Big Hill Trail (Yellowknife)


The trail is more of a route than a demarked trail, twisting through root-y trees, up over lichen covered boulders and down sheer sides, jutting sideways and over any place feet can safely be placed on this pre-Cambrian rock, among these northern trees.  The trail is unserviced but marked by community members, mostly with tape, an occasional cairn.


Everyone who marked it used different tape — yellow and pink trail tape, green painter’s tape, occasionally, white and blue stripes.  It’s the kind of trail where there is no just settling in and walking — after every marker, I have to lift my head and scan for the next marker.  In the 9 km or so I walk (far further than the estimated distance, maybe because of all my back and forths looking for the trail!), there are maybe two straight stretches of 50 m or so, both of these on boulders where the path was scraped by glaciers eons ago.

IMG_9777I hike alone, tempering my nervousness about the barely-there trail, the lack of map, with the reassurance that the trail is mentioned on the official visitors’ site for Yellowknife.  Just finding the starting point was a challenge, just a rough pullout off the highway about 23 km outside the city, the only sign that I’m in the right place a trailing pink piece of tape entering the forest.  I’m not sure why I was so determined to do this particular trail instead of the flat prospectors’ trail in the territorial park closer to the city, but I only have one day here, and I’ve never been to the Canadian North before, and I want to feel inside it, feel its bones and spine, just a little bit.

The first part of the hike is sunny, and I’m completely present, my feet moving nimbly over the roots, my scrambling up the boulders as graceful as that can be.  It’s not warm, and the geese feel it, honking in giant vees flying south overhead.  Their trajectory is partly how I know I’m going in the right direction.  They are the only noise I hear, and I’m completely alone on the trail, almost alone in the entire vast area I can see.


I come to a high point, flat boulders where I can see in every directions.  Trees, rocks, small lakes, darkening sky.  I meditate for a bit, bask quietly in the sun.  Gratitude practice.  When I stand up, I have the deep restfulness of waking after a good nap.


I walk and walk, just me and the rocks and the spindly trees and the clouds.  One scramble up, and the lake the hike is named after.  I sit on the edging rocks, eat an apple, look skeptically at the dark clouds that are appearing.


The only description I had of this trail called it a “hidden treasure” and a “6 km round trip trail.”  Somehow I had it in my head that it was a loop, so I spend about 15 minutes looking for the alternative entry.  I don’t find it, and as I start back the way I came, it starts to rain, first gently, then pouring.  The boulders become slick as the lichen gets wet, and the trail tape gets less jaunty.  I go off in the wrong direction several times, and at one point, lose track of the tape entirely.  Good lord, I’m lost in the northern woods, I mutter out loud.  Twice, I step into marsh I managed to bypass on the way out.  But I stay calm, and I backtrack, and every time, I find the trail again.

Winding my way back is less full of wonder.  It’s harder to find the markers in this direction for some reason, and the slippery rocks make me a little anxious.  I try not to think about the story I heard recently about someone’s friend canoeing on her own who broke her arm on a portage and had to wait 3 days before someone came along who could help her get out. (Who just told me that story?).  Mostly, I think about how a hiking trail , like everything else in the world, can be summed up in one terse sentence — unserviced 6 km round trip trail, beautiful view of small lake —  but walking it requires step-by-step presence, is a whole world in every moment, a world filled with the honk of geese, the slick of rain, wet shoes, the focused scan for the next marker — and brief elation and relief when it’s spotted, giving way immediately to scanning for the next, endless sweep of trees and jutting rock, low heavy cloud, the distant sound of occasional cars, slight ache of foot, an unexpected deep sigh, fogged glasses, planting every footstep with caution and certainty.  Here, now, where I find myself.




Tony [76?]

August 23rd was my dad’s birthday.  He would have been 76 this year, which is almost impossible to imagine — he died at 50.

I usually like to light a candle for him on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death.  I was traveling for work this week on Wednesday and was in Montreal.  After I left my meeting, before I went to the airport, I went into the Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, the blatantly baroque revival basilica near the Gare Central.  I think it’s my favourite church in Canada — it’s so in your face — and I usually go in and light a candle when I’m in Montreal.

IMG_9663 There was a noon Mass happening when I crept in this time, and I was surprised at how many people were there.  I left my little wheely bag at the side and snuck up to far left of the altar.  I fed loonies noisily into the slot and lit a candle.  I stood for a few minutes thinking about the line of history stretching back from my dad, French Canadian and Irish, the catholic church in the centre.

