The other day it snowed here; soft and silent, in a little wind. It reminded me of why I love By The Lake Park in the winter time.
By The Lake Park is probably my favourite spot in Wetaskiwin. It scores so high above all the other spots we frequent that I am right now going to reserve at least three more posts for this subject: one for each season. I’m not sure I’ll be able to say enough about this park.
According to the City of Wetaskiwin website, and a few other random Google hits, By The Lake Park is home to a 17 acre lake, surrounded by 2.2 kilometres of walking trails, partially paved, but mostly well-groomed gravel. I was frustrated by the lack of information available on the internet regarding the history of the park. Apparently I have some research to do.
One of the characteristics I appreciate most about the park is that, while I am walking there, I feel more free than anywhere else in Wetaskiwin to greet the people I encounter. Regardless of age, race, economic status, or any other difference that might intimidate me elsewhere, at By The Lake Park I somehow feel more eager to offer a smile and a quick word of greeting, and so far I have been fortunate to receive the same in return. That being said, my favourite winter memory at the park happened when I was the only person on the trail.
You need to know that I am absolutely fascinated by extreme weather. I love it; even winter. If it blizzards, I want to go out in it. If you think I’m crazy, I can handle it. The other thing you need to know is that in March of 2011 my grandpa passed away. There is no man I admire more than my grandpa and I miss him terribly. He was a fine outdoorsman, among other things, right up until the day he died. When Grandpa passed away, his children fell to helping Grandma handle hers and Grandpa’s possessions. It was a difficult time, but I had some small happiness in carrying away two pairs of wooden snowshoes, built in the older, more traditional style. There were a couple of days last winter where there was enough soft snow to snowshoe to work, and I enjoyed that a lot. I felt clumsy and really hadn’t a clue what I was doing, but I felt like I was honouring the memory of my grandpa.
Then a Sunday morning dawned where my wife and then one-and-only-son were napping, and a soft, silent snow was falling outside. Around 10 o’clock I was in the car with a pair of snowshoes in the back, on my way to the park.
It was a cool morning, probably in the neighbourhood of -20 C (just the way I like it), so I was dressed warmly. I was the only car in the parking lot, a fact that thrilled me to the point that I stumbled out of my shoes and into my boots and snowshoes as quickly as possible, and then took off at a rambling jog, eager to get into the bush before anyone else arrived. As it turned out my rushing was for nothing. Not a single soul appeared that morning, and I was winded before 5 minutes had passed.
My mind is clouded these days from lack of sleep and the busyness of raising little boys, so I don’t remember things in very good order. My memories come in glimpses and impressions. Here are some glimpses of what I remember from that morning at By The Lake Park.
I remember heading out across the frozen lake, pushing fresh powder with all the joy and excitement of a back country skier, but none of the speed or finesse. I remember finally getting the hang of it; changing gradually from the awkward, bow-legged gait of a weekend cowboy after a trail ride, to the confident, long, straight-ahead stride of someone who trusted his snowshoes not to step on each other. I remember the feeling of confidence when my pacing found a rhythm not unlike a heart beat, and the immediate child-like quickening of that beat when I realized I had it figured out. I remember looking back over my tracks, shielding my eyes against the heavy falling snow, and revelling in the aloneness of the scene.
I remember bright red willows standing out against the snow in the frozen marshes, and winding my way in among the branches, sometimes bent double; pausing, crouched in a red archway, to look back over the lake now obscured by the thickening snow; catching my breath.
I remember the sudden sensation of it being so profoundly quiet that I could actually hear the snowflakes as they drifted past poplar branches. I convinced myself I could hear them piling – million upon million – on the bed of snow below. I remember, in that particular moment, a feeling of closeness to my grandpa; not in an eerie or supernatural way, but a distinct feeling of his memory being suddenly sharpened, like when a familiar taste or smell transports you instantly and completely into a moment from your past.
I remember leaving the trail for awhile and heading out on a detour the City had used one spring when the lake flooded a large section of the trail. I remember, as I headed back south toward the main trail, the snowfall thickening, and having to blink almost constantly to see where I was going. I remember the joy this brought me; to be alive and unconcerned, out among the fast-falling snowflakes.
The last thing I remember was encountering one of the many bird feeders hung in the trees along the trail. On that morning, the chickadees were as undeterred by the snow as I was. I watched from about 50 feet away as they darted playfully through the trees, to the feeder, and then away again. I marvel at birds in flight, at the appearance that they are doing little more than preventing falling. Flying is no struggle for them; it rather resembles a series of casual wingbeats, just enough to keep them afloat. I remember needing to continue past the feeder, and finding that, even when I was 10 feet from the feeder, the chickadees barely hesitated. I stood still, so close, watching them flit around me, soaking in the emptiness of the park that allowed me to enjoy it in all its splendour.
Back at the van, standing comfortably in my boots again, I tapped the snow off my snowshoes and laid them in the back with a feeling of satisfaction. There was still no one in the parking lot. As much as I love the sense of community I feel among fellow park-goers, it was the sense of solitude on that beautiful morning that makes this a memory I won’t soon forget.
Just writing this makes me feel like going for a walk. If there was such a job as Park Ranger at By The Lake Park, I would beg the city to give the job to me. For a city the size of ours, this is a rare gem, so congratulations to us. Here’s to getting out and enjoying the park!