Beach Walks

Portnoo Strand, County Donegal in Ireland

It snowed earlier today, and yesterday, and two days before that, and it’s -15 C with the wind chill. So naturally I’m thinking of walking on a beach.

Over the years we’ve been lucky enough to do that in many places. Some have my favourite walks have been on beaches – Sandbanks Provincial Park or Point Pelee National Park in Ontario; Hirtles Beach in Nova Scotia; Portnoo Strand in Ireland; Manley Beach in Australia; and dozens of other unnamed quiet little beaches in England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Bermuda, Costa Rica, Mexico, the USA, and elsewhere in Canada.

Hirtles Beach, Nova Scotia

There’s something hypnotic about the sounds of water, the ruffle of wind in your ears, the splash on your legs and the crunchy grit between your toes. You get lost in the walk, on a beach. The heat through the soles of your feet shock-cooled in the water. The gulls you chase and the crabs you watch and the shells you search for. The perfectly shaped piece of driftwood. How did that shoe wash up here? Is that a seal? Do I have to go back?

I can’t help it – thinking about a beach helps make bearable walking in snow and slush. And soon, oh please soon, I’ll be walking on a beach again.

Bucket List Blues

I have a guilty confession to make – over the past few weeks, I’ve read the entire series of Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon, complete in all their historical/fantastical bodice-ripping flummerous glory. Why? Well, at the top of my bucket list of walks, I’d like to try to do the walk from John O’Groats in Scotland

to Land’s End in England, and in thinking about Scotland and the Highlands, I thought of the Outlander TV series now running on Netflix which is a favourite of my wife, and that made me think about the Outlander books themselves. And in reading the books, which are set partially in Scotland and partially in the US at the time of the American Revolutionary War, and involve characters who are Loyalists to the Crown, I thought of another bucket list walk, to retrace the steps of my ancestors who were Loyalists who had to leave upstate New York to make their way into Canada near Fort Erie

and thence along the Talbot Trail to Essex County in south-west Ontario, where I was eventually born.

Bucket lists, I think, are as much about imagination as they are about actual plans, and whatever is on your list reflects the kind of person you see yourself as. Having a bucket list composed of famous works of art to view in person, or golf courses to play, famous restaurants to visit, or journeys to take, then the fact that your list includes such things says a lot about who you are and what you value.

And in my case, my bucket list is about walks and treks (no surprise), and mostly it reflects long multi-day journeys through places redolent of history. Sometimes that history is of countries and nations and peoples, sometimes it’s about the history of the towns and cities and villages I’d pass through, and sometimes it’s the history of myself and my family. In many cases, that history is personal, because I’ve visited many of these places before and they’ve touched a chord within me which I’d like to rekindle.

Amongst the many frustrations of COVID is the sense of plans on hold, of being stuck on pause and unable to hit play. When I retired, in January 2020, I had set out in my mind a series of walks that would slowly work down my bucket list. I fully expected to have crossed several off my list this past year, and instead there’s just been a gloomy sense of waiting and waiting and waiting, with no clear vision of when I can get back to that program.

It’s a first world problem to be sure, and many people would like to have the luxury of even contemplating a bucket list in the first place. I can’t, with any sense of morality, consider myself hard done by. So I sit and I wait and I walk around the neighbourhood and I read things like Outlander and dream of Scottish highlands.

Tips for Walking – Planning

Over the past couple of years of walking I’ve learned a few things about preparing for and enjoying a good long walk, so I thought would I share some of that knowledge. Hope it helps.

What?: There are times when I just simply “go for a walk”, as you do – out the front door, wander round the neighbourhood, and back home for a cup of coffee. And then again, there are times when I want to do a longer walk, and then I need to do some planning. How long will I be out? What will the weather be like? Are there places to get something to eat or drink? What about water fountains, washrooms? Do I need to drive or take public transit either to or from the route? Everyone walks their own path – my moderate walk might be your long tough hike, and vice-versa – so plan according to your needs. I’m just saying this is what works for me.

