Still Walking in an Epidemic

When I wrote about taking walks during the COVID-19 epidemic a couple of weeks ago, I knew that social changes were coming, but even so I didn’t that things would change as quickly as they have.

Just 3 weeks ago, COVID-19 was serious but still something that impacted someone else, somewhere else. Now it’s here, in Toronto, and very much hitting home. The city and the province have declared states of emergency. Neighbours and acquaintances are in self-isolation. At least one relative has tested positive for COVID-19. Our parents are tucked up at home and sitting tight. Stores and shops are closed or only offering delivery. Our son is home and is probably done school for the year (thankfully he received early acceptance from Dalhousie University so we don’t have to worry about marks).

It seems that plans are being adjusted and changed day to day. And that’s just the precautionary impact. So far, we don’t actually know anyone who’s been seriously ill, but it feels as if it’s only a matter of time.

So there’s a carpe diem feeling in the air to some extent, which is reinforced by spring fever when the sun comes out and then tamped down and mixed a feeling of uncertainty and doubt, especially when it is gloomy and rainy. You want to keep living and enjoy life, because it appears to be just a matter of time before a full-on city-wide lockdown is declared, or worse, you contract it yourself. At the same time, you know more is coming and that we’re still on the bad side of the curve.

Walking is a distraction in times like these, and of course we’re all feeling cooped up and in need of exercise. For the first time in weeks, I’ve actually gotten out 6 days out of 7 this week. I try to keep my distance from others, so I weave from one side of the street to the other as people approach, or walk in the roadway. There are lots of people still out walking dogs, especially as the off-leash dog parks are now closed, so there are still more than a few people out on the streets, and anyone with young kids at home is trying to keep them active. All of it means that in some ways it’s actually harder to find peace and quiet on a walk, even though vehicle traffic is lighter.

One thing I’ve noticed is that, in addition to the usual flotsam left behind by the receding snow tide, there is a new line of jetsam – latex and plastic gloves. 1000 years from now, will archeologists puzzle over this clue?

It’s quieter though – you can hear the birds, the chuckle of squirrels and the rustle of the breeze in the trees. The air is cleaner too, I have to admit that. Turns out that taking cars off the road makes it easier to breath – who knew! It’s ironic that with petrol cheaper than it’s been in almost 20 years and with light traffic about, now is the time for a road trip, but no one wants to be far from home and meeting strangers.

Will that shrink our horizons? Just a few weeks ago, people thought little of jumping on a plane or in the car and buzzing off to New York or Montreal for a weekend. Now we hunker down within a 1-2 km radius – New York is the other side of the moon right now, and in full lockdown even if we could get there.

So I keep walking, even if it’s just in our flat. I can do 5-10 minutes at a time, pacing back and forth across the living room and doing stair climbs as well, and can get it up to 4,000 or 5,000 steps in a day that way. Mostly I try to go out and walk the neighbourhood, careful to touch nothing on the way in or out (I’m getting good at using my elbow to turn the door handle and my foot to push it open). Our son has put a big sign on the powder room door as you enter the flat, to remind us all to WASH HANDS.

Sign of the times.

Walks in Spring Redux

I’ve walked in the spring before of course, and each year there’s an anticipation to getting out and enjoying some warm weather. The parks and trails have cleared of snow as March progresses, and I’m starting to hear birds as they return. It hit more than 15 C the other day to bring out the early shorts wearers, and the sun is always welcome. So why not get out, go for a walk, soak up the warmth, and get some exercise.

That’s been my plan for the past few weeks, to be honest, but it’s been a slog staying motivated and getting out regularly these past few weeks. The weather has been up and down, with clear days then rainy ones. Paths are muddy and the woods are dreary without their green shoots. We are still a couple of weeks away from buds on trees and the first spring flowers.

But this is a spring like no other I’ve known – the elephant in the room is the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing means trying to limit contact with others, and in our case, we have been self-monitoring because my wife was at a conference recently and at least one attendee has since been diagnosed as having it. We’re fine, and it’s been 11 days now, so I don’t think there’s an issue, but still it makes you think.

My fallback when early spring weather makes a walk unappealing has been to catch some spring training baseball to remind myself that warmth and blue skies are on the way, and I could do that earlier in March but that’s now on hold due to the COVID-19 epidemic.

