What are the Chances?

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Yesterday I wanted to run for an hour.  Not 59 minutes. The difference is psychological but real.  There’s comfort and completeness in that extra minute.

Sixty minutes means thirty out and thirty back.

Our home is surrounded by forest and trails.  I have many options, but one favourite – a short jog down the street and I disappear into the woods, unlikely to encounter anyone in a world of silence.

I climb, and descend, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, usually somewhere in between.  Yesterday I checked my watch, once or twice, determined to turn around at the thirty-minute mark.

Twenty-four minutes into my run, on an isolated hilltop that overlooks our neighbourhood, I sensed where the run would end.  I have been running long enough, decades now, to have a feel for pace and distance.  It’s almost instinctual.   

The tree.  I would finish at the tree. 

There are tens of thousands of trees within miles of our home. 

There’s one that stands out. 

Pictures don’t do it justice.  My pictures at least.  But it is wide and thick and towers above everything around it.  It’s a special tree.  The kind of tree that protesters would chain themselves to, if a logging company ever threatened to cut it down.

What are the chances?  What are the chances that tree, my favourite tree, would be exactly thirty minutes from my home, along my favourite route.

It got me thinking.  About something that happened two weeks ago.  I ran a trail race, with a friend.  “Trail’ doesn’t do the event justice.  Almost twenty miles long, with 4400 feet of elevation, it’s a never-ending series of ascents and descents.  Nothing is flat.  Nothing is easy.  Everything burns.

About four hours in, my buddy was in pain – run stopping pain.  He moved to the side of the trail and stopped moving.  He’d been hurting for awhile but had never stopped.  He’s not the kind of guy to stop.  Ever.  So, I knew he was in agony.  And just then, at that very moment, another runner came by, her palm open, salt tablets in her hand.  She offered him a handful.  He swallowed them.  And almost instantly his pain lightened.  His legs loosened.  He was moving again.  What are the chances?  We’d been on the course for hours.  He’d been stopped for seconds.  At that very moment, in his time of need, another runner, carrying exactly what he needed, came by. 

He and I talked about that moment.  We talked about God and chance, about life’s profound moments and what lay behind them.

I work in a unit that investigates homicides.  Fortunately, on the island we live on, they are relatively rare.  Relatively is a relative term.  Because our plates are full.  There is no shortage of work.  Even though sometimes months pass between murders.  Months. 

Until a few weeks ago.  When there were two murders within hours.  Over a hundred miles separated them.  Only minutes separated them.  What are the chances?

I don’t know.  Perhaps there are answers.  Maybe none exist.

Sixty minutes.  Salt pills.  A hundred miles apart.

One tree.

Scattered Bones

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Evidence of a kill. 

At the end of a side trail, not heavily used.  I might have been the first person standing there in days, weeks – maybe even months or years.

Scattered bones – bleached white.  A deer ripped apart, the spinal cord severed, a piece of a jawbone, a smattering of teeth.

An awful death.  Perhaps, mercifully, a quick one. 

A vivid reminder that our forests and trails, so near to our homes, are a different world.

I’d hadn’t gone this deep into the woods for weeks.  Since I’d seen a bear just minutes from our home.  That was six weeks ago.  On a well used trail at the junction of two paths.  If I left my home right now, I could be there in five minutes.  Or less.  My bear encounter happened at midday.  A warm day.  The perfect day for a quick workout.  Hill repeats.  Up and down, up and down.  Strengthen the legs, stress the lungs, tune out the world.  Music blasting in my earbuds.  I stopped tuning out when, on the last downhill, I glanced to my right and saw a black bear ambling up towards me.  Maybe 30 or 40 feet away.  A scenario I’d imagined a thousand times. I stopped running, pivoted, walked backwards down the hill.  Slowly.   Yanked out my bear spray.  Pulled the cord on the noisemaker clipped to my chest.  Knew in my head that black bears rarely attacked people.  Feared in my gut that this one would.  Kept retreating.  Got to the bottom.  Saw the bear at the top.  It looked at me, curious and calm.  And kept on going, towards the woods, away from me.

A few days later, I ran again on the same hill.  Head on a swivel.  No music in my ears.  A little scared, but knowing the longer I waited to go back, the less likely I would be to do so.  Still, that was close to home.  Close meant comfort.  At the junction where I’d seen the bear, I could see dozens of houses and cars passing below.  It was practically my backyard.

The side trail with the dead deer was not my backyard.  I’d planned this run for days, and then talked myself out of it the night before.  Because I was scared.  Scared to venture far from home.  Far from houses and cars and a pretty subdivision.  Into the land of cougars and bears.  I talked myself into a safer run.  Along well traveled roads, to a public park filled with hikers and mountain bikers. 