Tips: Where, when, how and why

Mind the weather. Whenever I’m thinking of a longer walk, I’ll check the weather at least a day ahead of time, and I’ll check again the night before and then the morning of. Based on the forecast, I can then decide whether my route makes sense – I’m not that much of a glutton for punishment that I’ll do an all-day walk when the forecast calls for driving rain all day. If I do want to go, then the weather will determine my clothing choices. If you are dressed appropriately, you can handle most conditions.

Water and food. Anytime I’m going to be out for more than an hour or so, I’ll look at my route and decide whether I need to bring water or food. The longer the walk, the more I’ll need it, and of course that water/food choice will depend on the weather too. The hotter it is, the more water I’ll need.

Add some challenges. Often, in looking at the map, I’ll look for things to make my walk more challenging. Where are the hills? What about navigational challenges? Do I want to make it a time-challenge, where I try to walk a certain distance in a certain time? Basically, I’m often looking for ways to spice it up. Not every walk is a cross-the-Sahara marathon, but I also don’t want every outing literally to be a walk in the park.

Add some sights. While I like a challenge, there are also times when I focus more on what I’ll see as I walk. Can I plan a route to a neighbourhood I’ve never visited? Can I get in some quiet natural areas where I’ll see and hear some birds or other wildlife? How do I create some interest? That’s where the idea of whimsical walks comes in as well, like collecting streets that have animal names or walking streets in alphabetical order.

Map it out. For any kind of a longer walk, I’ll usually spend some time going over my route on a map. I’ll look for parks I can cut through, places where I can follow trails or quiet back streets, and also for places where I can take a break and sit for a bit. This is where I’ll also figure out washrooms and water fountains. Based on what I see, I may then revisit my clothing or water/food choices. I’ll also take into account whether I’m planning a through route or a loop. Through routes start somewhere and end somewhere else, whereas loops start/end in the same place. Mapping it out let’s me decide which makes sense.

Start/stop and transport. Once I’ve figured out what challenges I want, what sight’s I’ll include, and my overall route, then I can figure out how I’ll start and end it. Sometimes my route is within about 30 minutes of home, so I’ll just add time to walk to/from home to the start and end. Other times, however, I’ll need to get a lift. I try to do that by public transit where I can, often by picking a starting point that I can get to that way, and then planning the route so that I am walking towards home. Other times, my wife can drop me off somewhere, or pick me up. And of course, sometimes I will drive myself somewhere.

Review and revise. Once I’ve figured out the weather, my challenges, my route, my food/water needs, my clothing, and my start/stop points and transportation, I go back over the whole thing and summarize the plan to myself, to see if I need to adjust anything. For example, having added some challenges, so I need to add more water? Is it too hot to do the route I want? This is where I’ll add some alternatives to my plan, so that if the weather changes or the route is more challenging/less challenging than I thought, I can shorten or lengthen it. The longer the walk planned, the more I want some choices in my back pocket in case I need them.

Add some insurance. OK, I was a Boy Scout, so I do like to be prepared. When I have my plan more or less set, I’ll then look at what could go wrong and plan for that. That means things like adding rain gear, or adding extra water. It also means things like letting my wife know ahead of time where I’m going and when I plan to be home. Finally, it means making sure my phone is charged, and my gear is ready and in good shape. Bottom line – the longer/more challenging the walk, the more I try to have some insurance.

COVID. Oh yeah, can’t forget that. Do I have my mask? Do I have hand sanitizer? Is it nice weather so that lots of people will be in the parks, so that I should maybe pick a less-travelled route? COVID does add a wrinkle to things, and for the next few months it’s got to be something to take into consideration.

Don’t over think it. At the end of the day, I am just going for a walk. Usually that’s in the city, and I can always call my wife to pick me up, or call a cab, or just jump on a bus. If the weather’s nice, and I’m feeling relaxed, who needs much more of a plan that just heading out the door and following my nose? That’s the balance – have something of a plan but don’t over-plan.

Disclaimer: All opinions contained in this post are my own. I’m not a nutritionist, physiotherapist, or doctor. Take my advice as given – caveat emptor.

A Wee Walking Rant

Way back when, in the late 1960’s, I can remember being introduced to Elmer the Safety Elephant. Someone came to my grade school, and gave a presentation on bicycle safety, using the Elmer story and some pamphlets.

Being a reading kid, I took home some of the pamphlets and memorized everything in them – I was that kind of reader.

