Downhill Racer!

Downhill racer! Like Robert Redford in that movie. Oh, if only. More like an uphill plodder when it comes to cross country skiing.

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Slightly slushy – and well provisioned

We were out in Yoho last week, enjoying all the snow on the BC side of the mountains. Although still unseasonably warm, the greater relative snowfall meant there was plenty to fall over in. Sporadic flurries fell from overcast skies, with lengthy breaks in between to admire big valley views. I spent plenty of time enjoying those views from all kinds of angles down in the soft, soft snow.

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Enjoyable view

We decided to risk a little xc skiing on slightly slushy track set trails in the Yoho Valley (Isn’t that great? Yoho is derived from a Cree word meaning awe and wonder. In the Yoho Valley – I could say that over and over…) There were very few fellow skiers or hikers about – in fact we saw only four other people after setting off. Wonderful really, but given it was a long weekend, shouldn’t more families have been out embracing the park, simply being in the Yoho Valley? Maybe they’d heard about me blowing the cobwebs off my skis.

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Long straight bits – wonderful

Not kidding about the uphill plodder. Being a contrary old so and so, I like to claim great enjoyment of uphill skiing. Taking on gravity, and winning. The gradual climb, and the aerobic workout. Yup, the going up is for me. Huh? Really? Well, no, the truth is I am terrified of going too fast and losing control coming back down. Who isn’t? Not so much on long straight descents, that’s fine. It’s when the long straight bits have a turn at the bottom. I don’t seem to have mastered the art of going around corners – unless I’m traveling really, really slowly. Like when I am going up.

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Oh no! Is that a turn after the bridge?

The trail we took at the weekend was a there and back again we’d not visited before. The initial ascent was long and gentle, and I was congratulating myself on this good fortune, and on how well I was fighting gravity. Foolish boy! Of course, there were then turns and steeper parts as the uphill trail followed the down flow run of the Yoho River. To a seasoned – or ordinarily brave – skier, the track was probably as easy as can be. My inner voice however, was repeating “we’re coming back down this way, looks fast, and how about that right turn? Will you make it or hop out of the tracks and over the edge? Bet that water is cold…”

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Cold waters of the Yoho River

Clearly, we made it back down in one piece, or at least enough working pieces for me to be able to write this. Suffice to say my usual, if not preferred, method of slowing down worked as well as ever. Gravity is my friend. I fell over, or threw myself down. Quite a lot. Far too often. Wonderful really, that so few families were out embracing the park.

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Still a little too warm?

Anyway, bruised dignity aside, it was a fun afternoon of (early spring?) uphill plodding and downhill skiing in a beautiful place. It has us looking forward to having another go, and maybe getting a bit further along next time out. Then, if they ever decide to make a belated sequel to Downhill Racer, one set many years after the original, I’ll be available (I do all my own stunts) – provided the new movie is called Uphill Plodder.

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Potential Uphill Plodder location

For the record, these really were some of the thoughts in my head as I enjoyed the long uphill aerobic workout in the Yoho Valley. Probably some sort of altitude sickness.

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Looking down at the Yoho from flat on face

Thanks for reading! As ever, please feel free to share a story or make a comment, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Fractionally further out (on the edge)

Something of an odd title, but bear with me, it might make sense. The last week or two has definitely seen a change in the weather, moving from surefire winter to a more uncertain season. There is still plenty of snow on the ground, at least out in the mountains, but everything has warmed up, and I don’t like it! But let’s try to be glass half full…

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Loves winter

I know, here he goes again, loves winter, blah, blah, blah… It feels wrong to be this warm, with temperatures above freezing and even up into the mid-teens centigrade, with chinook after chinook blowing through. Mid March, alright, but to be this warm from the beginning of February? It’s not all chinooks, but honestly, what a meteorological maelstrom. El Nino and climate change, warm winters and extreme weather, doom mongers and deniers. We’ve just had the warmest year on record, so let’s get fracking. No! Let’s not.