Thinking about baseball reminds me that, if you are a batter and the pitcher throws 4 pitches outside the strike zone that you don’t swing at, then you get to go to first base with a “walk”. It’s telling that there are different verbs used – you “earn” a walk, or are “awarded” a walk. It’s like it’s a prize.

So for me, spring is the perfect time to “earn” a walk. I earn it by feeling healthy and able to go out, so I can “award” myself a walk as long as the weather gods pitch me some decent weather. Social distancing is important, of course, so choosing where to walk to avoid people is part of the planning now.

But since my energy levels have been low this spring, that’s a reminder that Getting fresh air and exercise is important. I’ve gotten a bit out of the habit of long regular walks so I need to jump back on that horse, COVID-19 or not.

Hi Ho Silver indeed.

Walking in an Epidemic

Everyone has days when they feel better than others, but this is a first for me, experiencing a pandemic. As a history student, I’ve read about previous epidemics, but it’s a different level of knowledge to live it first-hand.

That said, it’s also true that, while serious, this COVID-19 outbreak is nowhere near as dangerous as diseases such as Ebola or Bubonic Plague. It is of course of great concern, and in discussing it as a family, we agreed that this is probably the most world-changing event of my son’s life. He’s coming up on 18 now, and when I think back on it, by the time I was his age the most world-changing event I had lived through was probably the moon landings – equally world-changing perhaps but at least a positive one.

It’s been interesting walking over the past few days. There are fewer people about, and fewer cars on the road. The shops are pretty packed, however – one of the 7 signs of the zombie apocalypse has to be the simultaneous clear-out of both toilet paper and baked beans from grocery store shelves – and there’s a weird vibe. No one wants to get too close to one another but being Canadian we don’t want to be rude either, so there’s a lot of smiles and after-yous as you enter the shops. The epidemic is no joke, to be sure, and taking sensible precautions mades sense, but now with many types of social gatherings being shut down the tendency is to hunker down and stay indoors.

For me, however, I’d rather get out and walk around in the open air, at least as long as I’m feeling healthy. That’s been my plan for the past few weeks, to be honest, but it’s been a slog staying motivated and getting out regularly when it’s grey and damp, slushy and muddy. I’m hoping we get a stretch of at least clear if not warm days, and then I’ll try to head down to the lake and walk in the fresh breeze.

So it’s a time to keep calm and carry on, I guess. While by no means the Black Death, this current epidemic is in its own way a reminder that we owe ourselves the rewards of health for as long as we are able to enjoy it. I’m going to keep going out as much as I can and thumbing my nose at fears and pestilence and that’s my advice – go for a walk in the sunshine and fresh air. Social distancing doesn’t have to mean becoming a hermit.

A Week without a Walk

Sometimes you just feel blah. Call it February blues – I read an article in the Economist, that analysis of song downloads on Spotify showed that month to have the most downbeat tunes. Some call it Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I call it the blahs.

And maybe I should also call it a hangover from walking TO Streets over the past few weeks. My sinuses have been clogged and I’ve had a mild headache for days, since I finished walking Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue. I don’t know if it’s the weather or just the pollution and gunge in the air. It does seem worse in winter, when damp heavy air seems to hold the dust and traffic exhaust and create a grimy blanket that you have to breath as you walk along these streets.

Anyway, whatever the reason, I’ve just needed a break from walking. I know I should be out and getting exercise, but it’s been hard to get motivated. It’s been a long time since I went a full week without at least one proper 90+ minute walk. Resting my knees, feet, and ankles, which all hurt more this time of year, is probably a good thing once in a while. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself.

I comfort myself with the thought that baseball spring training starts soon, followed by my fantasy baseball league’s annual draft, followed by Easter, followed by, I hope, some warmer, drier weather. To be able to walk without having to pull on 4 layers of clothing, trudge through slush, and dodge sprays of melt; to feel a warm breeze and hear a robin – in February these seem a million days a way. In reality it’s just 6 or 7 weeks, so I just need to be patient and get out anyway.

Give me 3 months and I’ll be cursing the heat.