And now, near 50 years later, Elmer the Safety Elephant comes to my mind as I walk through various neighbourhoods, parks, and cemeteries. “Where there is no sidewalk, always walk on the left to face the on-coming traffic“. Clearly, many people haven’t heard of this advice, because I’m constantly running into people walking towards me on their right – i.e. the wrong side of the road! – as I stubbornly cling to the left and force them to cross to the correct side.

So people, say it with me – Where There Is No Sidewalk, Always Walk On The Left To Face The On-coming Traffic!

And thus endeth the rant.

Little Things

Out recently, I was in one of those tuned-out trances that you get into sometimes. I wasn’t really paying attention to much but my mind was idly noticing things. And then I sort of woke up, and realized that I had been counting car exhausts.

I’m not sure why, but I think it was because I couldn’t help noticing that seemingly every other car I spotted had a little chrome, shiny extension on its exhaust pipe. Many cars had two such pipes, and some even had four of them. I knew that, in terms of function, this was pure bling – there was nothing about this bit of ornamentation that had anything to do with making a car safer or faster or more reliable or cheaper. It was just a little look-at-me detail that in truth, most people probably don’t even notice.

Still, it was something to noodle on as I walked. This tiny bling detail on a car must account for some tiny fraction of its purchase price, and for some tiny fraction of the car’s weight. Since the cost of operating a car is a function of the purchase price and its operating costs, and the weight of the car influences the amount of gas needed to get from A to B, it follows that this tiny bit of bling has a tiny but measurable cost to it.

As I walked I kept revolving the numbers in my head. Say that bit of shiny chrome adds at least 100 grams to the total weight of a car – 0.1 kg in other words – and say the car weighs around 1000 kg. That means that tiny bit of bling adds 0.01% to the weight of the car, and quite likely more if there are 2 or even 4 of these things. That doesn’t sound like much at all. But what if a million cars have these? That would add up to more than 100 tonnes of bling on that many cars, and we know that in fact there are hundreds of millions of cars on the road at any given time in North America, so the total weight of this tiny bit of bling being hauled around each year has to be at least ten thousand tonnes over the trillions of km driven each year.

And then when you think about the amount of energy (i.e. carbon) that is involved in mining the materials used for those millions of kg worth of bling, and refining that metal, and manufacturing the parts, and shipping them to the car assembly plants, and then hauling it around for 5 years over the life of the car, that adds up. To a lot.

I got lost in the mental math as I was walking, trying to remember how many Newtons of force are needed to move 1 kg at 1 m/s, and how many Joules of energy are required to generate a Newton of force, and what that many Joules represents in litres of gasoline. There were many zeroes involved, but because I knew that all those tiny bits of energy add up, I reckoned that it had to represent hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of litres of petrol burned each year.

And all that petrol, when burned in a car engine, results in carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, which is driving climate change, and leading to long term costs and economic disruption and habitat and species loss, and on an on. All because cars have this tiny bit of bling that no one really pays attention to.

As I was coming to that conclusion, I recalled an old proverb that I had heard in my childhood:

For want of a nail, a shoe was lost

For want of a shoe, a horse was lost

For want of a horse, a rider was lost

For want of a rider, a troop was lost

For want of a troop, a battle was lost

For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost

All for the want of a nail.

What does that all mean? There is a theory that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon rain forest can lead to a tornado in Texas . A number of years ago, I read a book by James Gleick, about chaos theory, which describes complex systems and how small changes can have large outcomes, and that might have been underlying my train of thought. At any rate, maybe that tiny bit of bling is like the flap of a butterfly’s wings, or the nail that loses the shoe. Maybe we just haven’t yet seen the tornado or lost the battle, and that’s why we think that bit of bling is important, until perhaps we add up all those tiny incremental costs.

And that’s the key point that I settled on as I finished my walk – that little things add up. Go for a walk, get a 100 steps. Keep walking, get a 100 more. Over time, you’ll cover a km, then 10 km, then 100 km. The saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step may be trite, and yet it’s true.

