For the 4th year in a row I did a backcountry canoe camping trip in Algonquin in August. The first year was just me and Susan. That’s how our friendship really began. Hi Susan! Thanks so much for inviting me that first year. I missed you this time!
Then for the next two years we went with an extended group of family and friends including our teenagers and Susan’s mom. This year it was back to another two person trip, me and Sarah.
We’d planned a more adventurous trip with more paddling given that it was just the two of us this time but life, including a late start on day 1, got in the way. I also began the trip pretty tired after a big week at work (more on that later) and I was more ready for rest and beautiful scenery than an active adventure. But we had a bit of both.
See my before and after boot photo below? That’s after a really muddy portage. And guess what? For the first time ever I carried my own canoe. I was pretty happy to learn how to do that. I didn’t quite manage to get it up on my shoulders solo but I didn’t have to. I am going to practise in the backyard though.
I also did a small stint of the trip in the stern of the canoe and got a lesson in steering.
So even though this trip was big on hammock naps and low on endurance exercise, I got to paddle each day and wake up in one of the most beautiful places in the world. There was also delicious coffee. I saw a beaver very close up! One jumped on the rocks while we were star gazing at night. I saw carnivorous plants. And I learned some new hard things.
As Sarah reminded me, “This isn’t easy. If it were there’d be more people here.” True. Especially the hilly, muddy, buggy portages!
This Saturday is the first one in months that I haven’t been out the door at the crack of dawn (oh, okay, 7:30 am is hardly the crack of dawn, but it’s certainly earlier than I leave the house on a weekday!) to go for a long run.
That’s because last Saturday, May 13, I finished the race that I had been training for since January: the Seaton Soaker 50k.
I’ve blogged about running Seaton before, but for shorter distances. This was my first time doing the 50k distance — my first time doing an ultramarathon.
I’ve done the Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon for the past three years, so I’m no longer a stranger to long distances and months of training. The last marathon was the first time I had a time goal in mind. I wanted to break 4 hours, 30 minutes, but a combination of undertraining and unseasonably warm weather meant that was not to be. I felt awful at the end of that race. Physically, I was destroyed. Everything hurt more than any other marathon I’d done before. Mentally, I was a bit bummed that I’d trained so long for no improvement on my time.
It was time to do something new. Enter Seaton.
I had actually signed up for the 50k two years before. I’d put in two months of solid training in January and February of 2015 before my workplace went on strike and my training fell to the wayside. This time, I hoped, things would work out better.
And they did. My partner, Kevin, signed up (he, too, had been intending to run in 2015), as did my friend Casey (read her race report here!). Both Kevin and Casey ran their first marathons in 2016, so I’d say they’re a heck of a lot braver than me to sign up for a 50k the very next year!
The three of us did a lot of training together, although Kevin is much (much!) faster than Casey and I. We ran through the snow in the winter and through the rain in the spring. We hit the trails whenever we could, including the Seaton trails where the race would be held.
Training went about as well as could be hoped for. Nobody got terribly injured (though Kevin struggles occasionally with Achilles issues, and I had the spectre of a calf injury rear its head on our longest training run of 38k). Nobody missed very many training runs.
On race morning, I was very emotional, but I didn’t quite pinpoint why until later. It had been three and a half years since I’d run a new distance. This was big!
The course is a 12.5km out-and-back, meaning that we could leave bags at the start/finish with snacks, a change of clothes, more water, etc. We stashed our things and set off.
Kevin started near the front, because, as I said, he’s fast! Casey and I were content to hang near the back of the pack. Our only goal was to finish, ideally before the cutoff time of eight hours.
About 2k in, we hit a beaver dam that we had been warned about. It was wet, messy, and muddy, with planks and pallets plunked into the mud for a makeshift pathway. Some runners tried to stick to the pallets – others forged through the muck, sometimes falling. It was a great example of the difference between trails and roads.
After that slowdown, the pack thinned out as people settled into their paces (most faster than Casey and I). We kept trucking along, hiking up the hills, flying down the hills, and slogging through the muddy patches. We tried to be mindful of the fact that we would be out for a long time, so we didn’t want to go out too fast.
We hit 12.5k at about 1:51, which was great pacing for being under eight hours, but not too fast to be unsustainable. The first leg is a net uphill, so it’s a net downhill on the way back.
