in the Blackburn Borough Engineering Department, takes his annual holiday despite the fact that he is suffering from what he calls “a mild influenza”: a 200-mile walk from the Yorkshire town of Settle to Hadrian’s Wall and back. Published nearly 50 years after the events it recounts, A Pennine Journey is the story of Wainwright’s eleven-day journey north on the eastern side of the Pennines and then back south on the western side.

It might seem like an odd time to leave one’s wife and children and head off on a long journey on foot when the world is on the brink of war, but for Wainwright the escape seems to have been a necessity. “I was free,” Wainwright recalls of his first day of walking:

For months I had been in chains, body, mind and soul. So complete a bondage was new to me; my body is a prisoner always save for a few days each year, but my mind and soul are seldom captive. Yet latterly they too had seemed fettered; they had been in the grip of a fearsome monster we called Crisis.

Well, I was away from it all. How sweet was the realization, not until this moment fully comprehended!

I was a free man on the hills again.

And, for the 32-year-old Wainwright, the outbreak of war would surely mean one thing: he would end up in the army, another form of bondage. Perhaps his journey was intended as one last experience of freedom before he surrendered to the necessities of national service.

Wainwright is a romantic, a lover of the hills and mountains of northern England, particularly the Lake District. He is a connoisseur of landscapes, judging the dales and villages he walks through according to their beauty and often finding them lacking in some essential aspect. He is also a committed walker, covering distances of more than 20 miles through difficult terrain without carrying a bottle of water, a flask of tea, or even a sandwich. As a result, he’s typically famished when he reaches his destination. I would be, too.

I have friends who think they travel lightly, but Wainwright puts them to shame: all he carries in his small haversack is a rain cape, a razor, a few pairs of extra socks, his maps, and a toothbrush. It’s incredible that he could walk for almost two weeks without changing his shirt, but (as L.P. Hartley wrote) the past is a foreign country, and people do things differently there. Plus, when it rains he gets soaked, despite his rain cape, and perhaps that’s close enough to doing laundry. Note that Wainwright doesn’t get a bath during his journey, either, despite a few unfortunate encounters with peat bogs while crossing moors. “I was filthy,” he notes, “so filthy that I was beginning to itch.” No doubt.

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Wainwright is so excited by seeing Hadrian’s Wall–the chapter where he describes his day walking along the wall is filled with rapturous prose–that his return to Settle is rather disappointing. The weather doesn’t help: while he’s walking south, a tremendous gale and rainstorm causes flooding all over England, and Wainwright has to take shelter for most of the day in an inn–luckily, one of the nicer ones he stayed in. I found myself wondering if his approach to accommodations was typical of vacationers in the 1930s. Wainwright had made no arrangements in advance, and when he arrived in a village, he would either ask to rent a room at the local pub, or else he would stop in at the village shop and/or post office and ask if anyone took in visitors. Sometimes that’s how he manages to find meals as well. I can’t imagine that approach working today, with so many more people travelling (not on foot, of course), and so many more rules and regulations about serving food to paying guests.

By the end of his life (he died in 1991), Wainwright had produced more than 40 books, all about the hills of northern England. His ambition on the walk he writes about here was to produce a book of landscape photographs, using his Brownie box camera. Some technical error on his part resulted in the photographs of his walk north being ruined, so that plan came to nothing, but on his return journey, he decided to turn his notes into a book over the winter. It would be a way to relive his journey, he suggests, long after its conclusion and his return to the office and its “bondage.” However, A Pennine Journey wasn’t published until 1986, nearly 50 years after Wainwright completed his walk.

I don’t think it would be unfair to describe Wainwright as an eccentric, and at one point he acknowledges that others find him odd:

A strange thing, but nobody ever said to me: ‘I wish I could be like you’, nor, now I come to think of it, can I recall anyone regarding me with even mild admiration. Strange, yet, for though I do not profess to have all the virtues I consider myself immeasurably superior to most men; and it seems even stranger now that I come to write of it. Next time I am on a hilltop, I must ponder the problem. But I am grossly misjudged. Not so very long ago, a gentle maiden related to me that she had told her mother I was mad. She spoke ever so quietly, yet quite bluntly; she was so convinced that it did not occur to her that I might be inclined to dispute the assertion; she was stating an obvious fact, not inviting comment. . . . But I am not mad. I like to consider myself a thwarted genius. There is comfort in the thought, and a thwarted genius need not go to the trouble of explaining his conduct to himself.