A fork in the road

Roughly 40 years ago, I thought I knew where I was going in life. I had my path figured out. I was in high school, and I was going to be an aeronautical engineer, so I was taking math, physics, chemistry, and the other subjects I’d need to get into an engineering program.

And then during my final year, my path came to an unexpected fork – I failed a key math course (advanced geometry if you must know). Despite having done well in math all the way to this point, I had hit a level of math that I just could not figure out. Without high marks in all of the math disciplines, I had no hope of getting into an engineering program, so I had to take a decision about where to go. I chose a sharp turn and switched my goal to a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature.

As I progressed through university, I didn’t know where that BA would take me. What do you do with an English Lit degree? Teach? While I didn’t really want to do that, I also didn’t know what else I could do when I graduated. Then out of the blue, a friend at school told me about a great part time job, answering customer calls in a help centre for a bank. I didn’t realize it but applying for that job turned into a major fork-in-the-road life choice, partly because that part-time help desk job eventually led me into a career in software development, and more importantly because the person who hired me eventually became my friend and then my wife.

Looking back now, as I watch my son finish high school and prepare for university, I can see that I eventually did end up more or less in an engineering role, it was just in software rather than aerospace. A call centre help desk led to managing an ATM network, which led to managing problems and changes in a large data centre, which led to developing software and process solutions to handle problems and changes, which led to requirements gathering and project management, which led into general software development, and eventually to consulting in the field of program and problem management.

That’s the thing about choices and life paths. You make plans and choose paths, and sometimes those paths go where you want them to go, but other times they take you in unexpected directions.

When I walk, I will often set off along a particular route or to a specific destination – Sunnybrook Park, or the Lower Don Trail, or whatever. And while most of the time I’ll follow the path I had intended, there will be those odd occasions when life will put a fork in the road. The City is reconstructing a trail, so there’s a detour. I’m getting a blister. A thunderstorm is brewing. What do I do? Going off the trail has taken me into some interesting neighbourhoods I otherwise might have missed.

If every walk was predictable, every path foreseen, would it be fun? Probably not. Deep down, we want our paths to fork unexpectedly every once in a while, as long as it’s not too drastic a fork. Who hasn’t accidentally missed a turn and stumbled across a great little coffee shop, a beautiful garden, or a cool shady park? Those serendipitous finds are part of the charm of a good walk.

And once in a while, as well, the fork will be a big one. A career-changing opportunity to move to a new city? That chance meeting that leads to a new friendship (or marriage)? And then there are the sudden reversals – sometimes the opportunities we lose are the ones that change us the most, rather than the ones we get. And sometimes the paths we don’t chose affect us more than the ones we do. I can never know where we’d be if my wife and I had not chosen to move back to Toronto from London?

What I do know is that when a fork arrives, you have to choose and keep going, wherever that takes you. Pausing and thinking and analyzing and deciding is all well and good, but life doesn’t wait – so pick your path, and go for it. If I’m turned about (never lost, of course!) on a walk and unsure where to go, I’ll pick a direction and just start walking – eventually I’ll come to something and figure it out from there, and like as not, I’ll eventually end up where I wanted to be, at the cost perhaps of a bit of time but with the benefit of learning something new and seeing something interesting along the way. Just as my English Lit degree led to software development, often forks are simply unexpected turns in the path that get you were you want to go by more interesting routes.

So for me, 40 years gone from failing a math course, I could never have foreseen that the fork I chose then would take me to Toronto, point me at software development, lead me to work in London, San Francisco, Sydney, Amsterdam, and Montreal, introduce me to my wife, and wind and meander to the place where I am today. It seemed like a road block then. Looking back, it was more of a lesson – if you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Navigation: The subtle art of not getting lost on your walk

I was walking along a small street near our home the other day, and I noticed that the sidewalks on one side of the street had more ice and snow than on the other. My brain slowly noodled on that and it dawned on me that it was because the south side of an east-west street often gets more shade than the north side. Turning a corner, I realized the same is generally true of the west side of north-south streets.

So putting that together with the knowledge that Toronto generally follows a grid-based street pattern, it occurred to me that little clues like this help me navigate even in unfamiliar places. If I plunk myself down in a random Toronto neighbourhood in January, I can figure out which way is roughly north/south or east/west just by looking at the patterns of snow and ice.

