It’s a long walk day.
Most days fall into the short-walk category — a leisurely circuit of Point Pleasant Park with a little middle-aged pretend jogging thrown in. Or maybe a hoof to the library from our north-end Halifax home — a more daring perambulation, I grant you, given the number of drivers who seem intent on snapping my tibia.
Between my fear of compound fractures and an aversion to concrete and noise, city walking isn’t my thing. So in between the times in the backcountry at places like Keji, it’s Point Pleasant or, when I need a good stretch, Shubie Park in Dartmouth.
“Going for a long walk today,” I tell my spouse as I lace up my Salomons. This won't be news to her. We've been around each other long enough to have the mood-gauging thing down pat.
I don’t play sports and I’m not much for the gym so when life's sturm and drang gets under my skin, it's time for a long walk.
And there’s been plenty of drang to go around in this longest of years. I and the 54 remaining members of the Halifax Typographical Union have been on strike for over 375 days now. If you're in the market for an experience that invokes stress, uncertainty and a deepening sense of helplessness and low self-esteem, I heartily recommend it.
So here I am in the Shubie parking lot going through the usual routine for a January walk: Tighten the straps on the camera-laden backpack, don the headgear and then the decisions: Gloves or warmer but more awkward mitts, scarf or no scarf, earbuds or headphones?
I scan iTunes for my musical mood and given my psychological state (see above re. 375 days), a wailing blues-rock vibe would be appropriate. So with Steven Tyler screaming about being back in the saddle again, off I go.
I usually head off past the duck pond directly to the back trail toward Lake Charles. But if there’s been a good rain recently, I stop to check out Lock 2 near the Fairbanks Centre administration building. When there’s a lot of water going through the system, it’s an impressive sight.
There are nine locks in the Shubie system, which was built in the 1820s to facilitate shipping from Halifax through the Shubenacadie River system to the Bay of Fundy. Only one — on Grand Lake in Wellington — remains in operation.
Lock 2 is one of three that have been “restored to preserve their unique fusion of British and North American construction techniques,” according to Wikipedia.
From the main part of the park, it usually takes only five minutes or so to reach the near shore of Lake Charles.
Today it's a bit longer because some parts of the trail are icy with a skim of snow. That makes for perfect arse-over-teakettle conditions so I stop to put on my YakTraks.
The ice treads make for a noisy crossing of the wooden bridge to the back trail that runs parallel to the lake. To the right beyond a thin screen of pine and birch, Lake Charles is an expanse of white.
I'm not enthusiastically patriotic but there are few things more Canadian to me than a snow-covered lake bordered by the dark woods.
In the case of Lake Charles, it's also bordered by the houses on Waverley Road. Shubie doesn't offer a total escape from civilization. Besides the houses, there's the constant hum of traffic on Highway 118 and glimpses of stores at Dartmouth Crossing.
But there’s much in this 16-hectare urban park to replenish the nature-loving spirit. In spring and summer, the trees are alive with the sounds of warblers, white-throated sparrows and and song sparrows.
Even the hermit thrush, more common in the deeper woods, can be found here. I’ve never actually seen one in the park (they’re regular visitors to my campsites at Keji) but I’ve certainly heard them.
Their song sounds like the coolest flute solo ever. One evening last spring a hermit kept me rooted to the spot for about 20 minutes on the part of the trail that curls around the far shore of Lake Charles.
In contrast to this reclusive songster, it’s hard to miss Shubie’s most famous avian residents. Ospreys return each year to a nest on a hydro pole overlooking the lake. I’ve spent a lot of time in their company watching the parents fly back and forth from the nest to the lake keeping the young ones fed.
Today only the remnants of last year’s nest can be seen, waiting for spring when the ospreys return from their winter home in Central and South America.
The only bird life making itself known today are the ubiquitous and aggressive black-capped chickadees that flit directly across your path in search of a handout. This behaviour is unfortunately reinforced by the folks I often see feeding them by hand.
And no matter the season you’ll see American red squirrels and chipmunks scampering around, also on the lookout for a treat.
But one of my favourite natural attractions at Shubie keep conveniently still and don't beg for a handout.
The park is a fascinating place for geology buffs. The most obvious geological features are the huge boulders left in the wake of the ice ridge that moved from the Arctic across much of North America about 20,000 years ago. These rocks, known as glacial erratics, can be found throughout Nova Scotia's woods.
Look closely and you'll notice some of the erratics at Shubie are jagged and chipped. Stone cutters used the huge boulders as building material for the canal back in the 1800s.
OK, time for a break and some munchies. My usual rest stop is a worn bench on the lakeshore in the area known as Vivien's Way. It's named after Vivien Srivastava, a zoologist and naturalist who was tireless in promoting and designing the Shubie trail network. She died in 2004 and one of the paths she favoured was named in her memory.
A light snow has started to fall, painting a delicate trim on the evergreens and birches. Time for some lighter music, a little Loreena McKennitt maybe. You'd be hard pressed to find a better soundtrack for a long January walk than To Drive the Cold Winter Away.
Sometimes I continue past Vivien's Way into the Portobello section of the trail but the sun is already getting low on this short winter's day. I hoist my backpack, tighten the straps and begin to retrace my steps along the lakeside path.