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It should be cold

We have to show a fraction more sense. It should be cold(er) in winter! Global warming isn’t a leftist anti-oil and big business fabrication, but a common concern for all thoughtful (and thoughtless) human beings. Non-renewable resources are dwindling, and they will run out. We have to shift to renewable sources, and put our mental energy, education, and training into facing this reality. I understand the concerns about employment. Jobs won’t have to disappear, but different ones will need to replace current ones. New energy requires engineers, technicians, scientists, maintenance, infrastructure, retail and associated skills. This is an opportunity! Blocking clean air initiatives is fiddling while Rome burns. It’s fracking silly, and we can do better. Goodness, I am irritable this week.

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Precarious

A classroom, many, many years into the future:

“Excuse me, teacher? Are you sure this information is correct? It says that our ancestors continued to pollute the air, water, and ground, even when they had an opportunity to do things differently. Really? And they did it for profit?! They prioritized money over the health of the planet? Huh? But weren’t they educated? Couldn’t they see what was happening? Who was Willow?”

We’ll be long gone, and of course, I’m simply being fanciful…

Maybe I should step outside, calm down. Our last little snowshoe adventure saw us along the river once more, and the river was fractionally higher, with ice shelves collapsing into the water. Don’t get too close to the edge, and a precarious situation… Lovely to look at, but in February? Too soon! I tottered along (as mentioned last week, was still feeling under the weather, hence the tottering) and realized we were past the midpoint of winter, over halfway and racing towards spring. To be honest, I wasn’t racing, or even tottering, not in snowshoes, but isn’t tottering a great word? I do look forward to spring, but please, not yet.

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This is not Willow

So, Groundhog Day came and went, with the sad news that Winnipeg Willow died a day before having the chance to pronounce an end to (or continuation of) winter. Was this natural causes, or a shadowy groundhog grassy knoll conspiracy to suppress the truth? Who would want to silence poor Willow? The naysayers, or the doom mongers?

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Under grey skies

All these thoughts – too strong a word? – were swirling around as we enjoyed the snow, the streams, and the relative silence under grey skies. Oh, my mental maelstrom. Suppose the planet keeps on heating up? What of winter then? How thin is the ice? Hmm. Enjoy winter while you can, and if a snowstorm hits, embrace it because, who knows, suppose you don’t experience another? What an awful thought…

DSCF1907Fortunately, and on a more positive note, we did encounter the American Dipper once again. Knowing that they only frequent unpolluted rivers and streams made everything seem a little less precarious.

I think I’d best keep this brief, and aim to top up my optimism glass. Here’s hoping winter hangs on a little longer around here, and I’ll seek to enjoy it – it’s what Willow would have wanted. For all my doom and gloom, there’s usually a way to fractionally brighten the spirits:

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Glass (more than) half full! A fine fractional IPA from Lagunitas – recommended.

As always, thanks for reading! Please feel free to share a story or leave a comment, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Chopping, stacking, and drying

Reading a book about firewood whilst sitting by a wood stove is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two. Especially when you are feeling sorry for yourself (I was) because some lovely student was overly generous with their germs. Fortunately for Mrs PlaidCamper, I suffered in stoic silence. Not true, I was simply engaged in the book she gave me, and it has certainly confirmed my almost outdoorsman status. Still so much to learn!

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A good read
If you can get hold of a copy, you might like to read “Norwegian Wood – chopping, stacking, and drying wood the Scandinavian way” by Lars Mytting. I know, sounds a bit nerdy, yet this slim volume is quite wonderful, and strangely heartfelt, given the title. The approach is sometimes scientific, sometimes mathematical, but the overall effect is lyrical and philosophical. Apparently, the book has been a bit of a hit, striking a chord – a cord? – with a wide audience. Could it be that some are crying out for a simpler life? Maybe. It kept me quiet for a while.