That got me thinking about other clues that help me navigate. For example, in Toronto the general practice is that addresses on the north side of east/west streets and on the west side of north/south streets will be evenly numbered, and the other side oddly numbered. Just walking down a street and looking at the house numbers tells me that if the odd numbers are on my right, I must be going either east or south.

As well, Toronto uses Yonge Street as the major east/west dividing line for many streets, so for example you have Eglinton Avenue West and Eglinton Avenue East. The street numbers reset at Yonge as well, so you can have 100 Eglinton East and 100 Eglinton West. That means that the bigger the number, the farther east or west of Yonge I must be. Similarly, Toronto street numbers often start at the south end of a north/south street, so if they are getting bigger I must be walking north.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are many other navigational clues I use in wandering around Toronto. For example, Lake Ontario forms the southern boundary of the city and is the lowest point in the city relative to mean sea level. So, if I am climbing as I go along a street, I am probably going roughly north. This also means that the many creeks and streams in the city, and their ravines, generally run mostly north/south, so if I just follow the water downstream, I am likely to be partially or mostly going south, and eventually I will come to the lake.

Of course, knowing which way is north or south or east or west means having an internal compass in my head, and not everyone does. So what other clues are there? There are landmarks, of course – in Toronto, the most obvious one is the CN Tower. If I can see it, I know that the downtown core is in that direction. The same is true of the headquarters of the major banks – these skyscrapers are all clustered in the downtown core and I can often make out the skyline from many streets.

Then there are landmarks like the subway and the street car lines – these often indicate which street I’m on. And there are other transit clues, like the buses which display route names that often contain the street they follow (like the good old #6 Bay or the #7 Bathurst buses). The city has also spent the past couple of decades putting up neighbourhood street signs, so just looking at those often tells me roughly where I am.

Beyond landmarks, there are other physical clues. For instance, since I know that the prevailing wind direction in Toronto is from the west, the direction of smoke and steam from chimneys can help me figure out east and west. On sunny days, of course, I can also check the direction of my shadow based on the time of day – if it’s more or less in front of me and it’s early morning, then I must be going west. And if I don’t know the time of day, the length of my shadow is a clue too – the shorter the shadow, the closer to noon it must be since that’s when the sun is closest to directly over head.

The more I thought about it as I walked, the more I realized that living here and walking around, I’ve built up a complex navigational rule book in my head. I don’t need a compass, or a map, or a GPS phone app. I’m comfortable wandering and using that mental rulebook to figure out where I am.

All of that also explains why, in wandering around a new city, I’m usually at least a bit disoriented at first. Because I don’t yet have that mental rule book, I have to fumble and feel my way around. I think it’s that sense of not knowing where you are that at partially explains why you are nervous when you visit a new place.

I’ve found that trying to apply my internal Toronto rule book to a new place can also lead to mistakes. For example, early on after we moved to London I would often get lost, in part because the street pattern doesn’t follow a nice neat cardinal grid like most North American cities, so I’d get myself oriented, for example heading east, only to realize that the street curved and before I knew it I’d be heading north or south, and along the way the street name would change.

On the other hand, getting myself lost is part of the fun of exploring a new city, along with slowly building that mental navigational map as I figure out the clues. It’s like solving a puzzle, and that brings a sense of accomplishment.

All of this realization came, as I say, from noticing that there was less snow and ice on one side of a street than the other. I like that, about life in general. By paying attention to the little details, you can both learn new things and you can come to appreciate that you actually know a lot about something that perhaps you had realized. It’s why I like to go for walks.

What else have I been missing by ignoring the details? I think I need a walk to think about it.

A Year of Walkablog

It’s hard to believe that a year has gone by and I’m at my first anniversary of blogging. Looking back, I’m proud of myself for accomplishing some bucket list goals, like the TONotL walk and the Crossing Toronto walk. I’ve also been able to complete some great walks around Toronto that I’d been wanting to do for quite awhile, like the Humber River walk, and that’s been fun too. And then there have been some especially memorable walks, for different reasons – my change of plans or our wandering around in Bermuda.