So while it feels like we’re stuck on a hamster wheel with COVID, there are little things we do that add up. We all want to get back to normal. And each little decision to skip the mask, to get together with just a few friends, to just live like we used to, adds up. So does each little decision to wear the mask, to wash the hands, to stay home, also adds up.

We all have our tiny part to play in making COVID go away. Little things add up.

Be caring, be courageous, be calm.

Whimsical Walks

So now we’re in lockdown again, with a new state of emergency and a stay-at-home-order in place for Toronto and surrounding regions. We’re allowed out for some exercise and shopping for essentials, but that’s about it.

That depressing thought was tumbling through my head as I was out for my daily perambulation. I was simultaneously anxious to make the most of my time out while at the same time bored with the need to stay close to home which meant I’ve been walking round the same neighbourhoods for months.

I had come down a nearby street called Latimer, walked along Eglinton, and was going down Vesta Drive when I thought to myself that if I just walked along Ormsby Crescent then the letters of the streets I’d travelled would spell LOVE.

Which got me thinking that maybe that’s what I need to do – walk with a sense of whimsy and make a bit of a game out of these exercise outings. Could I complete the alphabet on a single walk? I wasn’t sure. A is easy, since I live on Avenue Road, and nearby Briar Hill, Castlefield, Dunvegan, and Eglinton make short work of the first part of the alphabet. As I went through the alphabet in my head, thinking about a route like that, I got stuck on a few of the letters. Q is a bit hard, at least nearby, though I know that there’s always Queen street downtown. In fact, I think I can cover every letter fairly easily, except X (no street in Toronto that starts with an X) and Z (only a handful of those).

So that’s my idea – whimsical walking. Go for your walk with a sense of fun and see what you can do to make the mundane more interesting. You might want to refer to the City of Toronto street index for help. Here are some ideas:

  • Anagram walks – connect the first letters of streets you cover on a single walk to form words or phrases – and no easy words like “HI”, try something harder like AVAST YE SCURVY PIRATES. There’s a goal, it will take some walking to get all the letters. For bonus points, try to cover the letters consecutively in your route.
  • Visit-the-zoo walks – how many streets can you cover that include the names of animals? Near me are Otter Crescent and Caribou Road.
  • Famous people walks – many public roadways are named after historical figures. Can you put the name with the person when you walk down Frontenac Avenue?
  • Where in the world walks – Toronto’s cultural heritage is reflected in its street names. Many neighbourhoods abound with names reminiscent of Scotland, England, Ireland, Italy, and more. Can you place the country with the street you just walked down?

If we’re going to get through this COVID lockdown, we all need to stay home as much as we can, and when we do go out we need to make the most of our jaunts. Have a little fun and remember that we’ll get through this together.

Tips for Walking – Food and Energy

Over the past couple of years of walking I’ve learned a few things about preparing for and enjoying a good long walk, so I thought would I share some of that knowledge. Hope it helps.

What?: When I’m out for a walk, especially one of more than an hour or two, I’ll often take snacks with me and sometimes will take a full-on picnic lunch. Because I’m also trying to eat healthily before and after I go out, I pay attention to the snacks I enjoy. No two people’s dietary needs are the same, of course, so listen to your body and to your health care providers’ advice. I’m just saying this is what works for me.

Tips: Where, when, how and why

Avoid sugary/salty snacks. I try to avoid things like cookies, chips, nachos, etc. pretty much all of the time in any case, and I especially don’t want to include these as snacks on a hike. They just make you thirsty and while they may be calorie-dense, they are usually nutrient-light. You can do better – save these for the occasional cheat treat.

Mix and match proteins and carbs. When you’re burning energy on a hike, a mix of protein and carbohydrates will keep you fuelled. Think about lean protein sources like hard boiled eggs, or healthy choices like raw nuts and seeds, smoked fish, lean dry hard sausage, hard cheeses, etc. You don’t need a lot, but you do need some protein. As for carbohydrates, whole grains and raw fruits and veggies are great – whole wheat bagels, unsweetened oat cakes, a handful of raw carrots, an apple, and a nice ripe tomato – these all make a tasty snack and combined with a small handful of raw nuts/seeds and a hard-boiled egg you’ve got a light lunch to keep you going.