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Keeping warm
To the book. Until relatively recently, almost all humans have warmed themselves with fire, and the primary fuel was wood. This necessitated a set of skills and knowledge fundamentally attached to being outdoors. In many places, the need for these skills has diminished in the last 60 years, with the development of other heating and energy sources. Perhaps more of us need to rediscover the skills and possibilities of wood for a fuel. Mytting’s book explores our changing relationship with firewood through pictures, poetry, history, and anecdotes that delight and engage. (If you don’t have a tear in your eye after finishing old Ottar’s story – his woodpile tale bookends it all – I’d be amazed, and you’d be cold…)

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Woodpile tales
Mytting details how wood grown for heating can be one part of a national energy plan. It isn’t a magic bullet, but he is persuasive on how burning wood is comparatively environmentally friendly. Modern stoves are very efficient, and there are regions where wood growth supply can outstrip demand. It can’t work everywhere, but the ideas are intriguing. Large (or small) scale tree farms seem preferable to large scale power stations, nuclear plants, hydroelectric projects, and all the associated infrastructure required to deliver the energy. It’s not romantic or beautiful like an old growth forest, but it is clean. And no, I’m not advocating mass logging/deforestation to heat our homes.

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Wood stove detail
The book isn’t all about national energy policy and planning, although the ideas presented are thought-provoking. Much of the book is more personal in nature. There’s an amusing foreword detailing the various types of wood chopper. Are you the stoic type? The neurotic hoarder? The poet? The standard bungler? How about desperado, melancholic or psychopath? If you’ve ever had to chop wood then you know there’s a little of each in all of us. Or if you’re me, quite a bit of the bungler.

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Dry
When we lived in the western Perigord, the downstairs of our house was heated by two wood burning stoves, one in the kitchen, and one in the living room. In winter, we’d live in the kitchen most of the day, let the stove burn low, and then dash to the front room for the evening. Those stoves were efficient! If only I’d been as efficient. 

The first autumn/winter, I enjoyed stacking the delivered firewood and chain sawing and chopping through the colder months. Manly work! Wielding dangerous equipment with purpose, skill, and aplomb. Or so I thought in my happier moments. The truth was, the novelty wore off by the end of each winter, and the enthusiasm didn’t really return with the next wood delivery the following September. I quite enjoyed the sense of purpose and productivity, but sometimes it seemed endless.

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To be wielded with purpose (and care)
Having a ton of logs dropped onto your front yard on a sweltering September day isn’t too bad. Not when your Dad and brother are visiting, and likely to help shift and stack it. Except they suddenly developed all manner of ailments and a pressing need to prop up the local bar…hmm. I know, firewood is great. It warms you three times – chopping, stacking and burning. My planning (and help) was all wrong!

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Where did the helpers go?
Having read Mytting, I know now that I should have received the delivery in spring, and then split and stacked the wood to get it dry over the summer – in artfully and scientifically arranged woodpiles (you’ll admire the many photographs of woodpiles Mytting has included. No, really, you will!) I honestly hadn’t given much thought to storing the wood. I was pleased enough to have arranged to get any at all given my terrible schoolboy French. Still, once you have it, all firewood burns the same, doesn’t it? Wrong again, PlaidCamper. See Mytting. I was the bungler, making mistakes that would get a seasoned Scandinavian feller hot under the collar. Although I have to say my homemade sawhorse was a thing of beauty – or perhaps splendid utility over beauty, but I promise you, it worked. Mind you, I never took a photograph (or patented the “design”…)

On to the hardware. If you read it, and you don’t already have them, you’ll be off looking at chain saws and axes (even if you don’t need one, or is that just me?) Axes! The names in the book are poetry: Oyo, Hultafors, Gransfors, Wetterlings, Fiskars and Vipukirves.

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A little cabin…
“Norwegian Wood” made me miss my wood chopping days. It would have been wonderful to have had some of the knowledge and skills back then. Still, as an almost outdoorsman who generally prefers to look forward, I now feel better prepared than ever, and maybe one day in the future I’ll be back in regular wood chopping action, heating a little cabin and getting it all done the Scandinavian way!

I’ll finish with a quote about the smell of a woodpile Mytting recites from Hans Borli’s “With Axe and Lyre”:

“It is as though life itself passes by, barefoot, with dew in its hair…When the veil finally starts to fall, the scent of fresh wood is among the things that will linger longest…”

Thanks for reading! Are you a chopper of wood? If so, what type are you? Please feel free to share a story or leave a comment, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Swept away…

…like an American dipper in the rushing current. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we’d been snowshoeing along the Bow, and I was going to write about that small adventure, but last week “The Revenant’ swept my attention away. Still, the dipper is a plucky little fellow, not easily distracted, and willing to plunge in upstream and be carried back to where he started – and further.