When I was at my mother’s earlier in the summer, I went through the one remaining box of Stuff that belonged to me in her basement.  It was mostly things I didn’t want — blurry, off centre, faded photos from the 70s, postcards I’d collected as a child, a doll I don’t even remember.  But there was a photo of my dad I’d never seen before.  Straw hat, grass skirt, joy and sunglasses inside. The essence of Tony.

Tony grass skirt.jpg

Happy birthday, Dad.

Triadventure 2017

I’ve blogged here a lot about the project in Uganda I’ve been working on (with a small group of other incredible people) for ten years.  Last weekend we had our annual fundraiser.  I blogged about it on Fit is a Feminist Issue, where I also write regularly. Read it here if you haven’t seen it.

I think the best part was having my sweet baby nephew (and his parents, of course ;-)) with me.





Microholiday: Halifax

Sunday evening I finished riding 125 km as part of a three day fundraiser I’m a key part of making happen, and promptly tossed my clothes in the laundry as I turned around to pack for Halifax.

I am doing a cross-country tour for a project that’s taking me to six Canadian cities in august, doing some focus groups on a pretty tough topic. I spend a fair bit of time talking to people who’ve been close to horrible violence, including people whose children have been murdered. And this time, I’m physically and emotionally weary to start with. The event, a fundraiser for the Uganda project, took a lot to pull off.  I’ve been traveling a lot.  And my phone reminded me, as I was packing, that I was about to get my period.

For breath and space, I looked for slices of time that could be micro-holidays in Halifax.  I had booked an air bnb, which turned out to be lovely. I arrived, changed and walked down to the waterfront, far enough away to be a significant walk.  I was on the hunt for something to sleep in, since my 10 minute packing job somehow omitted both a not-sports bra and jammies.

The Halifax waterfront is always soul-soothing.  The cram of ice cream and beavertail huts doesn’t take away from the lure of the sea, the sense of a very real port with Real Things Happening.


As I wandered, I almost immediately found a shop in a shipping container with bike rentals.  I was more focused at first on the tshirts — jammie tops! — and then it dawned on me that I could rent a bike for my time here.  Ride to my meeting, have some wheels.


I chose a sweet red vintage-replica city bike with a sagging basket.  While we were doing the paperwork, I got into a lovely conversation with the young woman about the project in Uganda, her yearning to do more.  She studied environmental science and is now studying music.  Suddenly she said, “have you seen the eclipse?” and handed me a pair of glasses to put on.  Without expecting to, I joined everyone across the continent in marvelling at the bite in the sun.


I took my bike and, wandering, found myself at what turned out to be one of the most recommended restaurants in Halifax.  I ate shrimp and linguine with lobster and watched the sea.  Then rode my sweet bike back to my air bnb, where I had the perfect bath, set up by the best hosts I’ve encountered.

Micro-holiday in the middle of jangled time.  The moments that create space and grounding.

Sanctions against Russia and cheese

I posted the other day about how my time with my guide in Russia gave a face and story to global headlines.

I heard the announcement yesterday about increased US sanctions against Russian and Putin’s retaliation through the lens of the woman who guided me to Peterhof and Pushkin — food. We had been talking about her childhood in Soviet times, and how they had plenty of locally grown fruit where she lived in Uzbekistan — melons, berries — but oranges were imported and rare, and every Christmas they got a box of chocolates and one orange.

“I was 20 before I had a banana,” she said. “At the time I thought it was manna.” She paused. “Now I am indifferent to bananas, but I am a vegetarian, and the big problem is cheese. I depend on it as an important part of my diet. With the sanctions, we cannot get good cheese. In Soviet times, there were only three types of cheese, but they were all good — now all of the cheese we can get is terrible.”

When they can, they cross-border shop to Finland to buy… cheese. Because all that good European cheese can’t make its way through the economic sanctions.

Sanctions are headlines, and they are also this lovely woman and her inability to get cheese.

