Saturday, April 10, 2010

"Traction" life, and on the trail

This past week we made a quick post-Easter trip to Alberta to visit family. On the agenda was also to find some snow-covered trails to try out the Yaktrax, which had been sitting in their box, unopened since we bought them last summer. These little traction devices attach to your running shoes, or any shoes - well OK, maybe not minimalist gear such as Vibram Fivefingers. :). The "Yaks" are made to provide grip on snow or ice - granted, there's never much of either here where we live on the Island but you know, "be prepared"..  Before sharing a little of that though, I must tell you that we had forgotten just how interesting "spring" weather can be in Calgary until we found ourselves in the one of the most severe winter blizzards in  memory - and we've lived a lot of winters in the mountains and in "snow country"!

On our return drive to the airport, heavy snow and gusts in excess of 90 km/h caused unbelievable whiteout conditions on the roads. Evidence of "lost traction" lined the shoulders and ditches beside the highway as cars spun out of control in the slippery conditions, made only more treacherous by almost zero visibility. When we finally arrived (thankfully without mishap) at the airport we discovered that it was completely blacked out, emergency lighting included! an adventure, but... With visions of staying overnight in a dark international airport with ghostly fellow travelers sporting lime-coloured glow sticks, I checked the Environment Canada website on my cell phone and was relieved to discover that the atmospheric pressure was actually rising. The storm was forecast to pass very quickly. Ahh, perhaps we wouldn't have to sleep by the cool glow of a glow stick after all. An hour or so later, power was restored and the airline computers came back online - accompanied by a big cheer on the departures level and also on the arrivals level where passengers awaited baggage that didn't quite get on the carousel before the power went out. Several hours later, we were in the air and on our way back to the Island.

Kudos are in order: Although I can't confirm this, the rumour in the airport was that, in the midst of the prolonged and rather extraordinary power failure, the iconic Tim Horton's, continued to serve fresh, hot coffee. Our experience continues to be that if you want to find a smiling, welcoming face in a storm, either stop in at a Tim's or visit the folks at the WestJet counter - their "can do" attitude in both places is impressive and, I can tell you, most appreciated! Staff at WestJet took the time to greet folks in the long departures line with their usual smiles and handed out complimentary packages of "Bits 'n Bites". Hey, when all else fails, a smile and a snack takes the edge off. Good on you guys!

I'm a little off track here, but I did want to focus on the idea of traction. When in Calgary, we always try to make time for a side trip to our old home towns of Banff and Canmore. A favourite hike / trail run is up the switchbacks of Sulphur Mountain to the restaurant and observation decks at the summit. (alternatively, for a  $29 return ticket, there's an impressive 8-minute ride in a Swiss-made gondola.) Although lots of folks enjoy the trail in the summer, not so many go up when the trails are covered in snow and that's because it can get very slippery. The warm southern Alberta chinook winds or daytime sunshine melts the surface snow in no time at all, only to be frozen again when the sun goes down. This time though, with the Yaktrax, we figured we could make the zig zag 5.5 km trek to the 2,281 metre (7,485 foot) summit in good time. The elevation gain on the trail is just under 700 metres so yeah, it is good exercise. (The Forerunner GPS calculated a total elevation gain of 762 m and only 72 m of descent over the trail - yup, pretty much uphill). Interestingly, the recommended time for hikers is 2-3 hours which seems a very long time. Our best time, a couple of years ago, was 1 hour and 8 minutes - most (younger) trail runners would probably find that slow.

At the trail head, just across from the Hot Springs (which looked rather "steamingly" tempting), we pulled the Yaktrax over our running shoes and headed up the trail. Immediately we were glad to have them as the initial section was really icy.
The "Yaks", which are not aggressive pieces of hardware at all, dug right in and provided awesome traction. Once off the icy spots and back on the packed snow, it was like being on the trail in the summer. There was no slippage and no real sense that anything was strapped to our shoes. The model we have ("Pro"), features a velcro strap over the top of the shoe, and makes the fit very secure. The small additional cost is well worth it. Whether walking or running, they just felt great. It was one more example of where a small investment ($30 / pair) in a good "piece of kit" can make the difference between enjoying time on the winter trails or having to go home disappointed because they would have been too slippery for safe travel. In short, they provided the necessary traction for a most enjoyable day in the Rockies.
In about an hour and fifteen minutes, we reached the observation decks where we enjoyed the views, took some pics, reminisced about the years we spent in Banff, and watched a helicopter transporting building materials for a new project up at the top. We then headed back down, and arrived back at the parking lot about 56 minutes later. Traction was just as good going down as it was going up. The only problem was that I got a little enthusiastic (OK, careless) jumping off a log near the end. Not sure what happened but I'm now limping around with a slightly tender right foot. The Yaktrax, however, worked perfectly.

Clearly, "traction" is important on the road, on the trail, and in life. Most of what's involved in getting and keeping a "grip" in life is obvious. We know that it's important to eat foods that are nutritious while avoiding excess salts, fats, and sugars. We need to hydrate properly. We need to get enough rest and to avoid getting stressed out with things that really aren't important. We need to get some quality exercise every day. Richard Louv points out, in his excellent book, "Last Child in the Woods", that another important, but increasingly forgotten, source of "traction" in life is our contact with the natural world. He reports that "a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature".

I know this to be true. It is the connection with the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the feel of the natural world, whether in the woods or on the water, that I gain both respite and energy. Life without that connection can be, literally, a "slippery slope". Technology increasingly creates for us the "virtual" but this thin representation of reality lacks the richness and depth of living in close connection with the natural world.  As the Yaktrax made possible an easy ascent of a slippery trail, so does our connection with nature permit us to traverse life with traction, confidence, and meaningful experience.

I'm guessing that I may be "preaching to the choir" here. :-)

Stay safe out there,


Top pic: D nearing the end of the packed trail, west of the summit.
Bottom pic: Looking eastwards towards the Bow Valley and Lake Minnewanka from summit.


  1. Hi
    Good blog, lots of info which has made me realize that I learn more about your life from reading your blog that I do seeing you in person most days...hmmm connection with the natural world should include connection with people, face to face...LOL
    C U Soon...I can hardly wait to see you running around the office demonstrating your latest foot wear!

  2. Hmm...good point. I must try to drop in sometime. OK, I'll be over this morning. I hear there's a pancake lunch! It'll be a chance to tell EVERYONE about the "Yaks". :)

  3. HI:

    I really liked hearing about the "yaks" and your "reflections" this morning. It is so true about the foods we eat and I am trying to do my best. Glad you got back home safe and sound despite the blizzards and having to do a memorial on Friday. See you during the week.


  4. Hi J, Always enjoy sharing the stories from the outdoors - children seem to enjoy it too! :)