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American dipper
So, our little snowshoeing adventure. It was about perfect, -10C, blue skies, and bright sunshine. We delayed our start deliberately, wanting to be outside into the late afternoon and catch the changing light as the sun fell beneath the tree line and behind the mountains. A magical time of day.

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Catch the light
There had been some reasonably heavy snowfall the previous day or two, and the conifers were wearing snow cloaks. It made me think of Narnia, although winter in Narnia was a mean season, and it felt anything but.

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A Narnian winter?
I have to thank my grandparents for the Narnia books. I loved them, reading and rereading, always enthralled, captivated by the stories, to the point where I could recite them almost by heart. Especially “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – who couldn’t love that one?

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Spirited
The imagination of little PlaidCamper was fired up by those books – he didn’t know much or care about the religious parallels, although they are interesting. He was all about the talking animals, mysterious tree and water spirits, and other mythical creatures. He was swept away by the landscapes and adventures. He got upset every time Aslan “died” on the stone table, tears of sadness. He was moved to tears again when Aslan returned and the stone table was split asunder. Edmund! You fool! Don’t eat candy offered to you by strangers! Especially witches! Edmund’s choices were a disappointment every time (I was a sensitive, repetitive, and judgemental reader…)

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If I walk under the arch…
I’m certainly not going to share with you the time I climbed into my wardrobe and reached forward past the clothes hanging there, hoping for some magic. Nope, not going there.

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Albertan delight
Thank goodness we moved to Alberta many years later! The cupboards are built in, and I can’t get to Narnia through them, but a short journey out to the mountains in winter is pretty close. No Turkish delight (perhaps a small bar of chocolate in the backpack), but Albertan delights are more than enough.

DSCF1833A feast for the senses that snowshoe afternoon, with crisp pine air, whispering trees, misty rivers, crunching snow, creaking ice, and rushing water. Spirits? I know what a young PlaidCamper might think, and maybe he wouldn’t be wrong…

DSCF1764We didn’t see a faun, white witch, or any talking animals, but the American dipper was a wonder. What a tough little bird! Icy waters were no problem as he splashed, bobbed and flew over and into the fast moving current. Diving in, fetching his meal, and popping back up far further down than we expected. You would swear he was enjoying himself, completely engrossed in his antics, and if he was aware of his admiring audience, he didn’t let on. Or perhaps he did know we were there, and decided quite deliberately to fly up and drift down the same little patch of river, simply sharing some quality time. (You can blame C.S. Lewis for my shameless anthropomorphizing.)

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A water ouzel!
The American dipper is also known as the water ouzel. How wonderful to have an alternate name, and doesn’t it sound positively Narnian?

I’ll leave it here, happy to share with you our warm winter adventure. Downstream and thinking about that funny little PlaidCamper boy with his imaginative and bookish ways.

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A funny little PlaidCamper
As always, thanks for taking the time to read this. Please feel to share a (wardrobe?) story, or make a comment, and keep your guy ropes secure.

I must go and hang up this jacket…

Brutal, bold, and beautiful

Without forgetting bloody, intense, and controversial. Here we go, #4 in an occasional series, the latest in my list of favourite wilderness and outdoor movies. This time, I’ve gone up to the minute, unafraid to seize the bull (or buffalo) by the horns, and thrown myself headlong into the furore that is the publicist’s dream surrounding “The Revenant” (dir. Alejandro Inarritu, 20th Century Fox, 2015). You know, the one where a man goes for a very long walk intent on exacting revenge upon those who left him for dead. It’s not heavy on plot, but it is heavy on everything else.

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How could an almost outdoorsman resist?! Rugged winter scenery? Tests of survival? Nineteenth century setting? Buffalo and bears? First Nations and trappers? Beards? It’s like all my birthdays arrived at once. Throw in a much admired director and cinematographer, an excellent cast list, and it was all Mrs PlaidCamper could do to calm down an overexcited little boy heading in. Yikes, I hope I like it…

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Best make my position clear here – I loved the movie, flaws and all. One large reason is that it was shot in part in Kananaskis, little more than an hour from our door. The locations had such an air of familiarity, it was like coming home on the big screen. I’m sure that many have been spellbound by how beautiful the mountain and foothill regions are as depicted in this movie. Kananaskis is an area of outstanding beauty, and the movie takes full advantage. The cinematographer – Emmanuel Lubezki – shot outdoors in natural light, often early or late in the day, and the results are breathtaking.