It’s also been a period of transition. I’ve been slowing down at work over the past couple of years, gradually reducing my consulting work, and now with the turn of the decade I’m going to take a long pause, possibly a permanent working pause, and try turning my semi-retirement into something closer to full retirement. I’m ready for long walks, multi-day or multi-week, or even multi-month, travels and treks. My bucket list isn’t getting shorter, because I keep reading about this or that trail that I’d like to try, so I want to hit the road and see what I can do.

So the plan for the coming year is more of the same, and then some. Walks around Toronto for sure, and hopefully chunks of the Great Trail, the Waterfront Trail, the Bruce Trail, and maybe others. Long walks, short walks, journeys, treks, and trails. New boots and new gear, and proper hikes with tents and sleeping bags. New posts with new stories. New memories, for sure.

Happy holidays, and may the road rise to meet you.

Following Your Nose

The other day, as I was walking, my mind was noodling along by itself, mulling over expressions that we use in everyday conversation. I’ve been re-reading (for the 5th time I think) Aubrey-Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian. They’re set in the Royal Navy of the early 19th C, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

One of thing many things that sets them apart is O’Brian’s command of the vernacular of the time. While written more than 150 years after their settings, he’s able to immerse himself in the language of the time and put words into the mouths of his characters that their actual contemporaries would have used, especially the many seafaring terms used at the time on a sailing vessel. Phrases likes “batten down the hatches“, “by and large“, or “to the bitter end” all have a naval origin but as they’ve been absorbed into everyday speech their original meaning has been lost to the casual user.

And that made me wonder, what phrases do we use in every day speech that arise from walking and travelling? How about “follow your nose”? When we use this, do we mean it literally?

I know there have been times when I have, literally, followed my nose. I remember wandering and exploring in downtown Kuwait City, and catching the scent of grilled lamb, which lead me through some backstreets to the old souk and its maze of little restaurants where I snacked on shwarma as I continued to wander.

There have also been times when I’ve more or less done the opposite, and followed my nose away from something, like when I’ve been walking near the Beaches Boardwalk in Toronto and caught a whiff of the Ashbridge’s Bay Sewage Treatment facility – it definitely puts some extra humpety into your steps to get downwind in a hurry.

But when we use that phrase, do we mean it literally like that? It’s true that you do actually have to follow your nose since it sticks out on the front of your head, so anytime you walk you’re doing just that. Still, I think we often mean it figuratively more than literally, as something like “it’s right there in front of you so just keep going”.

And then again, I think we use that phrase, to follow your nose, more along the lines of going after something that you know instinctively you really want. Deep down, I have this itch to go on long walks, to see new places and explore, to trek the Bruce Trail or the Waterfront Trail and see how far I can go and what I’ll find along the way. I want to follow my nose and see where it goes.

So follow your nose. It always knows where to point your toes.

Favourite Toronto Walks – Don Valley Trails

Part of a series on my favourite walking trails in Toronto.

A great walk in any season, following the Don River north from the lake takes you through some of the best parks in Toronto.

Length: about 13.5 km

Surface: 90% paved with a bit of packed gravel

Public Transit options to get to Corktown include the street car from King Station on subway Line 1, along King to Cherry Street and then a short walk to Corktown. I like to subway to King Station and walk from there to Corktown, about 2 km. At the other end, there’s the Leslie 51 or the Lawrence East 54 bus from Edwards Gardens, which both take you back to Eglinton Station on subway Line 1.

From the south end at Corktown Common, the Lower Don Trail takes you up past several points where you can jump on or off – at Queen Street, Riverdale Park, Pottery Road, Crothers Woods, Don Mills, Thorncliffe, or Eglinton. You can take public transit to or from all of these, or you can find parking in many of the parks. Also the Toronto cycle path network intersects with the Trail at multiple points, so you can jump on/off that way as well.

In addition to starting at a Park at Corktown and ending in one at the Toronto Botanical Gardens, you’ll also travel through or past multiple parks along the way, including Riverdale Park, Riverdale Farm, the Evergreen Brickworks, Crother’s Woods, E.T. Seton Park, Serena Gundy Park, and Wilket Creek Park. Any of these offer shade, benches, and picnic tables, and water fountains and toilets are available from May through October. If you’re walking November through April, there are washrooms and water fountains at the Brickworks and at Riverdale Farm, as well as Edwards Gardens.

