A few short months ago, the forest trails were but a thread through the lush green tunnel. Without a trail, in fact, travel through the woods in summer would prove nearly impossible. After a rain, the crowding branches leave you drenched. At times the undergrowth is so thick, your view of the ground is cut off, leaving your feet to navigate the rocks and rocks on their own. In the early morning light, your mind imagines how many creatures – porcupines, deer, wolves, or especially bears – might be minding their own business, invisible mere inches from the trail.
But now, in the heart of winter, the forest has transformed.
Where once you felt lost in the woods, the main road now lies in plain view, only a few bare tree trunks separating the trail from the sparse but rushing cars. Once well-concealed nests stand out awkwardly, exposed in the branches. The rolling hills, all the “secret ceases of the earth,” as Wendell Berry called them, once hidden under the dense forest, are revealed.
Annie Dillard poetically describes winter in her Virginia backyard in Pilgrim at Tinder Creek:
“The woods are acres of sticks; I could walk to the Gulf of Mexico in a straight line. When the leaves fall the striptease is over; things stand mute and revealed. Everywhere skies extend, vistas deepen, walls become windows, doors open.”
Another striking contrast: silence. Wind blows hollowly through the bare trees. The sound of a chickadee or woodpecker join with the deer tracks to remind us of animal life quietly enduring this silent season.
In winter, it’s surprisingly easy to forget that any other season ever existed. While listening to the wind in the trees, you might think, as in Narnia, winter is how it will always be (but never Christmas).
Dillard reflects on a first human’s experience of this phenomenon:
“How long would you have to live on earth before you could feel with any assurance that any one particular long period of cold would, in fact, end?”
Maybe knowing winter as temporary is what makes it special. We can endure the cold, the short days and long nights, precisely because we know it won’t last.
Before long, the sun will exert its force, the snow will melt, and the forest will fill up with life to the brim.
But until then, we listen to snow falling gently through the trees, our warm breath rising to meet the crisp winter air.
I saw an owl the other day. Against dawn’s glowing eastern sky, a silent silhouette suspended in the branches between the path and the grassy field. I stopped to watch the rare sight, trying to make out the details of the great creature in the dim light.
Although my eyes struggled, I knew I hadn’t snuck up on this nocturnal creature. Had my daughter been with me, she would have recounted again how nocturnal creatures like owls have highly-sensitive senses of hearing and eyesight, specially adapted for hunting at night. (It’s amazing what kids – and their parents – learn through school research projects.)
In the lengthening darkness of autumn turning to winter, we too become nighttime beings. The darkness seeps slowly into our bones, along with the cold. And while we speak a lot of the realities of seasonal depression and deficiencies, new opportunities to experience the nighttime world also present themselves.
Ever since organizing the first Longest Night Run 3 years ago, I’ve become acutely aware of darkness this season brings, and have realized the beauty of this time of year. Our inspiration for the event came from the realities of our friends’ journey with cancer, and specifically Ashleigh’s eloquent description of “inhabiting the darkness”, which is worth another read.
“If I inhabit the darkness, I can discover beautiful things. My senses can become sharpened to the good and joyful and loving that has always been there.”
This week, as I completed my morning runs in the dark, and played in the fresh snow with the kids in the evening, I thought about the owl. I leaned into the darkness, hoping that my senses would adjust and become more attuned to the world around me. Not in spite of the darkness, but because of it.
This year in particular has brought greater challenges to many of us, facing the realities of a pandemic, along with the loneliness and limitations brought about by our attempts to lessen the virus’ spread. But even now, maybe not in spite of this darkness, but because of it, we see our communities, families, friends, neighbours, coming together to support each other in beautiful ways.
Maybe we can hope this darkness will also train our senses to appreciate our communities in new ways, and support those in need.
By the way, the Longest Night Run is again being planned for this year, and registration is open. We’ll run (or walk, or bike, or trike) to inhabit the darkness together, even though we can’t be together in person. We’re again raising funds to support Ashleigh and Jordan Dueck on their cancer journey. I hope you’ll join us.Click here to register now.