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I’ve written before about how the outdoor setting in a wilderness movie can be like an extra character, and in “The Revenant’ this is certainly true. Nature here is shown as terrifying, fierce, seductive, raw, and overwhelming in scope and power. This is quite possibly almost to the detriment of the movie. The human tales of revenge, greed, betrayal, love, and honour are compelling enough, but the sheer magnitude of the movie settings threaten to swamp or distract from the story. I didn’t mind, because the movie is more than just beautiful to look at. It is bold, thought-provoking and challenging.

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There is no beauty in violence, and “The Revenant” doesn’t shrink from being brutal. The scenes of conflict between Native Americans and European fur traders are realistic. Arrows fly, knives stab, lances pierce, musket balls strike, and hatchets inflict awful injuries. The movie has received criticism for being violent. Given the setting and source material, it is naive to expect this movie to be free from violence. I don’t think the violence is gratuitous; it serves the story, and most viewers ought to be aware of this before purchasing a ticket. However, it is more than wince-inducing, as acts of violence should be.

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Staying with the violence, not all the horror is between humans. There is a bear attack, and it is scary. You will wince (again), forget to breathe, and grip your seat. You certainly won’t blame the bear, or the character for defending himself, and you’ll never wonder again what a bear attack might feel like. It is absolutely terrifying, and for me, wonderful movie-making. I want to be moved to feel something, and if it is fear, then great.

Feeling transported by a story on screen or on the page is essential. The setting works, the action engages, and, most importantly, the acting is convincing. You might think that some of the harrowing situations endured by Hugh Glass – played by Leonardo DiCaprio – are too much for any one human to survive, but DiCaprio gives his all in showing the cost Glass pays for survival. As his travails mount, you do start to think maybe Glass/DiCaprio deserves a break, and could you really survive even one of the incidents?

DSCF1815It is all so well acted, so thoroughly immersive, that you forgive the slightly ludicrous powers of recovery displayed by Glass. Based on true events, my guess is the writers and director fell prey to the tendency to over dramatize when there was no need, and shrink timelines to serve the running time. A slight criticism, and it leads to my next, that the movie is too long. I do like a movie that can breathe, unfold and explore. However, for this movie, the truth is the revenge plot is clear, and maybe we don’t need quite so many tribulations and sufferings for Glass. The audience will get it! Those rivers and streams are deathly cold, the storms can kill, bears are a bit dangerous, wounds do get infected, starvation isn’t great, don’t get abandoned and buried alive, and falling over cliff edges will hurt. Revenge must really be a motivator for Glass…

That said, you have to admire the artistry. The director is in full control of his camera, with close ups of actors pulling back to reveal scenery and backdrops that delight. The camera weaves and bobs, low along the ground, then at human eye height, in long takes that are expertly constructed to draw you in and feel and see what the characters are experiencing. Their surprise, shock, horror, and pain is yours too.

IMG_20160109_152512Like I said at the top, I did love this movie. As an almost outdoorsman, I could only admire the survival skills of Glass. I wouldn’t have lasted one tenth of the time! As a resident of Alberta, I delighted in how the movie showcases our outstanding province. For the convincing period detail, gripping yet unsettling action scenes, wonderful acting by the entire cast (Tom Hardy has a marvellous role, and his character, John Fitzgerald, is more emotionally interesting than Hugh Glass), and amazing control the director exerts scene after scene, I highly recommend “The Revenant”. It’s not for the squeamish, but the fully immersive experience, the commitment of the cast and crew, and sheer boldness of the undertaking makes this one to watch.

Have you seen “The Revenant”? Is it as good as I think it is, or an overlong and violent art house movie? As always, thanks for reading, please feel free to share a story or leave a comment, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Weekend mountains

Weekend mountains! They really help keep things in perspective…

Busy report card season or not, you have to play! We went to Louise last weekend, speeding (within posted limits) out of the city, across the prairies, through the foothills, and into the mountains. Poetry. It is a thrill every single time, and every single time we pass Castle Mountain, I say it is one of my favourites. This time around, the light was soft, fading fast, and Mrs PlaidCamper took a couple of photographs:

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Speeding (carefully) towards Castle Mountain
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Even through a car window, it has such character!