Mad or not, these days Wainwright has a number of admirers, even followers, since it’s possible to walk a route not unlike the one he took to Hadrian’s Wall and back, a route described online. Of course, since Wainwright often walked on roads–roads which have become busy highways in the 80 years since his journey–it’s not possible to walk in his exact footsteps. One could try, I suppose, but in England, highways lack shoulders, and there is no place for pedestrians (as I’ve learned from experience) except in the lane with speeding traffic. And that’s not conducive to comfortable, or safe, walking.

I’m impressed enough by A Pennine Journey that I would like to make the contemporary version of his walk. I have one of his other books, a guide to the Pennine Way (England’s first long-distance walking path), and his drawings there are quite charming. I wonder what his photographs are like; in the 1950s he published a number of books of photographs of the Lake District. True, his prose is sometimes leaden and his views of women belong back in 1938, if not earlier, but A Pennine Journey is a worthwhile read.

Kittens and Pho Soup Walk

A lot has happened since the last time I posted anything here. I found a new job. I quit that job to return to school. Now I’m in a PhD program, focused on walking as an aesthetic practice. And my little sister died. I never intended for eight months to pass between blog posts, but I haven’t had time to walk or write or read anything outside of my courses. I haven’t even been walking to the university, partly because it was so icy in February and March (I fell on the ice and landed flat on my stomach and broke my baby toe, the one that always breaks), and partly because I had the flu for several weeks and was just too tired to walk. But, when the semester ended last week–when my papers had been handed in and my students’ grades submitted–I decided to start walking again. And, yesterday, that’s what I did.

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I went for a couple of short walks during the week–short, but long enough to blister my feet, so I wasn’t sure my feet would be able to stand a long walk. And it was hard getting out the door. My water bag had gone missing. My phone needed to be charged. So did my camera. But I had promised myself to go for a walk, on a familiar route: north and west along the creek to Rochdale Boulevard, where I would get a bowl of pho soup for lunch, and then back south again. And that’s what I did.

But first, Christine and I walked over to the local cat café. I had never been. The cats were playful, kittenish, and I realized how long it’s been since we had a young cat in our house. We only have one cat right now, Annie, who was old when we got her 10 years ago and must be around 20 now. Of course, without a phone or a camera, I couldn’t take any pictures of the cats for this blog. Such is life. After twenty minutes or so, we left the cats and their admirers to their work, or play. Christine carried on towards the city centre. I went back home, got my walking sticks and my pack and my phone–I left the camera to continue charging–and headed off.

I know what you’re thinking: why carry a phone and a camera? After all, phones have cameras these days, right? That’s true, but if a camera is in my pocket, and not slung around my neck, I won’t use it as much. I know that from experience. So this post doesn’t have many photographs, because I had to remember to stop and dig my phone out of my pocket when I saw something photogenic.

So I didn’t get any photos of the dead carp in the creek. I don’t know what caused their deaths. Maybe a lack of oxygen underneath the winter ice? And I didn’t get a shot of the cormorant I saw sitting in the water further downstream, a sign that not every fish in the creek died over the winter. But I did get a shot of this foursome about to tee off. It was the first day the courses were open, and the two golf courses I passed were busy.

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I walked past the abandoned beaver lodge–one of my landmarks on this path–and I wondered, as always, where the beavers are now. Did the park authority trap them out? They are hard on the trees, of course, and it’s worth remembering that every tree in this city has been deliberately planted, so protecting them is important. That’s why the trunks of so many trees along the creek are wrapped in chicken wire or hardware cloth, to discourage the beavers. Maybe that’s why the beavers left; maybe further downstream, in the Qu’Appelle Valley, there’s more to eat.

