31 Jan 2015

Coureur des bois

I had run out of excuses. After five long, cold winters of professing interest and intention, I could no longer procrastinate. A thoughtful Christmas gift overcame my last line of defense ("Oh, but I'll have to go rent the equipment.") Last weekend, I finally followed a Canadian Native into the wintery woods.

We were not looking for furs or prey, of course. Especially given that we were in a national park not far from Canada's quaint capital, which would host us for the night following our snowy adventure.

I had skied in Eastern Canada before, and remain distinctively unimpressed by the tiny hills, low temperatures and pricey resorts. There is, however, another winter activity for which the local setting, with abundant snow, plenty of unspoilt nature and rolling hills lends itself. I'd always said that I'd be keen to give it a try. And so last weekend, I fastened my brand-new snowshoes.

This magnificent kit is the next best thing a pedestrian can get to a 4x4 - in conjunction with poles, it allows the so inclined to master almost any incline, as it were. Unlike cross-country skis, which call for neatly traced trails, snowshoes are most at home in the pristine, powdery snow. They provide the thrill and satisfaction of going where no man has gone before - since the last snowfall, at least. Consequently, the snowshoe trails in the park were mostly a sequence of blue markers in the virgin forest, taking us deeper and deeper into nature and on a peaceful four hour loop around a frozen lake. Apart from the few occasions where our path intersected the cross-country paths ,we came across no one. 

Depending on the pace, tramping through the snow can be pretty vigorous exercise, and it kept us nicely warm. This would quickly change once one stops for a lunch break, though. Fortunately, my native guide had foreseen this issue and planned for our rest to be in a cozy hut, where helpful park rangers had already lit a wood stove. Soon enough, I was treated to a steaming beef stew to regain my forces for the trek out.

Such winter hiking can definitely be recommended, and I am eager to repeat it. Much like its warm-weather counterpart, it has a meditative effect on the mind, by steadily exhausting the body. Yes, it requires a little more gear and planning. But it also comes with a most soothing advantage: In the snow, there are no bugs!

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13 Jan 2015

Going underground

Overrated and underwhelming. That has been my verdict, for the past five years, of a Montréal landmark which overseas visitors are always eager to see. The attraction in question is not the Old Port, the Plateau or even Mont Royal. The interest is in Montréal Souterrain, the network of underground tunnels and passages that links many buildings in the city's core, and connects to various subway stations to reach even further.

I'd inevitably tell my visitors to lower their expectations - pun intended. Yes, there were a few below-ground walkways here and there, stuffed with second-rate shops and food outlets. But I was always unimpressed by the network's utility, never mind value as a tourist attraction. So when our offices moved to a new building connected to the réseau souterrain, I barely paid any attention.

I should have. On a lunchtime outing a few days ago, I had just arrived at the grocery store a few blocks down from the office and was busy unwrapping the layers protecting me from the -20C cold outside, when a co-worker emerged from the snacks aisle. To my surprise, she was wearing office slippers and a casual cardigan, attire clearly unsuitable to keep her Mexican body comfortable outside.

Turns out she had not been in the open at all. Instead, she had made use of the underground network to come all the way from our office to the store. I was fascinated as she guided me back the way she came, along a convoluted succession of over- and underpasses, up and down 8 flights of stairs, through revolving doors and up elevators... to reemerge by my desk.

A closer look at the underground map was in order, and it became apparent from it that there were a series of connecting passages of which I had not been aware - and which connect multiple sections of the grid into one continuous network, thereby greatly improving utility.

Today at lunchtime, your urban boyscout set off in the opposite direction, looking smug in his dress shirt and loafers while the colleagues in the elevator were bundling up to face the elements outside. And sure enough, I found yet another passage (counter-intuitively leading up above ground level and through an encased alley) connecting my office to a neighboring section, from there down again, up through the exhibition center and across to the main train station, my destination for today.

I had not been doing the Montréal underground movement justice, then. With the newly-found links, I have dry-foot access to six metro stations on two lines, various malls, food courts... and even the two YMCAs I regularly use. It may not be the most direct way of getting there, but on arctic winter days like today, the indoor walk is the perfect warm-up!

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