I tried to be good about my nutrition, which is something I can struggle with on long runs. I ate my gels in the first half of the race because I knew that they wouldn’t go down well in the second half. My other fuel of choice is stroopwafels and Honey Stinger chews. The aid stations had a nice spread of food as well, from chips and guacamole and boiled potatoes to peanut butter sandwiches and gummy bears. The most appealing thing to me was watermelon, which I ate at almost every aid station.
On second leg (back to the start/finish, the halfway point), the course diverts so that runners have to cross a river (hence the name “Seaton Soaker“). There are firefighters and a rope to help people across. I love the river crossing! We shuffled right in to the icy water, which felt pretty good as the day grew warmer.
From the crossing it’s only about 2k back to the finish, or halfway point. We hit a big, deep, steep muddy culvert that was difficult to climb out of. I slipped and pulled my bad calf, but after walking it off for a minute I felt good enough to keep going.
We reached the halfway point at 3 hours and 30 minutes. My mother was waiting to cheer for us there, which was really great. She and a helpful volunteer (huge shoutout to all the volunteers, who were fantastic) helped us refill our hydration packs. I debated changing into a short sleeve tee, because it became clear that we weren’t going to get the rain that the forecast had called for and the sun was coming out. I stayed with my long sleeve mostly to avoid potential chafing issues. Changing socks/shoes was right out of the question – mine were caked on with mud!
We set out on our second loop, briefly making a wrong turn. A fellow runner corrected us, thankfully! We realized we were pretty much at the back of the pack, but that didn’t trouble us at all. We were just in it to finish.
We wondered whether we would see Kevin on this lap, and we did! He came hurtling down a hill as we were walking up it. Judging from the number of runners we had seen before, I shouted, “Are you in third?!” He said he was in fourth, and that he was feeling pretty good. Yay!
It started to feel much harder on the second loop, as expected. Our legs were tiring and both Casey and I tripped a few times on roots. Mostly we managed not to fall, but Casey took a pretty decent nosedive into some leaves and dirt at around 30k. She hopped back up and brushed herself off and took off like a champ. Casey is one of the most stubborn, determined runners I know. Running with her is very motivating!
Stephanie, happy to be running.
Casey, also happy to be running!
At the turnaround, we calculated that we had about 2 hours and 30 minutes to make it to the finish — plenty of time! It was slow going, but we just kept running, usually only walking when we hit a hill. We knew that if we stopped, it would be very hard to start again.
At the second water crossing, the firefighters and rope were already packed up. We weren’t impressed with that, but we made it across safely and stayed to make sure another runner behind us was able to cross as well. (Edit: We contacted the race organizer the next day, and he didn’t realize the firefighters had packed up early. He promised to make sure it didn’t happen that way next year. The race really is a lovely, well-organized one!)
Our families were waiting for us as we came out of the woods to run up to the finish line, and Casey and I both started getting a bit teary and emotional from seeing them and from realizing we were about to finish.
We crossed the finish line in 7:32, well under the 8 hour cutoff! Casey and I exchanged our homemade medals that we had crafted for each other (this year the race opted to give out finisher buffs instead of finisher medals). We took very different approaches to making our medals, but we both love them! Mine is a unicorn barfing up a rainbow, and it reads “#1 Majestic Beast.” It’s perfect.
The medal that Casey made for Stephanie. It says “#1 Majestic Beast”
The front of the medal that Stephanie made for Casey.
We discovered that Kevin had finished in 4:42, coming in 5th overall, and 1st place in his age group…not bad for his first 50k! We joked that he could have done a whole other lap in the time it took us to finish, to which he replied, “No, I definitely could not have.” He gave it his all!
Casey and I placed 9th and 10th in our age groups. That sounds pretty impressive, but it was out of 10 people! Hah! We were 71st and 72nd out of 76 runners (though I think about 80 signed up, so a handful of people may have dropped out before or partway through the race).
Stephanie and Casey – “Team Purple”!
Stephanie and her mother, Karen.
I was quite sore after the race, but not as sore as after my last marathon. I was also able to eat some food a couple hours later — a good sign, as long races usually destroy my stomach. The sore muscles mostly faded after a couple of days, and by Wednesday I was able to try a short run again. I made it 4km before deciding that my muscles just weren’t ready yet — but I don’t think I’d ever tried to run just four days after any previous marathon!
