It's -11 degrees out. The sun is struggling to peek through the clouds and there is a light breeze. As I step out of the van I survey the parking lot and note only one other car parked. But this area has more than one access point and the chances of encountering other winter warriors is slightly higher than appearances would suggest. Other people are not unwelcome on this hike, but I haven't come here to spend time with people per se. This is a time to commune with the outdoors.
I set off with my chosen company; two of our dogs. They are eager to be let off leash and start exploring. I oblige once we are a few steps away from the parking lot. This is a normal activity for them and too rare a treat for me - rare meaning once or twice a week in my case.
We cut through a strip of bush on a worn trail. Presently we emerge onto an open field of snow. It is only a few inches deep today, so extras like snowshoes aren't required. The dogs follow their noses for the most part, and occasionally break into a sprint, flicking snow with their noses, bounding along happily, checking in with me often enough to know we are all still together. A golf course covered in a blanket of winter's snow makes for an ideal hiking area, a secret that is shared among no small number of dog owners.
As we walk along the banks of the creek that runs through the course, I observe a group of ducks relaxing in the water. I conclude that the ducks, layers of feather and down notwithstanding, are tougher than most people.
We are getting close to completing the first leg of the hike. I have a particular route in mind. Walking down the final fairway I spot another fellow with a dog of his own. About half of the time I see others before the dogs do. The dog in the distance is also off leash. One of mine, after a nod of permission, heads off at a fair clip, tail up and barking, to check out the newcomer, whose interest is also piqued. The meeting is amicable, hellos and brief pleasantries are exchanged by both parties, and then we press on.
We enter a new section of bush that borders the course. There are coyotes in this area with whom we have had dealings in the past; never any aggression, fortunately. There is a den somewhere in here, but although not a formal trail, our path is used often enough that it is doubtful the den is very close. Nevertheless I scan our surroundings constantly, though the dogs would make me aware first, by a wide margin.
We come to the bank of the creek again, and ahead is a fairly recent bridge that forms part of the Bruce Trail in this part of Hamilton. Here we begin the return portion of our too-brief hike. The Bruce is cut along the slope of the Niagara Escarpment, the creek running its course below us. The dogs find more interesting smells in trails like this through older slivers of forest. The trail also requires a bit more effort as it winds between trees and rocks, angling up and down the side of the hill.
As we hike I pause in my mind and reflect on our surroundings. For all intents and purposes, this is not nature in any pure or unspoiled sense. It is a remnant, clinging to existence by the grace of human choices. There are signs of animal life but it is far from teeming. While serene compared to its immediate surroundings and the low hum of highway traffic beyond, the golf course is nature engineered and designed for a very specific human pass-time. This is nature hemmed in, compartmentalized, restricted, a "land use".
Even though all of that is true, in that moment, looking at the snow on tree branches, the trampled trail, hearing the quiet, watching the dogs run, I feel connected to these humble surroundings. It may not be nature as in time immemorial, but short of making a trip much farther afield, it does the job for my soul.
As we draw closer to the end of our loop, I find my mind turning back to the business of everyday life. But slowly. Where I have just been, physically, emotionally, spiritually, is tugging me the other way. I find compromise by considering what sustainability means in light of my earlier reflections. Is it enough to "sustain" a particular standard of living? Or is the drive to sustain connected to that part of us that finds serenity in a silent woods, a babbling brook, a clear blue sky, a calm lake?
It is for me.
The dogs reluctantly jump into the van. When I follow I am thanked for the hike in the ways common to dogs.
I turn the key.