For the past couple years I’ve heard stories about the Mantario Hiking Trail from friends who’d hiked and run it. At about 63km (40 miles) long, it’s not to be taken lightly. The trail was created in 1970s (though I wonder at its prior history), and traces a north-south path through the Mantario Wilderness Zone, over Canadian Shield precambrian rock, through miles of swamp and bog, skirting along pristine lakes, featuring beautiful views along the way. Aside from a few railroad crossing, there are few interactions with the modern world on the trail.
The Mantario Trail has the allure of some of the “great” trails, and presents an irresistible challenge to hikers and runners. Running the trail had been a “someday” kind of dream until, suddenly this year, “someday” got a name: Saturday, September 12.
On this day, a couple friends would be running the trail as part of the Mantario Challenge fundraising event, and a few more of us decided to tag along. The week leading up to the big day was spent mentally tracing the map, thinking through the logistics of obtaining water, keeping my body fuelled, and preparing for the great unknown. I was nervous. We’d run a short section of the trail a few weeks prior, and those couple hours of climbing up rock ridges and carefully descending down wet rocks faces straight into soggy bogs had left me with a great respect for the trail. Although I didn’t doubt that I could complete the trek, I wondered how my body would hold up after 10-12 hours of climbing, slogging, hiking, and, at least occasionally, running. Nature Manitoba claims hiking the whole trail requires 30 hours of hiking time, and recommends 3-4 days to complete. We would be attempting to take the whole trail on one day, within the 13 hours of daylight the early autumn sun would provide.
At the dark hour of 4:35am (yes, in the morning) on September 12, Terry picked me up, and our group of fearless runners drove up to the Whiteshell to begin our epic day.
Exploring is delightful to look forward to and back upon, but it is not comfortable at the time, unless it be of such an easy nature as not to deserve the name.
Samuel Butler, Erewhon, 1872
By the time the sun rose at 7am, we were on the trail. Our group of seven quickly broke up into smaller groups dependent on speed of travel. Terry and the other Terry and I fell into a shared easy pace together. Aside from our one earlier run to Caribou Lake and back a few weeks ago, we were all new to the Mantario. Everything past the first hour or so would be completely new to each of us, and we did our best to take it all in.
My motto for long adventure runs this year has been “move quickly, but don’t hurry.” Nothing ruins a long day on a trail quicker than the feeling of having to rush. Running in itself lends itself to rushing, but it’s not hard to miss the moment, whatever pace you happen to be moving. We stayed content with our pace, making sure to stop to take photos and enjoy the views.
About 20km in I first had my first stab of doubt. As I hopped to a rock on the trail, a little jab of pain shot through my right knee. This was no time for niggles, and I kept moving forward, monitoring the knee for more signs of damage. The pain flared up a couple more times, whenever I landed a particular way on my right leg. I continued on, feeling it out, hoping I wouldn’t have to turn back or walk it out. Slowly the pain subsided and I was able to continue on, taking some extra care when climbing or descending rock ridges.
I looked forward to getting to Moosehead Lake, the halfway point of the trail. Though we’d be far from done at this point, there’d be no looking back, knowing the fastest way to the finish would be to keep moving forward. (Although one fellow trail runner reminded me the fastest way out was actually via helicopter, but as fun as that sounded, I didn’t want to think about needing a rescue pick-up.)
A few kilometres before we reached Moosehead, where we would refill our water bottles in the lake, I hit my low point. There’s always a low point (or several) on any long adventure, and this would prove to be my biggest. Out of breath, my leg started to feel sluggish as I struggled to keep up with the Terrys. I ate some of my snacks, hoping they’d help lift my spirits. Then I also remembered my secret weapon, a sweet and salty concoction consisting of pickle juice, lime juice, and syrup (which all tastes better than it sounds), and took a swig. By the time we’d finished our refill break at Moosehead and set off on the 2nd half of the trail, my legs had started to respond, and slowly felt better and better throughout the day.
The trail map had warned us about the difficulty of next stretch of trail, and it wasn’t wrong. Winding up, down, and around huge precambrian rock ridges, this was also one of the most beautiful sections of the trail, featuring sweeping views Mantario Lake and others. These were landscapes most Manitobans would hardly believe existed in a province known for it’s flat prairies and boring, endless highways.
Rock ridges, though, also made for navigational difficulties throughout the trail, as the trail could fizzle out at a moment’s notice atop a large rock face. Several times, as we descended the backside of a ridge to drop back into a forest, our group, which at this point had grown as we joined forces temporarily with another group on the trail, would fan out to search for the next blue sign. The trail, with each blue sign and rock cairn, was our lifeline, the thread that would ensure our safe passage through the wilderness.
