Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Week 15: Life is like hiking the trails.

Well, I just finished bathing my poor mosquito bitten feet with my friend Rita’s handmade and natural artisanal soap.  As the old 50’s Alka-seltzer commercials went, ‘Oh what a relief it is’!  After several weeks of reduced mosquito squads, I was unprepared for yesterday’s relentless assaults out there on the trails.  Though I learned early on in my walking days to keep the bug cream supply topped up in my back pack, it was a full time effort yesterday to keep it on my skin and the mosquitoes off!  So today the feet and ankles and arms are sorely bitten and there is an ever-rising blackfly lump behind my ear.  But did I have fun yesterday?  Oh, YOU BET I DID!

The night before I had decided to try out both the ‘Covered Bridge’ and ‘South Monk’ Trails which lead into one another here in Bracebridge.  I was quite excited about preparing for this adventure. I printed out the town’s trail map and also a clear Google street map, recharged the camera battery, packed a snack and bought a big bottle of water.   I made sure there was a little bar of pure soap, some bandages, antibiotic cream, a rolled up wash cloth, alternate shoes and some clean socks! All packed into my lightweight cloth backpack (hand-sewn nearly 25 years ago) and ready to go by mid-afternoon.  Rain was in the forecast but this never deters me as there is no better place to be than on the trails under the kindly umbrellas of forest trees whenever the heavens decide to sprinkle.

From the very start I knew this was going to be an extra special hike. There were things to see and listen to and smell and photograph at every turn and early on I decided to pace the picture-taking as I feared the battery would run out well before the end of the hike which was nearly the case!  I won’t describe the specifics of these particular trails here (though there is a note and some cautions at the bottom of this week’s blog for anyone interested in hiking either trail and there are many pictures of the walk included on the (two) Week 15 Photo Pages).  What I would like to tell you or at least TRY to share with you this week is what it feels like when I go trail walking. I have been trying for many weeks now to figure out how to communicate to folks living in a city or who don’t walk in wooded nature, what it is like to be comfortingly wrapped all about in the green and brown and blue of the woods.  How does one communicate the mid-summer, contentedly-slow laziness of the late-evening bird-calls and the chattering of dozens of small animals and how those sounds echo bluntly between the trees and carry over the water.  Or the tinkling delicacy of a light breeze barely kissing the highest leaves of the treetops or the quickening vibrations of the wind skipping and rippling along the length of the river like some kind of blue quicksilver.  Or the distinctive PLOP of a beaver taking his just-before-dark dive.  Or more notably - the deafening stillness. 

Yes, the stillness - especially that – how does one share that with others?  There is always a point in every walk when I experience anew the absolute stillness and hush.  When the sounds of humanity disappear into some other hidden dimension and I feel keenly present in nature’s very private world teeming with life and counter-balance to 'civilization's' concrete jungles.  I can’t think what to name this.  It is a sensory experience and it is an extreme privilege.  Of that I’m certain.  As much as these walks bring pure joy to my soul, they also bring sadness. In the woods, it is possible to experience the planet earth unfettered of politics, of ‘me-ism’, greed and defacement.  Though animal politics, hierarchy, territorial agression surely do exist as does survival of the fittest, somehow it is based more on the understandable need for nature's survival rather than the greed and lust for domination we humans so often exhibit.  So I guess walking in the woods is a real retreat for me – it’s a way of getting away from news headlines and the CNN-reported mayhem of it all.  Yet, ultimately the contrast only further highlights the sad place the world can feel to be some days and for so many people.  Often in the end I am left feeling helpless and sad that not everyone has a little patch of their own where to walk, or the freedom to do so, enough food to eat for the energy to do so, enough physical security for the safety to do so, enough hope and will in life to feel the desire to do so.

Yet walking in the woods is a time also to dream a little.  And to enjoy an inner and truthful conversation.  There is no requirement for pretense in the woods or façades or any of life’s everyday pretexts or armour.  It is a place to slow right down and enjoy vulnerability and experience our lives in sheer honesty and truth to the extent we can allow ourselves to do so, shedding all the unhappy layers of excess we have acquired.  And, we get better at this as time goes on and our confidence in doing so rises.  The total effect of all that on me is a deep relaxation that I just couldn’t get from any wine or drug I know.  Every walk into the woods I feel the world’s demands lessening their grip on my mind and soul and body a little more.  I can return to work and a busy life with greater balance and focus and have a keener sense of what life – at least my life – is and can be about and live it more fully in the present moment.  After all, what else do we really have but NOW?  I feel less responsible for keeping up with the insanely high-bar of commercialism and buying into the hype of advertising which tells me what I am supposed to ‘need’ in order to feel happy.  The less I listen to that and the more acquired layers I shed, the happier I feel and the less resentful I feel about NOT having what I am told I need and don’t possess and have discovered I don’t really want anyway!  Not sure that makes sense, but you surely get my drift!

