Old Forest Run

Entrance to Hatley Park.

A click of the gate and I’m in another world. The transition is subtle and dramatic. Massive cedar and Douglas fir trees shade ferns, sporadic blueberry bushes, and various other ground vegetation (that’s the extent of my botanical knowledge) in this old growth forest. But I’m ahead of myself.

Sitting in my office a day before my brief vacation to Colwood on Vancouver Island, I scoured Google Maps during my lunch break looking for running trails close to where I was staying. I spent the past Christmas visiting my girlfriend’s family in Colwood and went for runs along the Coburg Peninsula. The peninsula separates the Salish Sea from the Esquimalt Lagoon Migratory Bird Sanctuary and offers unobstructed views of the Olympic Peninsula mountains, but it is a little flat. This time around I was hoping to find some new trails to run.

Coburg Peninsula
Coburg Peninsula with the Olympic Mountains in the background. Photo by Rodney Steadman

It was so obvious that it was easy to miss: Royal Roads University. Not specifically the university, but the 565 acres of protected land surrounding the university called Hatley Park. I quickly found a trail map and slipped into dreaming about running through a lush green forest dwarfed by relatives of the Ents.

My first experience of Hatley Park Forest was not by running the trails, it was while walking, with sandwich in hand from Royal Bay Bakery, through Sangster Elementary School’s soccer field while my girlfriend’s brother-in-law, Joseph (a pseudonym), humorously reflected on the various locations around the playground where he was bullied. Joseph is a writer and he spent his childhood with his nose buried in a book — let the bullying begin.

Don’t get me wrong, Joseph is a very athletic man. Like me, he enjoys the more solitary activities: a competitive swimmer in his youth and an avid rock climber for most of his adult life. Not that swimming and rock climbing are completely solitary, but once engaged in the activity it’s all about exploring the liminal space and the autotelic, or flow, experiences created by activities inextricably linked to those spaces. Although I have never talked with Joseph about how his activities make him feel, like me, I’m sure his activities provide him with an immense amount of joy. However, Sangster was not one of those places Joseph associated with joy.

On our walk to the far end of Sangster Elementary School’s soccer field, a group of small children in green bibs ran past us going the other way. Joseph tells us that the school has changed a lot since his day and that it now has a Nature Kindergarten program. The program began in September 2012 with the goal of educating children through play in nature. Their explorations of nature provide ample educational opportunities that allow them to learn at their own pace while being physically active. The children spend a few hours every day, rain or shine, exploring the forests of Hatley Park or the Esquimalt Lagoon Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

A click of the gate and I’m in another world. To my left is a large gravel path leading uphill towards Sangster Elementary School; to my right, the path continues downhill and disappears around a bend heading north. Before me is a cool dark forest — a big relief because the day is an extremely hot 27℃ with no wind — where massive cedar and Douglas fir trees tower over the forest floor. The light that does break through the canopy is filled with dust from the dry hot summer. I watch the dust billow sluggishly through the light as I slowly ran up the hill towards Sangster. Everything in the forest seems to be moving at half-speed, including me. I don’t mind. It’s not a race. It’s an escape to a feeling.

Once the ground levels out, I pick up my pace. On my left is a fence were the sounds of traffic mixes with conversations, lawn mowers, and the tinny sound of radios that alternate in unison with playgrounds, apartment buildings, houses, businesses, and streets. On my right is the forest. I stay focused on the forest and tune out the intruding noises.

Suddenly the large gravel path ends and I quickly find a single track that requires a bit more focus; I have to hop, dodge, and jump over rocks, roots, and logs. The path leads me deeper into the forest and the sights and sounds of life outside fall away. All I see is the single track path ahead; all I hear are the sounds of my breathing and my feet on the ground. Nothing else exists. I am in the forest and the forest is in me and we are both somewhere else.

That somewhere else is the liminal space where my transformative experiences occur – both physical and psychological. It allows me a space to discover something new about myself or a new perspective on the world. The discoveries can be as simple as realizing my agility has improved or as complex as contextualizing my existence within some new cosmological theory. The experience provides balance to my everyday life.

The single track ends and I’m back on the wide gravel path. The running is less challenging and, without knowing it, I focus on the surrounding forest. There are more ferns in this part of the forest and I think about what this area would have looked like before European contact. Then I remember that some Douglas fir trees in the forest are 250-years-old. If only they could talk, but, I imagine, like Ents, it would take them forever to say anything. I think it would be worth the wait.

A click of the gate and I’m back.

Rodney Steadman 04 September 2016

Sandstone cliffs along the Milk River in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

Writing on Stone

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada, is a place where history, belief, and art merge into an extraordinary landscape. It is a culturally important place to the Kainai, or Blood Tribe, who have existed in the region for thousands of years. This article is a first person account of Writing-on-Stone and the questions it inspires about place, history, art, and nature.