Trail runners talk about some trails as being “runnable”, meaning you can easily get into a running rhythm on them and move as quickly as you like. The Mantario is not one of those. The trail, or rather the terrain which the trail helped us navigate, imposed itself upon us, requiring that we go at the pace it required. We submitted to its pace, looking for opportunities to run when possible, between hopping over downed trees, sinking into bogs, and wayfinding.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
Shortly after passing signs to Ritchey Lake, with the promise of easier trails ahead, we were suddenly slowed to a crawl. Terry, who’d rolled his ankle an hour earlier, realized that he could no longer run on it, slowing him down to a painful walk. We’d agreed at the outset that no one would be left behind, so we also slowed to match his pace. As Mantario rookies, one thing we knew was how quickly you could get into trouble with a missed trail marker or unlucky fall.
Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.
By this point, I also realized I’d made a rookie mistake in my water calculations. Although encouraged to fill all water bottles at Moosehead, I’d left one bottle only half full. Although there are 25 lakes within one kilometre of the Mantario Trail, I was learning that with all the soaring rock cliffs and ridges, not all were easily accessible. I began to ration my water, hoping I’d have enough to get me to the next accessible lake, Hemenway.
At Hemenway Lake, 12km or so from the finish, I finally was able to refill my water bottles, stealing a few eager sips while waiting for the purification tablets to do their thing. Although I felt ok, I knew I was a little dehydrated, which was something I’d struggled with on runs in the past (the most recent of which had sent me racing to the bathroom the moment I got home).
We continued at our walking pace along the northern shore of Big Whiteshell Lake. This may be the most torturous section of the whole trail, as Big Whiteshell represents the final lake of the journey, but is also the largest. And at our pace, the kilometres couldn’t tick by fast enough.
Then, with 5km or so left, my earlier dehydration caught up with me. Just as I took a final swig of my secret pickle juice elixir, the entire contents of my stomach found the fastest route back up and out of my body. Terry kindly took a few steps back on the trail to let me finish up. While sitting on a log recovering my whits, a runner we’d passed earlier in the day caught up with us. “What are you guys doing?” she asked. I don’t remember our reply, but it probably wasn’t entirely honest.
Epic trail adventures can be spoken of with a touch of pride, in the same way a mountain-climber might talk about “conquering” a great mountain peak. And there’s a sense in which I’d approached this challenge with a desire to conquer the Mantario. But, in the process of completing the trail, I felt less like a conqueror, and more like I myself had been conquered.
On a trail, to walk is to follow. Like prostration or apprenticeship, trail walking both requires and installs a certain measure of humility.
Robert Moor, On Trails
We continued until we reached the North Trailhead and the end of our journey, to the congratulations of some of the Mantario Challenge finishers. Getting there (and realizing the distinct lack of amenities, such as water or cell service), we sat down directly on the asphalt, tired, aching, finished.
The next day our running group would text back and forth about our various aches and pains, stating how we’d permanently “retired” from running, while simultaneously looking ahead expectantly to the next adventure ahead.
At sunrise on Saturday, August 1, a fisherman stood outside his tent at the point where the Rat and Red Rivers meet. Rod in hand, a curious smirk crossed his face as he watched 11 runners walk down to the river’s edge, dip their toes in the water, then start off running towards the sun.
August 1 marked the anniversary of the day when, 146 years earlier in this very spot, the first group of 65 Mennonite families stepped off a steam-powered river boat called the “International” onto the land they would come to call “home”. These families spent their first their first weeks in Jacob Shantz Reception Houses (a mile south of present-day Niverville) until they were able to build other homes and establish communities in the surrounding area. Within the year, communities like New Bothwell (then called “Kronsthal”), Randolph (“Chortitz”), and Steinbach (uh, “Steinbach”) had been settled, forming the foundations of many of communities that continue to thrive today.
Inspired in part by Rickey Gate’s Cross-County Challenge to run across your home “county”, and a recent reading of Cameron Dueck’s Menno Moto, we sought to explore the history of our home region, and have some fun along the way. And when we discovered the distance between the Mennonite Landing and Steinbach was pretty much exactly 42.2km, the distance of a marathon, we knew the route was practically begging to be run.
