The 100-mile playground

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Lisa Kadane

For the Calgary Herald

Last summer, Bruce Kirkby set off with his wife and two sons on a 30-day canoe trip on the Columbia River, not far from their home in Kimberley, B.C. Highlights of the month-long adventure included Kirkby being charged by a bear (don’t tell his kids!) and camping on massive, deserted beaches on the Arrow Lakes.

No stranger to multi-day outdoor adventures, in 2014 Kirkby and his family literally took the slow boat to South Korea to kick off an overland journey to a monastery in the Indian Himalaya where they spent three months. He wrote about the experience in a new book, Blue Sky Kingdom, and introduced the idea of “slow travel,” which he explains as “the abandonment of the itinerary and the openness to serendipity.”

“We tend to pack in so much stuff (when we travel) that we miss so many of the wonders because they happen by chance,” says Kirkby. “Slow travel … (is) spending the most valuable resource we have — time — without immediately expecting to sow a return on our investment.”

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No strangers to slow adventure, the Kirkbys travelled to Asia in 2014 by slow boat, train and on foot. Courtesy Bruce Kirkby
No strangers to slow adventure, the Kirkbys travelled to Asia in 2014 by slow boat, train and on foot. Courtesy Bruce Kirkby Photo by Bruce Kirkby /jpg

On their Columbia River trip, for example, the luxury of time allowed them to befriend a bird that randomly landed on his youngest son’s head. The juvenile brown-headed cowbird ended up travelling with the family for four days. It was a meaningful connection with wildlife that would never happen on your average, frantic holiday.

Since we’re all grounded going on a year now because of COVID-19 (and memories of those week-long, all-inclusive vacations seem like fever dreams), Canadians are getting creative and applying the slow travel philosophy to the great outdoors. We’ve all heard of the 100-mile diet — sourcing and cooking food grown or raised within that radius — so think of this growing trend as the “100-mile playground.” Like Kirkby on his month-long paddle, one thing we can do during the pandemic is embark on slow, outdoor adventures close to home.

Mount Royal University outdoors professor Joe Pavelka and daughters Kailen and Chloe Pavelka doing some flyfishing in southern Alberta.
Mount Royal University outdoors professor Joe Pavelka and daughters Kailen and Chloe Pavelka doing some flyfishing in southern Alberta. jpg

Right now, nature is the only reliable destination, says Joe Pavelka, a professor in the Eco-tourism and Outdoor Leadership program at Mount Royal University. Last spring he conducted a study to gauge people’s travel fears and aspirations during and after the early months of pandemic isolation. “High performers” in terms of future trip ideas among respondents included road trips, camping and visits to national parks or natural areas.

“Everyone’s talking about Covid fatigue — we’re tired of this,” says Pavelka. “So now you want to go off and do something — where are you going to go? Well, most of our options are shut down. We’re not going to go to Mexico. We’re not going to Disneyland. But the outdoors is not shut down. Canadians are going into nature and we’re doing that in droves.”

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Bruce Kirkby’s wife and sons chill out on the Columbia River during a month-long canoe trip in August 2020. Courtesy, Bruce Kirkby
Bruce Kirkby’s wife and sons chill out on the Columbia River during a month-long canoe trip in August 2020. Courtesy, Bruce Kirkby jpg

Nature makes a good adventure muse because she gives us agency. Not only do we get to hike, picnic or go for a mountain bike ride, but we can also do so safely. On top of that are the well-documented therapeutic and psychological benefits of being outside: time outdoors decreases stress and increases happiness.

Outdoor recreation also forces us to unplug, stop doom scrolling, notice the finer details of nature and focus on the task at hand, whether that’s navigating a stretch of rapids on a river, spotting a northern goshawk on a tree breach or building a campfire. The goal is to slow down and enjoy the journey, says Pavelka, rather than aim for an FKT (fastest known time).

“When I’m in the backcountry or camping, I’m actually present, and I tend to do one thing at a time,” says Pavelka, who also leads students on sea kayaking and canoeing trips in Canada. “It’s just much more mindful.”

A multi-day bike trip through Argentina sealed Doug Firby and Lisa Monforton’s love of slow adventure. Courtesy, Lisa Monforton
A multi-day bike trip through Argentina sealed Doug Firby and Lisa Monforton’s love of slow adventure. Courtesy, Lisa Monforton jpg

For Lisa Monforton, a multi-day cycling trip in Argentina with her husband sealed her preference for slow adventure and the connection to place it fosters.

“We got to meet local people and stayed in their homes and cooked with them and helped them clean after dinner. It just felt more meaningful. You’re noticing everything, you can stop whenever you want and take pictures. Bicycling to me, like hiking and snowshoeing, is really the ultimate in slow travel.”

No sooner did they return from abroad than COVID hit, which forced everyone to explore locally. Monforton and her husband got involved in planning ConnecTour, a cross-country bicycling tour that kicks off in May 2021 and aims to reconnect and rebuild communities across Canada. To raise awareness for the initiative, they organized day rides in Turner Valley, Drumheller and the Crowsnest Pass last summer.The beauty of ConnecTour is participants can sign up for the whole thing or just a local piece — the Banff to Ghost Lake leg, or Ghost Lake to Calgary leg, for example.

It’s about having Canadians discover their own backyard in a slow and meaningful way, says Monforton, who believes the pandemic is going to change the way we adventure — for the better.

Pavelka agrees. “In 20 years from now when we’re looking at this whole thing, I think we’re going to say there was a real ‘Covid bump’ in outdoor visitation that stayed a long time.”

Slow adventure 101: Ideas for newbies

• Start small. Snowshoe the Sunshine Village ski-out instead of skiing it. Do a one-day bike tour of local craft breweries in your area. “It doesn’t have to be an extended holiday,” says Monforton.

• Base yourself at a lodge, cabin or campground and do one planned excursion a day (a hike or paddle, for example). Leave the rest of the time open to serendipity, says Pavelka.

• Join a guided trip. Outfitters in Alberta run multi-day trips by horseback, canoe and on foot (backpacking). “Guided mini-adventures make some pretty incredible experiences in wild places,” says Kirkby. “Don’t let fear or uncertainty of difficulty hold you back.”

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