So would I do it again? Yes, I think I would. I love running on trails. It’s not as hard on the body, in some ways, compared to the repetitive nature of road races. Plus, the scenery is beautiful and the people are super nice (even the leaders would say “Great work!” to us as they passed us). The training is certainly a commitment, though. Maybe we’ll try to get faster one day… but hey, maybe not. Back of the pack isn’t so bad.
Stephanie is an astrophysicist, writer, photographer, sometime triathlete, and now an ultramarathoner.
I woke up this morning with the running tally of all the stuff on my plate scurrying through my brain: a PhD dissertation to read, a journal issue to get out the door, other graduate student work to assess, a manuscript to read and evaluate for an academic press, plus, oh, you know: my own research, writing, and teaching…
Every April this happens: term ends and I think to myself, with no more prep and students to deal with I’ll have SO MUCH TIME! The problem is that, way back in January, I had the same magical thoughts. And that’s when I said yes to a bunch of extra stuff, due in April, that I haven’t got the time to do now because I said YES! to so much stuff that’s due in April.
Cue office chaos.
Then there’s the OTHER problem with April: the weather has turned fine! So I want to get out on my bike, out on the lake, just be outside. Marking outside is ok, sure, but playing outside is much better. Finding the work-life balance is more imperative than ever when it’s 23C and sunny, with minimal wind.
This past year I’ve been undertaking an experiment: I’ve tried hard not to work on weekends (single mid-career academics like me succumb to the work-every-day temptation too much entirely; it’s bad for your health and sucks for your brain). I’ve also made a point of putting my own self first, even if it seems like I might be back-burner-ing some important work things in the process. (As my therapist says: no academic deadline is a hard deadline. Nobody will die if you take until next Tuesday.)
So that means, this year, if it’s a competition between reading that manuscript chapter and riding my bike on a perfect afternoon, the bike wins. I might go back to the chapter in the evening; or, it might wait until morning.
Nobody dies; more importantly, I return to the work refreshed and in a better mood, which means I’m more inclined to evaluate it fairly and comment supportively as I prepare my review.
I want to stop here and check my privilege: I know that getting out on my bike or into the boat when I choose is something I am able to do because my caring responsibilities to other humans are currently minimal, and because I am fully physically able. But I also want to acknowledge the many different kinds of bodies – parent and child bodies, paraplegic bodies, cognitively different bodies – I see out on the trails and in the sunshine when I’m bopping around town and along the country lanes.
Getting outside, instead of sitting inside at our desks stewing about how nice it is outside, is better for all of us long-term. Let’s just do it – even if it’s just for half an hour here or there. Your body and your brain deserve it!
PS: I treated myself to a new bike, after five years on my dear old Ruby. She’s orange and grey and makes me feel as sprightly as a summer day. She will feature in my next post; meanwhile, though, here she is. The bar tape is my favourite bit! (She’s called Freddie, btw.)
There have been a bunch of posts on this blog lately that have to do with canoe camping. We are mostly Canadian around here and it’s our precious summer so that’s not really a surprise. My post last month was about canoe camping and making it hard on purpose. I wouldn’t normally post yet again about paddling but the experience of this trip compels me so here it is.
Once again, I went into the lakes and rivers and woods with three dear friends, my 72 year old mother, my 15 year old daughter and my perfect canoe camping dog. I have had a long think about what perspective I want to bring to this experience. I need it to be more than a narrative of what happened because going into the back country in the way that we do is beyond mere narrative, beyond mere activity or fun times. It’s elemental and transformative. It doesn’t matter which trip or who I go with or what happens. I come out of the park different than when I went in and everyone else does too.
But this trip, what about this trip? What is the reason my chest clenches in joy when I think about it and everything we endured, experienced and created? I know I love the self containment. Bring everything in, eat some of it, bring everything out. I know I love the physical challenge of lifting heavy packs and canoes. I love the logistics. I love the care taking that I engage in by planning and executing whether that is setting up a tent, a hammock or a meal. I love helping other people to do the same. Even when they make me nuts, I love to make it work.