Plotting the route beforehand on Google Maps, it looked ordinary enough. Traversing the grid of mile roads, about 19 miles east, 4 miles south, it would be pretty tough to get lost. The watersheds of the Rat and Red Rivers are notoriously flat, meaning no terrain to cause any roads or fields of crops to deviate from their square patchwork pattern.
But, as always, we found the prairies full of subtle surprises.
After a short run up the 200 highway, we turned east onto a dirt road which was part of the historic Crow Wing Trail. With corn fields on either side stretching higher than our heads, the road feel more like a trail, and offered a picturesque view of the glowing sunrise.
A few miles later we were scheduled to pass by the immigration sheds (or “reception houses”), where we were told a monument was in the process of being erected. If my running partners expected a running commentary on the history of the area from me, they would quickly be disappointed, as we passed this historic landmark without noticing so much as an up-turned stone.
As we ran, I wondered how this land must have looked before Mennonites arrived. Growing up, the narrative of our homeland started with the arrival of an oppressed group of people searching for freedom and farmland, but what was the story of this land before we showed up on the scene? The immigrant Mennonites, known for their industry, had completely transformed an entire landscape within the span of a few generations. If there had been forests or trees before they arrived, the pieces of evidence were now few and far between.
New Bothwell offered some limestone trails on the side of the highway to mix up the monotony of the gravel roads. Though we could have stopped to snoop around for historic landmarks and the iconic home of Manitoba cheese, we carried on. (I was such a terrible tour guide.)
At Randolph we found fulfillment of our curiosities, as we stopped to check out the historic church building and cemetery that was home to ancestors of several of our runners. The cornerstone of the church read “1874-2014”, bringing the history of 146 years quickly forward into the present. Although the building itself was erected in 1897 (causing some confusion about the dates on the building itself), the congregation that met in the building – before dissolving in 2010 – had been the oldest Mennonite congregation in western Canada.
Although we had an established route, several runners modified their path to weave in some landmarks of personal significance. Steffan connected each of his four grandparents’ childhood farms and his parents’ childhood farms, ending up at his own home near Blumenort. Greg ran to several of his grandparents’ graves and their old farmsteads (racking up some extra miles along the way). Although it surely would have been quicker to drive between all these places, and get home before breakfast, tracing the route on foot slowly created a connection with place that can’t be achieved any other way.
As we made our final approach to Steinbach along the busy #12 highway, with tired legs but good spirits, then as we snacked on watermelon and roll kuchen with Roger’s golden syrup (is there any better motivation to run?), we reflected on the long history lying beneath today’s city of industry, asphalt, and the homes of nearly 15,000 people. Our entire crew left the day with a fresh perspective on our home, and a curiosity about the history we share.
Weeks after the run, my wife and I took a stroll through Steinbach, stopping to read some of the plaques describing our little city’s beginnings. At each plaque mentioning the date “1874”, I thought back to the time we dipped our running shoes into the water where the Rat and Red Rivers meet, and the distance we traveled to get from there to here.
With thanks to Erin of Mennotoba for helping with the planning of our route. She’d make a better tour guide than I, you can read some of her discoveries about the area here. And thanks to Greg for helping hatch this idea in the first place. It’s not crazy if you get other people to join you. And to Mae for keeping all of us hydrated along the way. And Anna for making sure we had enough roll kuchen.
I’ve been having trouble sleeping. This time of year there’s so much light. The start hardly goes down in the northwest before it’s coming back up again in the east.
As summer hits, I begin to feel an urgency. To do. To see. Like the ferns and flowers frantically reaching for the sky, shouting “Now!” Now is the time for evening bike rides, forest explorations, pulling at weeds, running all the trails. Now!
This week I discovered some “secret creases” around a creek with our oldest daughter. Looking back, I realize I’d been here before, last year.
Behind big boxes Trails trace the hidden creases Two geese tend their young
But seeing and smelling the enchanted creek bed again through the years of a 10-year-old, I felt just as alive as the fields bursting with green grasses.
Maybe this is the same urgency pulsing through Mary Oliver’s famous poem, “The Summer Day”:
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean — the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down — who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
A few weeks ago a few friends and I decided to run from Hadashville to Marchand, MB via trails. In addition to my haiku of the day, I made a little 8-page zine to document the adventure.