Then I woke up.  And talked myself out of the talking out. 

Maybe it was because an article from a trail running magazine popped up on my Twitter feed with an article about the rarity of bear attacks and the effectiveness of bear spray.

Maybe because I thought of my daughter.  The fears of a five-year old can be overwhelming – unfamiliar situations, unexpected change, a bug on our trampoline – overwhelming and every bit as real and powerful as the primal fears of an adult.  When my daughter is scared, my wife and I encourage her to face those things that frighten her.  To gain strength, incrementally, by winning small battles against little terrors. 

Or maybe it was just because I love to run on hard packed dirt, baked dry by a month of heat, in the midst of towering, never-ending evergreens.

So, I went for that run.  I added a knife to my arsenal.  Razor sharp, encased in a multi-tool which I carried with me for the entire run.  The multi-tool in one hand, a rock in the other.  I banged them together frequently.  “Make noise,” the experts say.  Scare the bears off before they see you. 

I made noise all right.  No earbuds on this run.  Blue Rodeo blaring from my cell phone.  My rock smashing into my multi-tool whenever I approached a blind corner.

I made noise, and scared a lot of birds, who flew off as I approached. 

I don’t know if I scared any bears, or cougars.  I certainly didn’t see any.

But I smelled death.  The unmistakeable odour of decomposing flesh hit me hard.  Twice.  The rotting carcasses must have been just meters off the main path that took me further and further out. 

Further and further out to the side trail, which ended with scattered bones and an awful death.

An awful death and a necessary run.

A run that replaced fear with confidence.

A run that reminded me of why I was scared in the first place.

Top of the Hat

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Deadly car crashes.

Endless road work.

Traffic congestion.

Incredible views.

All synonymous with ‘the Malahat’ – both an 1100-foot mountain and a twisting highway on Vancouver Island.

When conditions aren’t ideal it’s awful to drive – no lights illuminate the road, few barriers separate speeding cars from massive trucks, and rain, fog, and snow slicken the pavement and obscure already obstructed views.

Oh, but the view from the summit is extraordinary. 

Just hundreds of meters away from the congested highway is a mostly deserted trail.  Last weekend I ran to the summit.  In two-hours I saw two dirt-bikers and no one else.  On an island of several hundred thousand people, I was alone.

The trail to the summit was mostly satisfying – hard-packed dirt and gradual elevation.  Closer to the top, a rocky pathway replaced the earthen trail.  Running slowed to a jog, every step a potential twisted ankle or inglorious fall.

Soon after, running ceased altogether when I chose the direct route to the top.  Straight up a gully that must be a continual stream of water from November through spring.  But last weekend, on a hot dry day with summer on the horizon it was dry and completely accessible.  I grabbed a broken branch and used it as a walking stick to help as I scrambled my way up.

The scramble was worth it.

Oh, that view.

Blue sky, bluer ocean, distant mountains, a forest canopy, and an international airport as small as a postage stamp.

Travellers from across the country and around the world drive up the Malahat highway, exit at the scenic viewpoints, and revel at the glorious view.  Thousands – tens of thousands – do it every year.

Far fewer take the trail to the top.  Dozens.  Hundreds.  Runners like me.  Hikers, mountain-bikers and quad-riders.

We are drawn by the same thing.  Beauty.  Magnificence.  Nature’s wonders.

The attraction is so understandable.  The destination is worth the journey.

Which makes the next part so hard for me to understand. 

Garbage at the top.  Beer cans.  Plastic.  Paper.

Lucky lager cans tucked into the base of a hydro tower. A fire pit filled with garbage.

Who does that?  Who makes the effort to get to the top precisely because it is beautiful and then purposely despoils that beauty?  The beer cans tucked into the hydro-tower.  More cans, paper, and plastic left almost lovingly behind in the pit.

I don’t have the answer.  My gut reaction is that anyone who does that is an asshole.  I hate using that language in my writing, but it’s hard to feel otherwise.

But maybe that’s not fair.  Maybe the person who makes the effort to get to the top and then discards their trash for others to clean is me on a bad day.  Maybe it’s you.  Those people are someone’s neighbours.  They’re the people we see at the grocery store.  People we hire, work with, or work for.  Maybe our friends.  Whoever they are, they walk among us.

I try and understand.  Try to be sympathetic.  Usually, my anger and disgust overpower empathy. 

How are we supposed to understand people who clearly appreciate beauty, yet are so reckless in making the very place they worked so hard to arrive at, less beautiful?

There may be a million answers to that question. Philosophical, spiritual, practical.  There may be no answers.

I’ve given up trying to understand.  I find great wisdom in the words of Lee Child.  Author of the massively best-selling Jack Reacher series, something he wrote several books back has stuck with me ever since – “People are complicated.”

