Growing up, I loved a series of books called Choose Your Own Adventure. If you are between thirty-five- and forty-five-years old right now, you probably read these too when you were in elementary school. Each book had a different theme, but at the end of every few pages you had to make a choice and depending on your choice you would be directed to the next page. For example, if the main character entered a cave at the end of page 34, you could want the character to go left and be directed to page 35 or go right and be directed to page 70. The main premise was that there were many different stories within one book and whichever one you chose to follow was all dependent on the decisions that you as the reader made. Currently, we as trailers are left to choose our own adventures outdoors. With many parks and trails being closed and the outdoor race season canceled until at least the fall, many of us are left without end goals and finish lines. Virtual races are popping up everywhere, race directors are getting very creative and local trails are seeing more foot traffic than ever before. But what if you crave a unique experience and are seeking what in the past, only an ultramarathon or a multi-day backpacking trip can provide? Well… decide to turn left or turn right at your own personal trail intersection and enjoy the adventure that awaits. You may be surprised at what you find…
For the past four years, every spring myself and some friends get out backpacking in early May. In the Canadian Rockies there are very few trails that are somewhat snow free before June and next to no backcountry campgrounds that are dry and accessible to running water this early in the season. There is one though, and I will not name it here so that word does not spread too far about this peaceful, serene early season beauty. Nine kilometres from the trailhead to the campground can be dry some years or have hip deep snow in spots some years, but you can be assured that after about three hours of hiking, you will have a dry spot to pitch a tent, have a large backcountry firepit beside a massive (mostly) frozen lake and have a view that you will never tire of. On the second day you can venture out around the lake and follow the river flats to a smaller backcountry lake and an impressive glacier. It is a full day out, about twenty-two kilometres of defined trail, bushwhacking, and following the natural course of the flats. On the third day, there is one other old trail you can explore which takes you to some impressive views of the next valley and you can often hear avalanches coming down across the valley. Day four is a nice easy nine kilometres back out with chips, a cold beer and a change of clean clothes waiting in the vehicle. On the trail, each day starts and ends with a big campfire, great company and solitude. We have only seen a handful of people on this trail over the years and that is one of the things that I love most about it. The odd person or small group will come into camp for a night and then leave the following morning, leaving us on our own again.
This year we had planned to go earlier than ever… late April to be precise. We were already planning to bring the snowshoes and an extra layer to keep warm overnight. Then COVID-19 happened, and National Parks got closed down and our trip got cancelled and refunded. What a downer. I don’t know how else to describe it for me than painful. As we got closer to the dates that we had originally planned to go, all I could think about was the trip that I was not getting, that I was being cheated out of. I started looking at my old photos of the trips and could visualize parts of the trail when I closed my eyes. Then the National Parks closure got extended to the end of May and our first frontcountry camping trip of the season got cancelled and refunded. We had planned to camp in Jasper and spend the Saturday running the Berg Lake Trail in neighboring Mt. Robson Provincial Park. Well, scratch that off the list. Then races got cancelled. Sinister 7 and Canadian Death Race were unable to run this year due to provincial restrictions put in place on large gatherings. And don’t get me wrong, I understand the reason behind all of this and I do agree with most of the decisions made by governments to keep us safe at this time. It just seemed like a lot hit me at once.
So as the weekend came in late April that I was supposed to be at an unnamed lake in the Canadian Rockies, I had to decide if I still wanted to take the time off of work still or if I should just work. I shifted my days off a bit but decided to take a Friday and a Monday off. Being a bit unmotivated at this point and having already cancelled a morning of physically distanced local hiking with one of my hiking buddies the day before, I forced myself to get out on some local trails each day since most of them had dried up by then. So, on the Friday I took the boys and we went to a city park for a couple of hours and hiked some fun single-track trails. Then on the Saturday the family went down in the ravine near our house for a couple of hours. Sunday morning, I took the dog down into a different part of the ravine near home for an eleven kilometre walk. It felt good to be out, but I still hadn’t come close to scratching my itch for an adventure. All of the trails that weekend had been lovely, but I had been on all of them before. Where could I go on Monday (without breaking any law) for something new? I had an idea in my head… I had gone here before, but it had been a long time, and I had turned back pretty early on. So far in my personal Choose Your Own Adventure, I had been taking the easier, more known choice. Now it was time to turn the page to a different challenge.
