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Shelter From A Storm

Words By Ryan Stuart
Photo By Sara Kempner

Exploring the wonders next door at home during COVID-19



“Huh,” I think as my gaze follows the path squirming off into the forest. “I’ve never seen that trail before.” I actually say this out loud, though I’m alone, of course.

I have walked by this spot dozens of times before, even noticed the narrow opening in the trees, but had never seen this particular scuff of dirt. It isn’t much: a few inches wide, indistinct in spots, and banking out of sight 25 metres in. I think about ignoring it, like I probably have before, my mind dismissing it as nothing more than a deer trail to nowhere. Now, six weeks into a new reality (with a new vocabulary to go with it), I’m looking for possibility. Today the path suggests adventure, an escape, something new.

Contemplating where the path goes, I realize this is not my first pandemic discovery. Something about this weird reality has me seeing the world with fresh eyes.

Early into the lockdown, my daughter and I paddled to the mouth of the Trent River and watched a flock of 200-odd gulls ruffling their feathers, dunking their heads, and squabbling for room. Then they took to the air in a noisy cloud, and we gaped as they danced in unison back and forth, twirling and diving. Until they flew over our heads. Then we practiced a different kind of sheltering in place.

On one early-morning dog walk at the Royston Wrecks, I spotted a congregation of seals, mergansers, and gulls, all busy splashing, diving, and surfacing. As I got closer, I saw the reason for the commotion: a huge school of fish, probably salmon smolts heading out to sea.

Not every discovery has been so dramatic. A lonely bush by the side of the Old Island Highway suddenly turning bright pink. The smell of maple buds popping open. The zooming sound the hummingbirds make─usually drowned out by the road noise, I guess.

The finds surprise me. I think of myself as a pretty observant person, and all these experiences are everyday, almost mundane. Sure, the fish school was unique, but I walk by the same spot at least once a week. I’m certain it was not the first feeding frenzy I’ve ever passed.

Something is afoot.

My wide-open agenda has to be part of it. Spring is usually a frenetic season. I’m trying to squeeze in ski days before the mountain closes, get out for the first mountain bike rides, rush off for a spring-break vacation, catch a surf session, and enjoy beers and barbecues with friends.

With my self-imposed agenda forcibly shortened, I’m experiencing the staycation I always thought sounded nice, but never had time for. With nowhere to rush to and nothing to rush for, I have time and space to ignore the future and forget the past. I’m present. I flip another page in my book, cheer the banana slug’s progress, fix the loose fence board instead of putting it off…again. My garden’s never been bigger or better weeded. I’d be relaxed, if it weren’t for the low-grade anxiety of wondering if that sniffle could be it.

Afternoon dog walks are my salve. There’s plenty of evidence showing the mental and physical benefits of getting outside, especially in nature. The Greek practitioner and thinker Hippocrates called walking “man’s best medicine,” and modern doctors prescribe outdoor time to treat everything from anxiety to obesity.

Now, weeks into the lockdown, I’ve walked a rut into the quiver of trails close to my house. Normally, repetition creates blinders, like how I can drive to my daughter’s school and not remember any of it. But that’s not happening. Instead, the same fear-fuelled vigilance that helps me pinpoint a shopper’s cough to mid-way down aisle four sharpens my impressions of the sun on my back and the tap-tap of a woodpecker.

So the sudden appearance of the trail shouldn’t surprise me. Of course, I follow it along an old road to the edge of a steep hill leading down to the Trent River and then along the cliff side through a stand of impressive Douglas firs. Even bigger trees rise from the river flats far below, their swaying tops at eye level. A few hundred metres in, the path ends at a viewpoint: the river twisting and turning out of sight, the snow-covered Beaufort Mountains as a backdrop.

I take a deep breath and suck it all in, thanking everyone responsible for preserving this slice of nature and all the others in the area. This and a dozen other reasons are why I’ve called the Comox Valley home for almost 20 years. Right now, I appreciate living here more than ever before.




Category: Covid-19, Online Only