Why Russia was important

I’m back in Tallinn, after an early morning train. This time I was sharing my little cabin with a woman who was asleep and snoring slightly when I crept in, the Conductrice shhhhing me gently with her fingers. I listened to a podcast about the Romanovs, half asleep, until we got to the Russian border, when the attendant came and woke us up. My cabin mate sprang up, changed out of her pyjamas, put on some lipstick and spoke to me in English. She was a breeder and shower of St. Bernards, on her way to a dog show in Narva. Her five dogs were in a car with a handler. Her sister lives in Houston. She was a builder of apartments the rest of the time.
I was glad for the chance to chat with someone random before I left Russia. Now that I’m officially “on my way home” (I fly back to Canada tomorrow morning), I’ve been musing on what the whirlwind trip to Russia “meant.” Curiosity, mostly, and a chance to see the Famous Things of the World — but also, a bit, engaging with the nervousness I have around certain places. I alluded to this yesterday, and I was trying to articulate the source of it. There are places where I feel a certain kind of confidence, where I know “how to do it” — places that are easy to navigate for Canadians, like Western Europe and SE Asia.  And now, because of familiarity, East Africa. Even when there is real potential “danger,” like in the DRC, I’m still confident about how to navigate them. But there are places that make me more anxious, and Russia is one of them.
Part of it is the uncertainty about how much of the prevailing public temperature about places is genuinely a concern or not — how likely IS It that my devices will be hacked and my identity stolen? That I’ll stumble across some mafia deal gone wrong and end up murdered in a Russian sauna? Not very. But part of it is not knowing what channel of recourse there is if something goes badly, and part of it is simply the risk of difficult interactions because of language.
But even with those things, there’s a huge gulf between genuine alarm and what really happens. I actually get lost a fair bit in cities with different alphabets, but so far, I’ve always found my way home, even that time in Mandalay when no one knew my hotel. (Somehow, magically, in the dark, I ended up on the back of someone’s motorcycle pulling up to my hotel). I used to get very very anxious in foreign cities when we couldn’t find cabs to get home late at night (ask my poor ex about the two spectacular meltdowns in San Francisco and London), but now, I just assume I’ll find my way.  I couldn’t find my pickup from the train at midnight on Wednesday; I just made sure I got rubles from the ATM before I left the station (always have local cash before you leave the airport or station), and found a taxi. I was fine.
I think Russia represented something more than basic travel discomfort, though, something about, in a way, confronting the rise of “otherness” that has emerged in the world. I hinted at this with my jokes on FB about how the gilt-dipped baroque palaces of the Romanovs seemed to be the model for Trump’s decor and his view of the world. It was a joke, but it wasn’t — there really is something nested in the space of venal excess about a worldview where the acquisition of money and power are the end in and of themselves, where displays of that money and power stand in for virtue, where might reigns supreme and the suffering of so many as a result doesn’t matter. Where, in fact, those who suffer deserve to, because they haven’t demonstrated that they are as “deserving” — i.e capable of strong-arming others.

Like so many people I know, when I let myself think about it, I’m absolutely distraught about the current state of the world, the brutality, the misogyny, the homophobia, the privileging of wealth and might.  Learning more about the history of Estonia — 800 years of other powers taking over its land — Sweden, the Danes, Prussians, Germans, Russians, Soviets, more Germans, more Russians — was like nodding along to a long-repeated story. This tiny country continually invaded, seized, for access to its ports and routes to Russia, with no regard for its people. In one of the museums of Estonian history I visited, there was a little video that had little figures of the population of Estonia going up and down as different powers converted them, slaughtered them, made them flee.
I think I partly wanted to visit Russia at this moment in history to confront a little bit all of my unease at the apparently intractable divide that is getting stronger and stronger in our world. It was a welcome coincidence that it was my (late) mentor’s birthday while I was in St. Petersburg; as Linda and I said in text, what would Barnett make of Trump, of the Putin/Trump alliance, of the complete breakdown of cosmopolitan communication, any space for bringing opposing viewpoints about what constitutes good in the world together. I wanted to reduce my personal “othering” of Russia.
I got the gift of the perfect person to help me do this in the guide I hired to take me to Pushkin and Peterhof yesterday. I splurged on a driver and personal guide for the summer palaces at the encouragement of my friend Pamela, thinking it would be really good to actually have someone to talk to about everything I was experiencing. I was lucky enough to end up with a guide (who I won’t name) who was perfect for me — she said how much she appreciated that I could walk, and fast like her, so we covered all of the fountains in the lower park of the Grand Palace, and we talked about how we both love to travel, and don’t get bored with our own company. And later in the day, she opened up about her unhappiness at the regime, and how much her son hates Putin, and how although he is a brilliant student, she is afraid he will be barred from university because he’s actively protesting.

If I lived in St Petersburg, she would become my friend, and we would march briskly through the streets together. She gave me a hug at the end of the tour. But she gave me a lot more than that — she gave me a face, a name, a story, a son, to recognize that the world that feels full of animosity is filled with people I care about.