  • Be careful with energy bars and energy drinks. I use them too, like most people, but not as my primary energy source. I usually keep an energy bar in my back pack as an emergency source of calories. My main snack will be something more everyday, like a whole wheat bagel with cream cheese along with a piece of fruit. As for energy drinks, I avoid them unless it’s really hot – I prefer just plain water, but sometimes in the heat I need energy but I’m too hot to eat food, so carrying a chilled small (500 ml or less) energy drink can help me get over the hump. Besides, energy bars and drinks can mean wasteful, non-recyclable packaging which is bad for the environment.
  • Invest in green packaging. A few years ago, my wife found a company that makes storage packaging made of beeswax-coated cloth. This is reusable for months, keeps things fresh, and when it’s time to move on it’s biodegradable (or makes a great back-country fire starter). Other options include reusable silicone jars or bags or tubes, or just plain parchment paper. By having some of these items in the home, you can package healthy snacks and avoid plastic, with the bonus that you know exactly what’s in it.
Reusable, resealable silicone pouches
Reusable beeswax cloth for wrapping snacks
  • Eat well before you go out. For most of my walks, especially under 2 hours, I simply eat a proper breakfast or lunch before I go. For me that means carbs like oatmeal or whole grain breads, some cheese or smoked fish or a hard-boiled egg, and some fruit, and perhaps some yoghurt if I want some extra protein.
  • Cool down with a healthy snack afterwards. When you get back after a long walk and need some refreshment, reach for the fruit bowl. An orange is refreshing and helps to rehydrate you. If you still need something more, then move on to things like bananas, some raw veg, or a handful of nuts or seeds, or similar proteins. Your before and after snacks should be just as healthy as your walk snacks.
  • A picnic can be fun. The longer the walk I’ve planned, the more I’ll think about a proper picnic. That often includes a homemade sandwich, fruit and/or raw veg, and a little sweet treat like some dried fruit. It can also include dinner leftovers like salads or pasta or grilled meats, and I’ve sometimes used an insulated thermos to take a hot lunch like soup or chili or chowder. Just remember, all that stuff adds weight to your pack.
  • Carry out your crap. It drives me up the wall to be out on a lovely nature trail and come across an energy bar wrapper or worse, fast food packaging. If you’re bringing something to eat on your walk, then carry out the waste afterwards at least as far as the next garbage bin. The only exception, maybe, is an apple core or something similarly biodegradable, but even then it’s better to hike these home because these items often just result in habituating wildlife to people and creating a people=food association, which leads to raccoons, skunks, etc. prowling near trails and garbage cans.
  • Typical snacks for 6-8 hour hike
    • morning snack – a banana or a bagel
    • lunch – a homemade sandwich (how about cheese, lettuce, tomato, and pickle on whole wheat bread), along with fresh fruit and/or veg
    • afternoon snack – about 50-100 grams of raw pumpkin and sunflower seeds with about 25-50 grams of dried fruit
    • just in case snack – an energy bar

Disclaimer: All opinions contained in this post are my own. I’m not a nutritionist, physiotherapist, or doctor. Take my advice as given – caveat emptor.

Holiday Walks

Every New Year’s Day, I try to get out for a walk. Partly it’s to mark the changing of the calendar, partly to reflect on the year past, and partly just to start the year right with some exercise in hopes of setting a pattern for the year.

And this year, what with things like pandemics, wars, floods, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes, it seemed an especially appropriate thing to do, there being much to reflect upon. And yet, when I was actually out walking, I didn’t want to think about all those things.

Instead, I kept noticing little signs of hope, little reminders that slowly but surely things will get better, spring will return and with it warm skies. I walked past the swimming pool in nearly Eglinton Park and thought about sunshine to come.

I walked past the hill in the park and heard the shouts and screams of happy kids sledding and sliding down the hill, along with the rumble of a tractor resurfacing the ice on the outdoor rink.

There was just enough snow to stick to the trees, and it was still fresh enough in most places that it had that innocent sense of fun, and here and there I noticed little decorations that people had hung in the trees.

There are going to be dark days ahead, to be sure. But I wasn’t thinking about those days. I was just happy to be out for a walk.

Happy New Year.

