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3:AM in Lockdown 32: Joseph Schreiber

The Douglas Fir Trail
By Joseph Schreiber.


Spring is a strange, slow, sloppy season where I live. As the days grow warmer, the snow covered paths that snake through the dead brown grass of the fields and forest floor begin to soften, turn slushy and muddy. Suspiciously bright yellow patches emerge along the routes frequented by dog walkers. One eagerly searches for the first hints of buds on branches.

Then, just as you think you’re emerging from winter at last, the temperature drops, a new layer of snow drapes the earth and the trails turn to rivers of ice. For weeks we inhabit this in between state, the ground shifting beneath our feet — slippery and unstable whether solid or soft. Uncertain, unpredictable. Just like everything else in the world at this moment.

We are not, as I write this, under lockdown, but nonessential services are closed (although essential is a matter for debate), gatherings are severely restricted, physical distancing is expected as the norm, beyond that, social isolation if one is ill, and under certain circumstances, quarantine enforced with threat of penalty. A new world order, but one that still accommodates and even encourages anyone who is not feeling sick to get out and walk or run or cycle. As long as the two metre rule is respected.

Don’t pass so close to me.

It’s weird. On the trails when one encounters another walker, we smile nervously while passing with as wide a berth as possible. It’s strange. Surreal. Accounting for potentially treacherous patches on some paths, this new etiquette sometimes requires one person to perch along the edge to allow the other to stick to the firmest ground and maintain the necessary distance.
Random conversations have come to an end. Alone one walks with purpose, what once was social has become a solitary activity.

I live above a forested embankment traced with trails I never grow tired of following. North-facing it holds its snow, slush, ice and mud long after more open areas have dried out. At this time of year, some sections are treacherous at best, impassable at worst. So I modify my routine.

Behind the row of low rise complexes where I live I stop and pull ice cleats over my boots. They are useless in the slush and the soft snow alike, but essential for icy patches. So, I err on the side of caution. At a small stand of aspen I stop and collect the walking stick I’ve stashed, a sturdy branch I found after a death defying descent over a short but icy series of rough steps and have since adopted as a walking companion for the foreseeable future — at least until the paths become clear or the sports stores reopen and I can buy a proper set of trekking poles.

Whichever comes first.

I head out along the Quarry Trail which was, as the name implies, an access road to one of the many sandstone quarries that once dotted the area. To my right is a city golf course which will likely remain empty until normal life resumes someday. Ahead, in the distance I can see the towers of the city centre — hollowed out by the economic decline my city was already in before the days of COVID-19, now ghostly as the remaining workers have mostly been commanded to work from home. It still shines, hopeful and waiting.

The road turns and winds back making its way down toward the point at which I can enter the Douglas Fir Trail at its lower eastern gate, cross the ravine, follow the path back up for a stretch and then down into the river valley where it follows the train tracks until one can, conditions allowing, access the heart of the forest and lose one’s self, metaphorically at least, on a challenging trail that climbs up and down the embankment for several kilometres. The sense of being in a city of one million evaporates and, for a time, one is transported in spirit, to the Rocky Mountains 120 kilometres to the west.

It all amounts to the best backyard one could ever have.

Right now, it is the transitional conditions, the unstable footing, potentially risky passages that keep me on the edges of this space. If the conditions of lockdown tighten, will spring come to this space unobserved? Will the camps of the homeless that settle on the upper slopes in the summer return, as much part of our neighbourhood as those whose single-family homes back directly onto the embankment on the streets further west of my modest row of converted 1960s apartment complexes?

Who knows?

Last summer someone reported seeing a moose on the Douglas Fir Trail. If this time of human hibernation is extended, maybe we’ll see one from the balcony. Nature reclaiming its own.


First posted: Monday, April 13th, 2020.

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