Yes, walking does all that and means all that to me.  It is freedom on many levels.  Nature is a raw connection to the very essence of life present and past, to the history of life and all that went on before us, to the mighty dinosaurs long since gone and to the birth of the very universe itself and to the mightiness of its creator – IF we are still enough to listen and feel and imagine it all. Walking in a few short months has given me immeasurable new balance and confidence and repositioned me ‘in situ’ for the deeply meaningful passages of later life. And now, dear reader, I will state the truly obvious about trails and walking but which I have only just discovered: Life is like hiking the trails. In life, we need to be a little prepared and have at least some idea of where we are going.  A map of some kind helps.  So does a knapsack with a few useful provisions to keep us going but not so many that it is a burden to carry along the way or prevents us from progressing along.  We need to know that our map is JUST A GUIDE – we are not bound by it and in fact will miss out many adventures and meetings if we follow it too rigidly.  To know WHERE we are to go, we need to take the time to stop and figure out where we are and use all our senses to do so and be fully alive to the moment. We need to be clear on WHO we are about so that we can make, when called upon, the decisions at all the turns along the way more readily and with conviction. We need to know that like the trails, physical life has a beginning and definite end and we are, at any moment in time, on an uncertain continuum travelling somewhere in between.

Thanks for walking along with me on my footpath this week.
WEEK 15 :: 12 PHOTOS - PLUS!:  You'll find them HERE.
BBPP Weekly Health Check:
Mind:  Trying to relax INTO the summer heat… Walking every day now I am mentally enjoying summer so much more than other years.
Body:  After months of walking my legs are getting very strong and now carry me up hills and steep inclines if not ‘effortlessly’ certainly with LESS effort.  Ditto the hard-working heart.  Blood pressure continues to show gratifying losses. Weight loss: NOT SO MUCH ~ Girth loss: YES, DEFINITELY!!!
The Artist Soul:  The absolute best connection this week happened on the Wilson River.  While moving towards the river’s edge to catch the usual nightly sighting of my beaver friend there came instead an a-line of movement from an inquisitive family of 6 ducklings and their mom.  After catching  sight of me they rushed right across the river to say hello.  Two ducklings even struggled to clamber up the rocky section of riverbank.  Mom may or may not have approved; She kept an eye on me but didn’t seem overly worried or fussed.  What is not to love about such a ‘soul connection’

"The Duck Delegation"

NOTES & CAUTIONS for the ‘Covered Bridge’ & ‘South Monk’ Trails:

- Print out BOTH a trail map AND a clear street map covering the area.  Staple them together as you are WILL need them BOTH! If you would like answers to specific questions about these trails, click on the envelope icon below to send me an email.

- Be aware that although the map shows a ‘trail’, some of the walking connecting the wooded sections may be done on residential streets or through the transcanada pipelines property easement section.  If you aren’t in the woods at some points, it doesn’t mean you are lost.  Just try to interpret the map carefully and imaginatively!

- If you do not have a good sense of direction, then I recommend you pack a compass.  These trails are, for the greater part, magnificently maintained but sadly they as yet lack enough clarifying trail markers to help one to discern location and which of the many feeder trails to take.  It would definitely help if the all of the bridges were named or numbered and regularly spaced trail sections identified with corresponding markers on both the map and trail.  It IS very easy to get lost within some sections of this trail or to ‘feel’ lost even when one isn’t!  And, there is one brief section that needs to be completely remarked to improve hiker safety!  So we will keep asking our politicians for further upgrades to these wonderful trails.  AND volunteer ourselves to map and mark trails.
- If you are hiking alone or even in twos, do let someone know you WHERE you plan to go and give them a time WHEN they should expect to hear from you again with a plan to get HELP if they DON’T! 

- For the most part both the Covered Bridge and South Monk trails are easy to traverse.  The latter trail is slightly more challenging with one prolonged incline in particular.  If steep hills are a problem for you, then I suggest hiking the trail from north to south rather than the reverse so that your walking will be mostly downhill.
And generally for all longer hikes:

- Wear sturdy shoes and pay attention to where you are walking. Invariably I get so lost in the wonder of the sites that I trip over tree roots or stones.

- Do take your camera!  You just never know what wonders you will see.

- Cell phones are mixed blessings for sure but on longer hikes or on less-travelled trails, I am beginning to think they are a very good idea.  You don’t need to leave one turned on.  Keep it for emergencies or to arrange a ride at the end of your hike.

- Bug spray or cream or towelettes or citronella is a MUST if you don’t want the bugs to spoil your concentration on the beauty of your surroundings and your inner peace and quiet.  Don’t let them annoy you!

- Carry EXTRA water. If you do get bitten a lot, have a clean wash cloth and some water and a sliver of soap handy.  This refreshes your feet on those long 5 and 6 hour hikes and soothes out the itch of bug bites.  A small tube of cortisone cream, a couple of bandages, and some antibiotic ointment take up almost no knapsack room and can come in very useful.

- Most important of all?  Enjoy!  Open your soul and let the woods communicate with you.

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