That’s not it though. Something else was going on. It was the waning days of summer and the evenings were cool, the angle of the sun generating that familiar melancholy, the leaves whispering their coming end in the night wind.There were conversations around the fire that were silly and irreverent. There were others that were deep and somewhat sad. There were moments when a therapist, a professor, a PhD consultant and and engineer discussed philosophy and queer theory while my mom and daughter listened in. That was a moment of intensity for me and I know in retrospect that was because it was both revealing to my mother what I had become and to my daughter what she could be. My mother got lost in memory on one portage and spoke so beautifully to all of us about the time my late father had me on his shoulders while my brother was on my mom’s, walking by a rapids in the BC interior. “It seems like yesterday” she said. I cried because it did and it was, just yesterday I was small and full of potential. Today I am grown and growing stronger, more solid in me with every step and paddle stroke.
I see we are at this perfect juncture and I am the fulcrum between my mother and my daughter. My friends stand by me in this middle place, this middle age, where we can still learn from the elder how to be our better selves and show the younger the many many ways she can be herself in this complicated world. She didn’t know we were teaching her. My mother’s feminism evident in her refusal to stop moving or be cowed or become small in her waning years. She still pushes. Me and my friends manifesting our articulate and enacted feminism, the way we speak our minds, live our lives, love how and who we want, give back, keep pushing. It’s not utopia or some Algonquin version of Paradise Island, but hell it was close.
Next year we may do it again, different people, different constellations perhaps, but we will likely emerge from the liminal space in the forest changed, stronger, more expansive and powerful. That is why I go into the lakes and rivers and woods and why I will write about what they teach me over and over again.
A few weeks ago, I posted about my trip to the southwest with my sister and her kids. We went to the Grand Canyon and other national and state parks of incredible dramatic beauty. When I returned, still basking in the rosy glow of national park infatuation, I watched documentary filmmaker Ken Burns‘ 6-part series called The National Parks, about the history and politics of the development of the US national park system. It was 12 hours long, and while not constantly riveting or suspenseful, it did leave me entranced and enthusiastic about visiting more nature up close.
Then I saw Samantha’s Facebook post this week about Algonquin Provincial Park, where there are lots of cycling options for all ages, abilities, and preferences. In addition, you can hike, swim, and paddle, too. Here’s a blissful scene from their website:
Lovely, isn’t it?
Then on Friday, I went out to Hopkinton State park, a bit west of Boston, to go swimming, have a picnic lunch, and hang out under the shade of trees along the lake shore with my friend Nina.
Now, neither of these places is dazzling, and they’re unlikely to be made the subject of any nature documentaries. And even though the Algonquin Provincial Park site describes it as a “bucket-list” site, certainly neither of these parks is anywhere close to the top of such lists.
But who cares?
Reading Samantha’s “Bucket lists bug me” post, I heartily agreed with her analysis of the many ways in which these things are annoying. But the reason I care most about here is this one: a natural place doesn’t need to be “top ten” or “bucket list” or “undiscovered paradise” (which is impossible, when you think about it) in order to give us real pleasure and satisfaction when we venture there. And venturing there again and again brings with it new discoveries and relationships with land, animals, other visitors, staff, communities, politicians, self– the possibilities are rich and varied.
One of my favorite parks anywhere is Williamson Park in Darlington, South Carolina (where I’m from). In recent years it’s been transformed from an impassible cypress swamp to a very passable and enjoyable cypress swamp. It’s small, but it’s beautiful, with so many wonders being revealed as the seasons turn. Here are a few pictures:
People jog, walk with their friends or alone, take their kids, and volunteer to maintain and improve the park. I go there whenever I visit my family and love both being there alone and with others.
This week reminded me that nature, whether national or local, grand or modest, is there for our walking, hiking, pedaling, paddling, strolling, and fishing pleasures (among others).
Readers, what are some of your favorite ordinary or out-of-the-way or around-the-corner or fantastic parks, woods, rivers, swimming holes? Let us know. Maybe we’ll run into each other there…
“Are you feeling tired, irritable, or stressed out? Well you might consider… Nature. A non-harmful medication that’s shown to relieve the crippling symptoms of modern life.”
I love, love, love the outdoors, and not just any outdoors. Though I do appreciate urban wildness, it’s serious wilderness that I like best. My short holidays into Algonquin park with a canoe have been among the best vacations I’ve had in terms of quickly getting a sense of peace and restfulness that lasts long after I get back.
