A Walk with a Grandson

August 15

I went for a walk the other day, along a trail I had been to before, but this time my twelve-year-old grandson was with me.  At the age of twelve, I think a child has started to gain the ability to conceptualise, to think beyond the obvious, to absorb things that are not just about self.  Because of this, I’ve found that walks with my older grandson have taken on a new level of interest, for both of us.

Sometimes I had to acknowledge his energy level compared to mine in my ageing body.  I climb up hills slower now, but he was considerate enough to wait for me at the top.  I remember when he was younger, I used to have to promise that the top of the hill was ‘just around the corner’ to motivate him to keep moving.  I don’t need to do this anymore, but I find that I am now silently giving myself that erstwhile motivation.

On the first part of the walk, I pointed out something that I now notice.  Something that I feel different about now than when I was a younger man.  It is what I’ve started calling ‘A View Ruined’.  It is one of those views that are on the edge of the natural world that dramatically demonstrates the not-so-perfect hand of man’s influence.  We have a lot of them in this small town that is expanding to accommodate the population growth in Alberta.

The ‘view ruined’ in this case was a huge gravel pit that has been gouged out of the land across the river from where we walked.  I pointed out the state of the land that was still visible beside the quarry and explained that it showed how beautiful the country at the gravel pit was before the digging started.  We looked at the trees and the shallow layer of good black soil that was on the top of the gravel.  This gravel was left behind when the glaciers and then Lake Calgary disappeared some 17,000 years ago.  The soil has been slowly building on the gravel since then.  We looked down the river valley to see a farm producing hay and canola out of that same shallow layer of fertile soil.  I told the boy that I thought this was a much better use of the land.

View-of-Gravel-pit web

A view ruined

We continued our walk down, into the valley and through a small aspen forest.  The wild flowers were abundant on the open parts of the hillside and we stopped to look at many of them.  I knew only a few by name, but that didn’t stop us enjoying the colours we saw.

I explained the difference between a valley and a coulee to the boy.  We stopped to appreciate the impact of the moisture that gathers in the bottom of coulees and provides a basis for the more substantial flora that grows there.  There were aspens on the side of that coulee that were showing the yellow of autumn.  That seemed strange to me as it was early August, but I put it down to the effect of the drought we had earlier in the year.  The boy said that he thought it made the coulee look nicer to have that hint of yellow.  I agreed.

Coulee web

A classic coulee on our walk

We stopped to talk about why a small lagoon existed at the lower end of another coulee.  Water draining from the hills above formed a creek that moved water slowly in and out of the lagoon.  There were lots of marsh grasses and green blobs of algae around the perimeter.  I thought we might get swarmed by mosquitoes, but we saw none—thank goodness.  As we stood talking about the setting of the lagoon we noticed colourful birds swooping up from the shore, doing a bit of aerial acrobatics and then returning to the shore or a nearby tree branch.  Within seconds they would do that all over again.  We took out our binoculars to see the birds better and saw that they were cedar waxwings.  I explained that what they were doing was standing on the shore or on the tree branches until they saw an insect flying over the lagoon, then dashing up to pick it out of the air.  Given the slow moving water of the lagoon, there were probably insects being produced there every minute.  The boy then noticed a brilliant yellow bird that was feeding along the shoreline.  Through the binoculars I saw several of the little fellows that visit our backyard in the spring, American Goldfinches.  I was surprised to see the brilliantly coloured males, because that brilliance is reserved for the breeding season which I thought was past.  I explained this to the boy and then went on to suggest that the Goldfinches must be breeding a second batch of offspring.

As we started climbing up out of the valley, I exclaimed to him how pretty I thought a particular cluster of aspens were with their white trunks lightening the scene underneath their canopy of quivering leaves.  I told him that I didn’t know why that caught my eye as it did, but I did explain that the scene gave me a peaceful feeling.  I said it probably had to do with living my younger years on the prairies and in the foothills, when my life was comfortable and secure with my parents, but I was just guessing.