Sunday night I asked my oldest son Eric if he wanted to join me for an adventure the next day. Living in the City of Edmonton there are hundreds of kilometres of defined trails in the river valley and the many ravines. We are very fortunate to have such a large urban park and trail system. However, there aren’t really any trails heading west along the North Saskatchewan River outside of Edmonton towards the Town of Devon. That was where I wanted to go. And just by fluke that night, we noticed that our friendly neighborhood Race Director Todd had been out that way a couple days before and tracked his route on Strava. Now, knowing Todd, we knew that his “route” may involve bushwhacking, hopping wire fencing, swimming in the river and climbing a tree or two. We may even have to do some cow tipping! So, we figured we would use it as a “guide” but have some flexibility to do our own thing as well. Eric liked the idea and we embarked around 8am on Monday morning for what was, a new adventure for me!
What a day it was! Nicely defined trail for a few kilometres, followed by some very tight single track and coming out to some sweet river valley views. Having to tread carefully in spots, you couldn’t stride and view at the same time or you’d end up down a cliff and in the river! We ventured into some meadows and across the water to what appeared to be an island. Travelling around the island we came upon massive ice chunks that had been beached here by a windy day on the river the day before. Each step was an unknown, not knowing if you would slip through (which we did) or slide off (which we also did).
Upon leaving the island (it was attached to land in one spot, so not quite an island) we came across an area that appeared to have people living off the land on it. A large tent draped in hundreds of scarves, a large fenced wire pen (used for Fight Club perhaps?), skulls on tables, stained glass, a basketball hoop with the backboard on upside down and last but certainly not least the steeple of a church. It was at this point that I do admit we got a little concerned and spooked. Were there people living here right now? This feels like a horror movie where only one person gets out alive. That trailer over there with all the blinds closed… did a blind just move? I turned to Eric “where is the trail from here?” He checked his watch and said it was right behind the creepy trailer. “Oh good, hopefully no one jumps out with a chainsaw at us!” After some searching, we found the trail and got out of there. What a strange sight to come across…
What followed was some lovely single track with some large trees offering us shade. Down down down we went to an old quad road that followed the river for about five kilometres. On this trail we came across an old car just abandoned there along with many other trinkets and a great deal of No Trespassing signs that always seemed to be in a different direction than we were headed, so hopefully no landowners would be popping out chasing us with a shotgun. After coming out of the quad road we passed a beautiful ranch and a private hall, campground and golf course that I never even knew existed. After 17kms we were up on a country road with no other trails in sight. The sun was out and we saw three deer nearby. It was so peaceful and quiet in that moment… it reminded me of my backcountry trip. This is the feeling I was looking for and I had found it.
As we ventured back on the same route, now familiar to us, I took it all in differently. We ran when we wanted to and we walked when we felt like it, or when the trails demanded it of us. I took off my hat and enjoyed the sun and the breeze in my face as we got back alongside the river. After leaving the island I took a wrong step crossing the mud bridge and totally submerged my foot, ankle and calf in the murky water. Rather than get upset or frustrated, somehow it felt refreshing and it made me smile. The way back to “civilization” had some tough climbs and some fun descents. My watch died at around 30kms and I asked Eric if he wanted to make this into a 35km run rather than a 32km or so that it was likely to be if we went straight back to the vehicle. He agreed and once we got back across the river, we took a route towards our local dog park and did a loop before heading back along the road to where we had parked.
As I passed many people out for walks, runs and bike rides in those last few kilometres I realized a couple of things. First, we had only seen two people in the first 31kms of our day. A couple ladies had been out walking their dogs on the quad road down near the turnaround point. That was it. Despite thoughts of chainsaw massacres and creepy old summer camps at points in the adventure, we didn’t actually see anyone else. Just like being in the backcountry… solitude. The second thing I realized when passing all of these people near the end of our trek was that they all had their own adventures that day. They were likely tamer that what we had done, but maybe they had gone further or faster than they ever had that day. Isn’t that what adventure is all about?
As we hit 35kms near the vehicle and we high fived I was overcome with a sense of relief. I had found my adventure, I had found solitude, and I had great company along the way. While this adventure couldn’t quite end like my backpacking trip would have with a cold beer, I surprised Eric with a cold Orange Vanilla Coke, and we enjoyed a nice refreshing beverage as we talked about our day. Remember, adventure is still out there, it is just what you make it. And you may have to be a little bit more creative than you were before, but trust me, it is so worth the effort.
This week is Mental Health Week in Canada and this year’s message is to #GetReal with how you feel. If you are struggling, don’t just say you are fine. Reach out and connect with family or friends. If you know of someone who would benefit from a phone call or a text, don’t hesitate… get in touch with them. It could be the most important thing you do all week.