Maybe it’s the beauty of the place, maybe it’s the wild animals such as actual loons and possible bears, or maybe it’s that cellular signal cuts off on your way driving into the park and I don’t wear a watch or look in a mirror the entire time I’m there. Life quickly takes on an easy rhythm of swimming, napping, food preparation and clean up, eating, paddling, swimming, more napping, sleeping…
I also love the lack of people. Normally I love people but a break from crowds is lovely and I appreciate the focused time with the people I’m with. There’s very little small talk with strangers, okay there’s almost none, and that’s my most stressful kind of social interaction.
My plan for the fall and winter this year includes more wilderness time.
I want to:
Ride my cyclocross bike on trails and gravel roads!
I ride my bike 28 miles (45 km) to the top of Mt. Lemmon, near Tucson, Arizona. It’s a big climb, starting at an elevation of 2605 feet, ending at 8,077 feet (794 to 2462 meters). But the road isn’t the biggest part of the Catalina Mountains.
On a recent visit to my hometown, I convinced my buddy Lee to join in the Greater Arizona Bicycle Association Mt. Lemmon hill climb with me. For me, the main benefit of being on a supported ride are snacks and drinks at the aid stations. The Mt. Lemmon Highway runs through the Coronado National Forest with no public water sources until about mile 20.
It’s a very popular cycling route. In the winter, professional cyclists and triathletes ride up and down the usually sunny Mt. Lemmon for winter base training miles.
Our ride day dawns cold, unusual for May, and it gets colder as we climb up the mountain. (The next day, snow falls on the upper ridges).
We snake our way up the mountains, first on south slopes overlooking the city, then we follow the road inside the mountains and switch-back along an interior canyon. Beyond the guardrail, the gaping canyon is so deep that we can’t see the stream that created it. Looking west across the canyon, more ridges, more slopes, more canyons ripple the topography. Ridges end at peaks un-named and named: Thimble Peak, The Castle, Finger Rock.
Some folds of this earth are inaccessible by road or trail, even rock climbers cannot reach the cliffs. The Catalina Mountains mark the northern horizon of Tucson, but its many dimensions must be seen from within the range itself—deep and wide. From our bike saddles, we also see the Rincon Mountain range on the eastern horizon of Tucson. In the Rincons, hills roll into multiple ridges topping out at two peaks.
Lee looks and calls it “Big Country.”
We climb higher through several biomes with their unique signature plants. We start in the Sonoran Desert with rocky slopes of Saguaro cacti and agave, then reach the oak woodland at about mile 6, and 5,000 feet. Next we ride through conifer forests and towering Ponderosa pine trees.
Reports of “rain at the next aid station” doesn’t deter us because we have great wind/rain jackets. I rarely put on a jacket after miles of uphill climbing, but this time I do.
I wish I had jackets for my frozen toes.
Clouds block our view of the uppermost peaks, and fog descends onto the road. Fortunately, the rain holds off. Unfortunately, it’s so cold, some cyclists battle hypothermia and crowd into vans to be driven down the mountain.
We ride past giant “hoo-doos,” rock formations sculpted by wind and water. For our sweet and salty fix, we eat pie and peanuts at the final aid station, seeking shelter from the wind behind skinny trees.
Lee keeps talking about chili at the Iron Door Restaurant, located at the Mt. Lemmon’s Ski Valley. We pass aspen groves, descending and climbing again. We stand in our pedals to conquer the final section with its 11 percent grade.
Riding in the mountains makes me dream big. At our fireside lunch (yes it’s cold enough to have a blazing fire in the hearth), I propose a four-peak expedition to Lee. We will bike into the four mountain ranges that surround Tucson, then hike to the highest peak. We discuss various options, the best bikes to use, and different approaches to the peaks.
As we demolish his bowl of chili and and my bowl of split pea soup, the sun breaks through the clouds. Our descent starts cold, then we warm enough to remove hats and jackets. We scream 28 miles down the beautiful curves of the highway, battling wind gusts, and coast into the Tucson valley and home.
What is your “big country” beyond the lines you run or bike on roads and trails? May you dream big during your next bike ride.
Except when it snows, Mt. Lemmon Highway (also called Catalina Highway or General Hitchcock Highway) is open to cycling all year. Info here: http://goo.gl/iIrDBp .