2020 in the Rear-view Mirror

Since it’s coming to the end of the year, it’s natural to look back and reflect. I did that by taking at look at the view stats for my posts over the past year. I guess, unsurprisingly, that it makes sense that the top 10 list of most-viewed posts on this blog over the past year includes most of my favourite Toronto walks.

  1. Favourite Toronto Walks – Don Valley Trails
  2. Favourite Toronto Walks – The Beltline
  3. Favourite Toronto Walks – Cedarvale-Nordheimer Ravines
  4. Favourite Toronto Walks
  5. Favourite Toronto Walks – Rosedale Rambles
  6. Favourite Toronto Walks – Martin Goodman Trail
  7. Favourite Toronto Walks – Mid-Town Cemeteries
  8. Favourite Toronto Walks – Tommy Thompson Trail
  9. Favourite Toronto Walks – Mid-Toronto Loop
  10. TO Places – Moore Ravine and the Brickworks

With COVID-19 curtailing our activities, people are looking for places to go for a walk to get some exercise. If my suggestions helped you out, then I’m glad.

In looking forward to 2021, I am sure we’re all hoping to break out of our COVID-19 shell. It’s going to take a lot of patience this winter to get through this, and probably a lot of walks to have something to do. Stay safe, stay healthy, and enjoy the great outdoors.

Looking west from the tip of Tommy Thompson Park

A Simple Quest

The duration of winter in a place like Canada is measured by the length of time your snow-clearing service runs – mid-November to mid-April, in our case in Toronto. And it was a dreary, early winter’s day with leaden skies and squelching mulch, puddles amongst the remnants of dirty snow, misty rain and gusty chills. A nasty day for quest.

Not long back, my in-laws had moved into a senior living apartment. While it’s a lovely spot, cozy and warm with big chairs in which to sit and enjoy a cup of tea, the latest COVID-19 lockdown had prevented them from getting out to stock up on biscuits. And so, a simple request – could we pick up some HobNobs for them?

If you aren’t familiar with HobNobs, then I can only suggest that you find some and try them – they’re a delicious oatmeal cookie aka biscuit from the UK, and back when we lived there I developed a taste for them too. Since my in-laws are originally from Ireland, these are a taste of home for them to have with tea.

I had been searching for them for several days. Over grocery runs to various stores, we kept coming up empty. I could remember buying these in years past but not where I’d bought them, and this time, perhaps because it was close to the Christmas holidays, they weren’t available in our usual shops.

What about further afield, the deli in our old neighbourhood? – hadn’t we gotten them there in years past? I was sure of it, so one day I walked over to pick up the HobNobs, but again, no luck – the shop had stopped selling the plain variety and only had the chocolate-covered ones, which while delicious, were not what my in-laws wanted.

Ok, this was getting annoying. How can such a delectable treat not be in the shops? Leaving the deli, I walked to different a couple of other shops along the way home. No luck again. Hmm. A couple of hours out for a walk and still no HobNobs.

This was getting personal. The next day was dreary, wet, and cold, but I was determined to find them – a simple request had become a quest of honour. First up, was a grocery store in a few km away in a different part of town where they carried a small section of international foods including those from the British Isles. Branston Pickle, Heinz Salad Cream, Chocolate-covered digestives, yes, but still no HobNobs. The next closest possible source was another few km up Yonge Street, and after waiting in a COVID-19 queue to get in, I realized that this store too had an appauling dearth of HobNobs.

By now, I had worked up a head of steam despite the weather. Turning west, I splashed through puddles for several km across to what was now shop #6 on my quest, this one an independent store that carried many European products. I barged in, bug-eyed above my COVID mask and headed straight to the biscuit isle. A momentary panic, not seeing them, and then looking down – success! The familiar label caught my eye and I promptly scooped up 3 packages. At the cash, the clerk asked if I’d found everything I needed – Hah! everything I needed indeed.

HobNobs now tucked safely into my knapsack, I walked the several km home, stopping along the way to pick up a bottle of Irish whisky – something to fortify and restore myself was in order, I thought. At least they had that in the first place I tried.

And so now I sit, drying out and sipping a toddy, staring out at the rain that’s continued all day. It’s a grey and dismal day, with one little glow from the corner where the golden flash of Hobnobs is like a log on a fire.