I’m not sure truer words have ever been spoken, and I don’t think a philosopher, or a Nobel laureate could say it any better than that.

People are complicated.  

Even at the top of the Malahat.

A Bear Out There

There’s a bear out there.  Not far from my home.  Somewhere.  Drinking from the creek that cuts through our neighbourhood.  Eating the berries along the trails that connect our community.  Foraging through bins on garbage day.

Signs at trailheads warn of recent sightings. It’s a black bear, not a grizzly.  While black bears are unlikely to attack humans there are no guarantees.  Google “Black Bear Attack – British Columbia” and you will get multiple hits – news stories that are weeks or months, but not years old.

It still feels very foreign to me, a relative newcomer to BC.  I grew up in Southern Ontario and the closest I came to a bear was at the Toronto Zoo.  A bear was as foreign and exotic as a hippo or elephant.

Not on Vancouver Island which has one of the densest populations of black bears in the world.  I step outside the house, scan the forests that surround our small town, and know that there is likely not one bear out there, but dozens.

That knowledge affects every trail run.  I do not obsess about it, but I am more than conscious that around every sharp corner, or in the deep brush beside me, a bear may lurk.  That invisible bear may not be poised to attack and is likely more scared of me, than I am of it.  However, more than once I have imagined rounding a bend and encountering a mother bear and her cubs.  Whenever that scenario plays out in my mind, it does not end well for me.

I take some precautions.  Or one precaution at least.  Jammed into the front pocket of my running vest is a large can of bear spray.  On most runs, I practice pulling it out so that doing so becomes as instinctive as a gunslinger sliding a pistol from his holster.  I visualize an encounter I hope never happens.  I startle a bear. We both freeze.  I hold my ground hoping it will just amble away.  It does not.  I yell, hoping to frighten it off. I fight my body’s instinct to turn and run.  I stare at the bear, continuing to yell.  The bear spray is in my hand now.  I back up slowly.  The bear is still.  Do I wait for it to pounce?  Or do I attack first, shooting a stream of thousands of distilled hot peppers into the bear’s face?  Causing it real agony to prevent my own potential agony?  What if I unload the cannister of spray at the bear – and miss – creating a very angry bear, and a very unarmed me?

Questions which I hope are never answered.  A scenario which I hope never plays out.

A chance I am willing to take every day I run in the woods.  Because of the beauty that surrounds me everywhere.  Mountains and forests.  Grueling inclines and distant vistas. Silence and serenity.

Something rustles in the underbrush.

Did I mention the cougars?

Cougar sign

Watermelon in the Rain

It’s raining again. On Vancouver Island. Which as newsflashes go is right up there with “Trump Says Something Stupid.

On a walk this morning my daughter, cold, wet and shivering, asked when the rain would stop.

I answered honestly. “Never.”

She knew I was teasing.

So I told her the real truth. “In forty years.”

That’s how it feels anyway.

I have no right to complain. I choose to move here. To an island. With rainforests on it.

There are positives. Like between November and March it rarely snows. And you can count on seeing the sun. At least once a month.

We had a glorious April. Sun almost daily. Light and heat. At a time when the darkness of COVID was shattering the lives of so many people, we walked in magnificent forests with sunshine streaming through, creating a mosaic of sparkling shadows to rival anything the finest art gallery in the world could offer.

In April I ran in shorts and a t-shirt. I needed sunscreen.

Today we’re drinking hot chocolate. It’s drizzling between rainstorms and the clouds look like they’ve captured the sun and banished it forever on this Victoria Day long weekend. The unofficial start of summer.

Some people embrace this weather. Our neighbour loaded up his paddleboard and headed down to the ocean.

I’ve tried. But I can’t. Not when the grey and rain and blah seem to never go away. When the 7-day forecast on the nightly news shows: rain, showers, cloudy, rain, rain, showers, rain.

But when the sun does come, it is glorious. Like the best of everything distilled into golden rays. Everything is better in the sun. Running, sweating, cutting the lawn, flying kites. Working from home and looking out the window at a yellow world. Everything.

And just like everything is better in the sun, everything is worse when it rains. Stress weighs heavier, the blues are darker, injuries hurt even more.

But sometimes a little light bursts through. I started writing this post sitting on the couch. Alone.  Miserable.  Now sitting beside me are my girls. Eating watermelon. Watermelon! The quintessential summer fruit on a hot chocolate day.

I could learn a lot from my girls. Injecting a slice of summer into an entirely miserable day.

Although truth be told, instead of eating watermelon in the rain, I’d rather be drinking hot chocolate in the sun.

A Little Bit of Sunshine