The Last Best Place? Backyard Exploration in a Pandemic

Close-to-home travel renders the concepts of movement, discovery and adventure all relative. Words :: Leslie Anthony.

When the pandemic shutdown hit in March, like many folks my partner and I started a daily walk routine as a way to escape the house and get some exercise. At first our forays were confined to our immediate neighbourhood, a combination of paved trails and street walking on a loop I often ran in the summer.

The lakes were still frozen, slick patches lurked on the trails, and it was still snowing occasionally. It felt a bit more like winter than spring, so on sunny days we ski-toured up the shuttered nearby ski resort. The mountain was empty, the skiing fantastic, and those excursions some of the best days spent during the early pandemic. They were also revealing: There were all sorts of interconnecting trails and old roads to explore while making our way upwards. Furthermore, without humans around, animal tracks were suddenly legion, crisscrossing the runs everywhere—bear, bobcat, cougar, coyote, ermine, rabbit—a window into who we actually shared the area with.

 

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Photo: KRISTIN SCHNELTEN

 

As spring advanced and the valley’s main paved trail became disturbingly busy, swarmed with people not practicing proper distancing, we moved our daily walks to a golf course. Here, we could walk a five-kilometre loop from one end to another on cleared golf-cart tracks with hip-high snowbanks. With winter still raging on the upper mountains through April, it was our month spent wandering the golf course that really provided a window into how the valley rolls into spring. It started with migratory waterfowl that showed up as soon as there was any open water. First came Canada geese, whose large males would, in a few weeks, stand on the path and aggressively challenge you; the usual mallards, teals and pintails filled the duck ledger, but there were also gadwall, wood duck and buffleheads passing through with a new lot every few days—like a shift change.

 

Without humans around, animal tracks were suddenly legion, crisscrossing the runs everywhere—bear, bobcat, cougar, coyote, ermine, rabbit—a window into who we actually shared the area with.

 

As snow melted to reveal bare patches, hundreds of robins and finches came out of the woodwork, hunting together through the grass shoots, flying up into the low branches of trees as we passed. Then the crows and ravens arrived and things got a whole lot noisier. We also started to notice deer tracks. This was interesting because deer are never-seen phantoms in this area, and yet here they were, surrounded on all sides by neighbourhoods. Then, out of this same urban patchwork bears appeared, one by one, day by day, to mow through new grass shoots on their favourite patch of golf course. Whether grazing or snoozing on daybeds, they paid absolutely zero attention to us as we strolled by. Eventually, as workers appeared with snowblowers and rakes and the course was prepared for its real function, we moved on.

Ranging farther now, we crossed the valley from our east-side home to walk or run along a west-side road with more sun, discovering myriad trails we previously hadn’t known existed. These provided for lots of fun exploration—wading up from the road through isothermic snow patches onto newly revealed dirt paths. By this point I’d learned more about the area in six weeks than in 20 years of living here. But the biggest find of all came even closer to home.

 

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Photo: MAXIME LÉGARÉ-VÉZINA

 

Having regularly walked from our hillside house down to the valley, we began ascending the streets above it. I knew there was at least one way onto the mountain there because many moons ago I’d managed to ski down to these streets and walk home, but what was revealed over the course of a few weeks walking was a literal phantasmagoria of hidden trails connecting all the neighbourhoods on this side of the mountain—marked recreational trails, dedicated mountain-bike routes and abandoned logging roadbeds used mostly by bears to skirt human development and find their way into and out of trouble. And now we knew how to connect those dots as well.

The valley had woken up—and so had we.

It reminded me of two things: first, how little I’d known of Toronto, the city I grew up in, until I started walking and biking everywhere as a student, and second, the decades of exploration I’d undertaken around a one-time family cottage in Haliburton. While the rest of the clan was content to lounge on the dock and putter around the lake during summer, or toboggan on a backyard hill and sit inside by the fire in winter, I spent most waking hours there following trails into the woods, up and over hills, past beaver ponds and secret lakes, remembering the routes so I could ski them in winter. Now that the cottage is gone, I cherish my memories of it as much as a lakeside idyll as a base for nature exploration.

And that’s as it should be. Consider the visual blight of a typical magazine newsstand, every cover screaming at you about going somewhere new or doing something different—escaping your current existence, traveling far from home, searching out the unique and exotic. Headlines like “World’s 30 Greatest Trips,” “Your Perfect Adventure Starts Now,” and “The Last Best Place: Our Top 5 Picks” beg a question: Why do they want us to think these places are somewhere else?

Obviously, as an adventure travel writer I’m not knocking travel. I advocate its mind-and-perspective-expanding qualities for anyone. But I do worry about the modern emphasis that it is the only route to discovery and satisfaction. How can this be when we’ve only recently gained the ability to travel as distantly and as readily as we do? The truth is that the concepts of movement, discovery, adventure are all relative, and travel per se isn’t necessarily involved.

 

Headlines like “World’s 30 Greatest Trips,” “Your Perfect Adventure Starts Now,” and “The Last Best Place: Our Top 5 Picks” beg a question: Why do they want us to think these places are somewhere else?

 

The Zen dudes have it right in averring that you should make everything you do count, in every moment you do it, wherever it is that you are. It’s all about the moment, and life, as we are so often advised to live it, is a moment-to-moment affair. And if life is what we make it, it follows that in the end, the best places will be wherever we choose them to be. So walk out your front door, lift up your shoe and take a look: That’s your first footprint in the Last Best Place.

Excerpted from the winter ’21 issue of Mountain Life–Blue Mountains.

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