Monday, August 20, 2012

Building a Walking Trail

August 2012
Many of us take walks for exercise and enjoyment.  BUILDING a walking trail, with natural materials and crude manual tools, is also great exercise and very enjoyable.

Our cabin is in NorthWestern Canada, and very remote by most people’s standards.  It’s a 4-hour drive from my home to the end of the road.  Then a 28km ride by boat in the summer, or snowmobile in the winter.  There are no other cabins within a 1-mile radius, and no other cabin is visible from ours.  The terrain is rugged Precambrian Shield.  This is a spectacular place for solitude and connecting with the natural world, as no unwanted guests would venture to find us there.

Bordered with rocks & logs, with just the base in place
Bedrock is visible in many places, and plants grow with very little soil ... surviving the rain/drought cycles as rainwater quickly drains from rocky ledges into low-lying pockets filled with glacial till soil.  I have counted the growth rings on trees that are just 4 inches (10cm) in diameter – they are over 100 years old, so you know they are tough and have had hard lives. The ground vegetation is extremely fragile.  Reindeer Moss softens in the rain, then dries to a crisp in the relentless sun, and is crushed to a powder when stepped on.  We know places where someone stepped more than 15 years ago, and the footprints remain in that Reindeer Moss.   So we build walking trails, to contain all walking to those trails, and preserve our natural surroundings as it has been for thousands of years.

We choose a route that follows the natural contours of the land.  We want smooth inclines and declines, with no steps, thinking ahead for old people that will need to feel comfortable walking on this trail.  We minimize the damage to plants adjacent to the walking trail, and will even transplant to repair any damages done.  We use only natural materials available nearby – logs, stones, gravel, sand, glacial till, and decomposing trees (called punk).  We have no automated tools, just a pick, axe, hoe, bar, rake, and shovel … and a wheeled cart to haul the heavy materials.

Duff & punk hauled for the topping
Building the walking trail is hard manual labour.  We first scrape off the thin layer of topsoil or ‘duff’ and save it as a scarce and valuable commodity.  Rocks, deposited by the glaciers, are tightly interlocked and a long bar is needed to lever them out.  Big rocks are heavy.  Tree roots are a tangled mess that snag the dirt spaces between rocks.  The trail is then bordered with large rocks or logs … a visible message to ‘stay on the trails’.  The trail-base is a mixture of glacial till, sand, gravel, and stones. The topping is a mixture of the salvaged topsoil and punk … a soft surface for the feet.  Punk is collected from the bush, miles from the cabin, and transported in large barrels in the boat, then hauled with a wheel-cart up to the trail.  When building a walking trail, there are no physically-easy jobs .

Keeping Hydrated on a 8-litre day
Trail-building week was a hot one … 86-93 degrees F (31-34 degrees Celsius).  The combination of hard labour and the heat made me sweat profusely.  It was a struggle to keep hydrated, but necessary to avoid the heat-exhaustion and screamer-headaches.  As an ostomate I have reduced capacity to absorb water, so made conscious effort to count the litres … measuring days as ‘6-litre days’ and ‘8-litre days’.

Cooling off with a skinny dip

The best way to cool off, is to jump into the lake for a refreshing swim.  Knowing I would go right back to work after the swim, I chose to not get any of my clothes wet ... hence the skinny dip swim. 

Building a walking trail is a massive physical undertaking.  But it's great exercise with rewarding satisfaction for the work done.  And we now have a fine new trail that will require no maintenance for decades.  And someday, when we are old and constrained to short walks near the cabin, we will have a smooth comfortable trail, taking us quietly through untouched natural surroundings, protected to remain as it has been for thousands of years.
Go for a Walk

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