This route had always been a curiosity to me. But for all the poking around on Google Maps, there’s nothing like actually dropping “into the map”, and experiencing trails on your own feet.
I often approach adventures on a backdrop of thoughts from books I’m reading or conversations I’ve had recently. I had just finished reading Frédéric Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking prior to this run, which offered a great perspective on moving slowly across a landscape on foot.
Thanks to Greg, Justin, and Gord for the adventure. You’re not crazy if your “crazy” is shared with friends, right?
Here’s another little zine I made from a map page, featuring a poem by Antonio Machado.
Caminante no hay Camino
Caminante, son tus huellas el camino y nada más; Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Al andar se hace el camino, y al volver la vista atrás se ve la senda que nunca se ha de volver a pisar. Caminante no hay camino sino estelas en la mar.
Traveler, your footprints are the only road, nothing else. Traveler, there is no road; you make your own path as you walk. As you walk, you make your own road, and when you look back you see the path you will never travel again. Traveler, there is no road; only a ship’s wake on the sea.
I first heard this poem in Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, and have been reminded of it at times where I’m looking for a map for the path ahead. Maybe thanks to Frozen II (whose songs are permanently embedded into my mind, continually reinforced by our three little princesses), but stepping into the unknown, and doing “the next right thing” has been a theme of late. Maybe because the norms of our whole society have been shaken as well.
When I was a kid, I was enthralled by secret portals into other worlds. Books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Secret Garden captured my young imagination. What if I could crawl into a tunnel, a cave, or an ordinary wardrobe, and enter into a secret mystical world?
I imagined carving a hole through the wall in my basement bedroom closet, where I could disappear into my secret world (aka: the storage room) at a moment’s notice. (Don’t worry, mom and dad, I didn’t touch the drywall.)
Unfortunately, knock on the back of most wardrobes in the “real world”, and you’ll find them decidedly hard and un-magical. And in the real world, my imagined secret cave in the storage room was filled with cardboard boxes and very real-world-smelly hockey equipment.
But a few years ago I listened to an episode of the 99% Invisible podcast called Secret Staircases, and my childhood dream was reborn. Charles Fleming has mapped the hundreds secret staircases that transport pedestrians between San Fransisco’s streets and neighbourhoods. Ordinary towns and cities are filled with secret portals between worlds, if you’re willing to look for them.
My prairie town of Steinbach doesn’t have any staircases, but we do have secret passages. Have you ever used one?
Well first of all, the “secret” aspect is fascinating to me — they’re not always easy to spot. Also, it’s delightful to leave the path of cars, and go my own way. I mean, when you go by foot you’re a lot more free to make your own path… but it’s always nice to know the city endorses certain ways to get around, we don’t always need to be alongside cumbersome vehicles. And it occurred to me one day, that maybe I could figure out a route in which I’d be walking the most secret paths possible. I still haven’t devised this route because I’m hoping I’ll discover more secret routes I can add to my map.
I also asked Erin about her favourite “secret path” to walk in Steinbach:
I feel like every “secret path” aficionado will say that it’s the back lane that runs from Willow to Main, behind Southwood Drive — the way the path bends is positively enchanting!
I use a secret path nearly everyday on my walking commute, giving me a daily dose of magic. My secret sidewalk transports me from a fairly busy neighbourhood street near the highway, in between grassy and fenced backyards, and into the quiet street I call home. Most people who know this neighbourhood only through their car windshield overlook it completely (I know this because of how rarely they slow down for the pedestrian crossing).
I took some friends on a walk through my secret path a few years ago, and as we entered the “new world”, I witnessed the looks of wonder and surprise on their faces. Right in the middle of our little town, we had transported ourselves into a new world.
I’ve compiled a map of all the secret paths I’ve discovered in Steinbach, connecting paths that are mostly inaccessible to vehicles and help one see a neighbourhood from a fresh perspective. Thanks to Erin for the invaluable additions to this map, and for opening my eyes to a whole network of “garden paths” that were mostly unknown to me previously. Also included are the “secret parks” in town, which are a delight to kids and grownups alike.
(If you know of one not listed, let me know and I’ll add it.)
If you’re looking for a dose of the magical in your ordinary day, try getting outside and finding a secret path in your own backyard. You might be surprised what you discover.