We mixed up our snow activities, opting to snowshoe on Saturday (more on that another time), and snowboard on Sunday. Saturday was bright and cold, whereas Sunday had a little more cloud cover and mist. It is great to see the mountains under perfect blue skies, but there are different moods created in other conditions.

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No worries

I usually enjoy the first hour or two of the day the most – empty slopes, morning light, and the best conditions on the snow. We had all that and different mountain views with the mist and clouds.

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Calm

Unwritten report cards, sore legs, poor board technique, and other cares are all put aside for a short while when you can sit on the snow and take in the view. A little perspective, a reminder of just how lucky we are, and to enjoy the time you have while you can. Try and appreciate that often in life “we’ve really got a good thing going!” (D. Bowie “Hang on to Yourself”)

Something of an aside here, but I can’t let it go unremarked. Bowie’s passing is such a shock, and maybe a reminder to live as fully as possible. I think he did! He seemed so full of vitality and creativity, and often appeared to be enjoying himself enormously. “Don’t stay in a sad place, where they don’t care how you are…” (D. Bowie “Everyone Says ‘Hi'”)  – this sentiment seems fine to me. If you know it, an upbeat little pop song to celebrate an interesting life.

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Enjoy

Anyway, hopefully we are back to the mountains soon. They always work their magic.

I’ll keep it short this week. Thanks for reading, please feel free to comment or share a story, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Peace like a river…

…on the Bow. Changed the words a bit, but the tune still fits, at least in my head each time I use the Peace Bridge to cross the Bow River. Sing along if you’d like.

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From the bluff

We’ve been in the city the past week or so, heading back to work and getting knee-deep into report card season. If you teach, that’s a season. Our outdoor time since the turn of the year has mostly been along the banks or up on the bluffs of the Bow here in Calgary, upstream and downstream.

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Fine and bright, if a little cool?

The weather has been mostly fine and bright, if a little cool for some. My brother visited for a few days, just before these photographs were taken, leaving balmy DC (+22C) for chilly Calgary and Louise (-25C), and it’s probably best if I don’t repeat what he said. No idea what he was on about, because after all, it’s a dry cold…

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“Look, we’re only sitting ‘cos it’s a dry cold I tell ya!”

The banks of the Bow provide quite delightful views, so much so that even though you are in the heart of a large city, it doesn’t feel too urban. On a sunny day, even the towers of oil and gas central can look attractive.

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Not unattractive on a sunny day

Our little neighbourhood of Sunnyside – love that name – borders the Bow, and there are a number of bridges to choose from within walking distance. My personal favourite is the bright red Peace Bridge.

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The Peace Bridge!

At school, when we are studying city infrastructure, or on Downtown field trips, the students say I’d like the Peace Bridge less if I’d been here to pay for the construction. According to some of their parents, the bridge was/is a costly eyesore. My response is to endear myself to parents by asking the students to list the Peace Bridge benefits, then draw, photograph and make up alternate (polite) names for the bridge. Amongst others, they’ve suggested Snake Bridge, Stampede Bridge, Dino Bridge, Spine Bridge, Tube Bridge, and, yup, you guessed it, Red Bridge.

I like Peace Bridge as a name – pretty hard to argue with that (unless you don’t like peace, the design, or paying for it, but “Tax Burden Like a River” doesn’t quite fit the tune or make sense…)

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A+ for colour and bold design

Anyway, here was a little something about our urban outdoors. Now, it being report card season, I’ll stop this and get back to awarding high marks and positive comments to any student claiming to like the Peace Bridge.

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Our urban outdoors, looking across the Bow to Fort Calgary

Thanks for taking the time to read. Perhaps you have a favourite song to sing when crossing favourite rivers on favourite bridges? Perhaps that is a strange thing to ask? As ever, please feel free to comment or share a story, and keep your guy ropes secure.

I got, peace like a river…