I like to start at Corktown Common and go north. Years ago, this area was industrial, rundown, and polluted – I can remember travelling through here at the bottom of the Bayview Extension. Starting in the early 2000’s, the City of Toronto has led a transformation, so that today the new residential buildings are anchored by the green space of the park.

I’ve walked these trails in both directions multiple times, in all seasons. There’s always wildlife – ducks and geese, salmon spawning in the autumn, chipmunks and squirrels, coyotes, deer, raccoons, robins, redwing blackbirds, jays, crows, hawks, and falcons. There’s also the wildflowers, the autumn colours, the spring blooms, and the cool shaded groves, the willowy grasses and the whispering reeds. And of course the burble of the river, especially north of the Bloor Viaduct, is a constant.

There is a downside in the traffic on the Don Valley Expressway, which the trail abuts along the lower stretch, but you leave that behind once you get to E.T. Seton Park. When you walk north, you’re walking from the urban to the suburban, from the industrial to the pastoral.

Also, when you walk north you realize that there is a significant elevation gradient to Toronto. The Lake is at roughly 90 m above mean sea level, so at Corktown you’re just above that. Travelling north you are climbing, and by the time you get to the Botanical Gardens, you’ll have gained almost 100m to about 180m or so above MSL. That, plus the humps over the bridges, will easily get your stair count up.

That said, since the trail is mostly paved and you are climbing gently over a 13 km length, it’s an easy walk. You can stroll it or jog it, and it’s suitable for mobility devices like walkers and wheel chairs, as well as for baby carriages, strollers, and wagons. Just keep in mind that it is a shared path for bikes, so you have to keep an eye out for them.

Finally, there are lots of options for food and refreshment along the way. Near Corktown is the Distillery District, where there are several restaurants and bars. A bit further west from there is St. Lawrence Market, with even more choice. As you head north, there is a good restaurant at the Don Valley Brickworks, and there’s a cafe at the Botanical Gardens at the end of your hike. Or you can do what I like to do, and take a picnic lunch with you and find a spot to enjoy it – a favourite is the fish ladder about 1 km north of Pottery Road where you can sit by the river in the shade.

Armchair Walks

On a cold, blustery, snowy, sleety, grey, and miserably wintery day, the thought of getting out for a walk is less than appealing. I know I should go out, but it looks nasty and it’s hard to muster the energy to put on the layers and winter gear.

So instead, I’m lingering inside over coffee and thinking about walks – armchair trekking if you will.

There’s the local walks around the city I could do over the winter – perhaps the Rouge River trails, or the upper Humber. And there are neighbourhood walks that are fun, like Bloor West and around High Park. Then again, I can revisit old favs, like the Don Valley, the Brickworks, and Wilket Creek/Sunnybrook Park. All that can keep me busy, but it doesn’t really need a lot of armchair planning.

So what about the long walks I want to do in the summer – perhaps another section or 2 of the Bruce Trail, or some parts of the Great Trail or the Waterfront Trail? There are lots of trails on my bucket list that I’d like to get to. I’m poring over maps looking at the trail and figuring out distances between accommodation. That will keep me occupied for a bit.

I like doing that, what might be termed map planning or “maplanning” – opening up All Trails or Google Maps and exploring different places where I’d like to take a long walk, like the Chemins de Grandes RandonnĂ©es in France, or the National Trails of England, or the Te Aroroa Trail in New Zealand.

Of course, you aren’t armchair walking if you’re not gear-dreaming too – what will I need if I take a particular trail? Is there enough accommodation available that I can skip a tent? How rugged is the trail so what foot gear is best? What about clothes – is it wet or dry, cool or hot? What percentage of time will I need to be in a tent versus a warm, dry bed? How big of a pack will I need? What’s the mean length of time between hot showers likely to be?

And logistics – how long will it take? How many days do I plan for? How do I get to and from the start and end points? How much does it cost to fly to that country in the first place? What sort of budget will I need? What time of year is best for that trail, in terms of weather, accommodation, and avoiding the tourist hordes?

Of course I’d like to actually be out on the trails actually walking carrying actual gear. Armchair walking is fun for an afternoon, but sooner or later you need to get to it. Soon … when the snow stops.