Aspens1 web

Peaceful aspen forest

We broke out of the aspen forest and onto the northern, dry slope of the valley.  The flowers persisted, but there were no coulees with tree cover that we could see ahead.  Thankfully it was cloudy and not too hot.  Some threatening rain clouds moved in.  The wind picked up and we talked about how we might get wet as we didn’t have any jackets or rain gear.  With some bravado we determined that we would just get wet and dry out later.  Thankfully the rain never came.

As we moved along the lower part of the hillside I noticed something moving ahead — a tan coloured coyote trotting across the path ahead of us and continuing his way up the hill.  I quickly pointed it out to the boy and he lifted our binoculars to his eyes to follow the animal’s retreat.  The current vernacular of excitement came from his mouth as he watched the silence and stealth of the coyote.

“That’s cool, Grandpa.  Awesome.”

The animal looked old and large.  He trotted up the hill about fifty metres with ease, then sat and watched us, looking much like a curious dog.  As we moved along the path and closer to where he was I spoke loud saying, “Yah, we see you fellow.  What are you doing?”  Author Trevor Herriot, a naturalist and environmentalist, says he always talks to the elements of nature around him.  He says that of course they can never answer back, but it gives him a feeling of being connected when he talks to the birds and other animals.  I think I get it.  After I addressed the coyote, he got up and trotted further up the hill, away from us.  We continued to watch through our binoculars until the animal disappeared into a small depression.  The boy said he was gone, but I told him to keep watching for signs that the animal was still there.  Sure enough, within a minute or so, the coyote’s ears and eyes appeared in the grass as he tried to sneak an undetected look at us to see what we were doing.  I again shouted that I saw him and he pulled his head back down.  We kept looking his way and I guess he got nervous, because he rose and walked into the bush on the hill, disappearing from view.  We turned our eyes back to the path and carried on.

From further up the valley, behind us, we heard the whistle of an approaching train.  We stopped, waited, and then watched as two engines and an array of cars appeared on the open part of the track that we could see.  The train seemed to go on forever.  We watched it for a time, but the train was long and we lost interest.

At the start of the walk I had described the latter part of the trail to the boy and reminded him that we had been on it before.  He said he didn’t remember much about that; however, as we came to the next part of our walk his memory was restored and he started telling me about those other visits to the valley where we had walked and biked.  It was fun reminiscing about those past journeys.

We noticed a hawk catching the rising north wind as it deflected off the ridge of hills to the north of us.  I talked about the flight beauty of the hawk and how clever they were to know how to take such advantage of the wind.  Not saying anything, the boy watched until the bird drifted on the air out of sight, behind the ridge.

There were very few other people on the path that day, so it was easy to feel like we were on our own.  We entered another forest of aspens as we started climbing the valley edge along a coulee.  I pointed to an area of wetland in the bottom of a draw formed where several coulees came together.  I told him that was a place for water to collect as it came off the hills and down the coulees.  I took some time to explain how important such areas were for holding water after heavy rainfalls and how that helps minimise runoff to the river.  I went on about how such traps for water were necessary to reduce the amount of flooding such as we had in 2013, but this seemed to be one science lesson too far.  I really do go overboard sometimes.

J&Z-on-walk web

When we were almost at the end of our journey, we came across a couple of rusted out hulks of old Model T Fords that had been dumped down the hillside many decades ago.  It was clear to me that hillside had been a dumping ground for the local rancher or farmer a long time go.  Since then the aspen trees had grown up around the wrecks.  The boy went into the woods to explore, trying to make sense out of how the vehicles went together and trying to find all the various parts.  I stood by and watched a reflection of myself at that age and how I would have also been keen to make the same exploration.

All of a sudden, the walk was over and we turned our minds to getting a nice cool treat of gelato.  I thought we had a very good time together.  I think he did too.