I also walked past a lively cricket match. This is not uncommon these days, but it would’ve been strange 10 years ago. Cricket, I think, is a sign of how the Queen City’s demographics are changing. Everyone on the pitch–that’s the correct word, isn’t it, to describe the ground on which cricket is played?–was south Asian.

At Dewdney Avenue, the path was blocked off. I figured the underpass was flooded. It happens. But how bad could it be? I stepped around the barrier and carried on. In the underpass, the pathway was flooded, but there was ice to walk on, and I figured I could get through without getting too wet. I was wrong. I stepped into the water and onto the ice. The ice shifted under my weight. I shuffled forward. The ice was floating and as I reached the far side, it sank. The next block of ice was several feet away. So I stepped into the water. It was deep–deeper than my boots–and cold and dirty. My pants and socks got soaked. I waded through the water and stepped up onto the next block of ice. It tilted ominously. I picked my way across, carefully, and eventually found my way onto dry pavement. “I won’t go back that way,” I thought.

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It was sunny and warm and windy, and the stiff breeze blew a winter’s worth of trash–several winters, perhaps–before it. I thought about David Sedaris, the way he picks up garbage on his walks around Sussex, where he lives. Maybe I should do the same thing, I thought. But if I did, if I gathered all the trash I saw, I wouldn’t be walking anywhere. I’d just be picking up trash. There’s just so much around: years of coffee cups stuck in bushes, plastic bags stuck to branches, trash flags snapping in the wind. “If you stopped to pick all this stuff up,” I thought, “you’d never get up to Rochdale and you’d never get a bowl of soup.” Plus I had no gloves, no garbage bag, nothing. Sadly, selfishly, I put that idea away.

What do I think about as I’m walking along? Nothing really. Sometimes I wonder what I’ll write about in this blog. Sometimes I sing scraps of songs (“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” was stuck in my mind yesterday). I was thinking about Cree vocabulary and the way the university misspelled the Cree title of its strategic plan so that it translates as “Together we are raw” instead of “Together we are one with Mother Earth”–“aski” is very different from “askiy“–when I saw a slight man with a bicycle pausing to take a picture with a camera equipped with a longish lens. When I got closer, I recognized him–from his photos on Facebook–and introduced myself. “You’re Solomon Ratt,” I said. “I’m enrolled in your intermediate Cree class for next fall.” He recognized my name, probably from the class list. “Oh, yes.” We talked about the path, about the icy water under Dewdney Avenue. Then we carried on in opposite directions. Of course, I didn’t take his picture. Even if I’d had a camera around my neck, I probably wouldn’t have thought of it, or I would’ve decided not to ask for permission. I need to get over that reticence.

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I trudged north, past the loggerhead shrike nesting area, where I’ve never seen a loggerhead shrike. Maybe they can’t read the sign or don’t like the shrubs that have been planted for their benefit? I crossed the railway tracks and then the creek, and followed the path north away from the water. Eventually I reached Rochdale Boulevard. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and I was hungry. I stopped at the first pho restaurant I saw and ordered a bowl of soup. I didn’t take any pictures of it, either. I was too busy eating. I spent an hour there, resting and drinking tea and reading a New Yorker article about H.R. McMaster on my phone. It made me think about personal integrity, and how to be true to who you are in an environment which pressures you to violate the truths you believe to be important. And that brought to mind Armando Iannucci’s excellent film The Death of Stalin, which I saw on Thursday night. Did any of the characters in that film have any personal integrity or sense of truth left? Perhaps Steve Buscemi’s Krushchev. But the others?

And those thoughts made me grateful that my work doesn’t demand that I believe in things I know to be lies.

After lunch, I turned south, walking along McCarthy Boulevard. To avoid the flooded underpass, I walked along the grass in front of the big RCMP training facility on Dewdney Avenue (another place where the City of Regina has refused to provide a sidewalk to pedestrians) and crossed the creek that way.

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Then I retraced my steps on the path along the creek. I was pretty tired–a 26-kilometre walk is a tough way to begin–and my feet hurt. But I made it home. And tomorrow, perhaps, I’ll go for another walk.

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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.