Monday, August 11, 2014

Kayaks and the City 

Photo from Robert's point of view, as Glenn and I put the “yak” in kayak

First, to my Ottawa peeps (and you know who you are), I sincerely apologize for not calling to say I was in town. Train derailments and Toronto obligations all conspired to make this visit a short and strategic strike on the nation’s capital. This summer I’ve failed to properly plan to do anything vacation-wise (as unwise as that is). Lately, I’ve barely been able to plan supper never mind a holiday. This would be a micro-vacation to Ottawa, city of rivers and canals, nature and culture. I think I kept hoping something would appear from a shimmering summery vapour before me like in an Arthurian legend. Nothing has. Instead I fell back on a plan that worked out very well a couple of summers ago when, lacking any better ideas, I simply booked off every Friday in the month. It has a remarkable effect. It only takes 4 days of your vacation time but seems to stretch the summer immeasurably. Like have four mini-vacations. Maybe one year I’ll take all the Fridays of July and August off to have a weeks worth of vacation distributed throughout the summer season. I also have to admit that summers in Ontario are usually agreeable enough that you don’t really need to go anywhere else. It’s the winter you really need to go somewhere warm. But getting out of Toronto any time of the year is always a relief.

“the night gave way to the orange sulphur of suburban parking lot lighting”
So it was that I impinged upon my friend Glenn to provide me a summer interlude. The day began with a lazy breakfast and riding around town to do some errands. In the afternoon, I made my way to Union Station using a rented bike (perfect for one way trips) and settled into my seat surrounded by magazines and snacks, only to be interrupted by an announcement of a derailment near Gananoque cancelling all rail travel to Ottawa. Everyone was told to deboard. I jumped on the subway to the bus depot and through some act of destiny bought my ticket and was on route five minutes later on a Greyhound bus. Travelling an Ontario highway in the summer, I always think of the road as a black scar that runs through a verdant landscape. The countryside is really beautiful but all the manmade junk we’ve dropped in it is as ugly as roadside litter. By late Friday evening, as the bus rumbled through rain and darkness, I realized I’d travelled by foot, bicycle, rail and bus and thought about the weird ease of it all. As the bus approached Ottawa, the night gave way to the orange sulphur of suburban parking lot lighting.

A visit to the Spa du Gobu is always a pleasure. There are bicycles for guests, espresso extraordinaire and always kitchen experiments to be discovered. I found myself transported from Toronto's sirens, shouting addicts, invasive security lights, claustrophobic construction and the din of traffic and air conditioners to the quiet gurgling of a garden fountain and a cooling easterly breeze. It was as if I had escaped a riot and had been delivered to a sanctuary. Awaking in the morning had that cinematic feel of “oh, it was all just nightmare and now I’m safe again.” Coffee was waiting, eggs were bathing in a hot water tub and the farmers market was only a stroll away. Stroll away we did, buying bread, pastries and vegetables and meeting up with a friend, Robert, who I hadn’t seen in almost 15 years. The three of us headed back to the waiting eggs and more coffee and conversation.
“There were moments I completely forgot where I was or that less than 24 hours before I had been standing in a lineup at a choking hot bus depot”
The mark of good friendship is when conversations don’t miss a beat and instead of reminiscing you speak in the present tense about current things. You lose track of time and topics bubble up and simmer down and there’s never really any effort to it. Oh and your face hurts from laughing so much. With breakfast done, we immediately planned supper. This meant more biking and buying. Our first stop was to a local brewer, Beyond the Pale where they sell growlers of their uniquely styled IPAs (still haven’t found it in T.O.). Ottawa seems to stick craft brewers in the oddest of places such as the end of cul-de-sacs or on residential streets where you might expect a corner store. I like small breweries. Their charming staff seem to actually enjoy their work and quickly offer up samples of their wares. Trust me. A couple of shots of beer on a hot day do not go amiss. We then went to get some steaks for the evening repast. Glenn would cook the beef Sous Vide style, with the meat vacuum packed and cooked slowly in a hot bath of water for several hours. Hours that would be perfect for taking watercraft to the Ottawa River.

Let me just say that ever year, I consider taking one of two courses. A motorcycling training course which lasts a week or two and would allow me to take a test and get the appropriate license. Or a kayaking course which takes about three days and provides a certificate of training that would allow you to rent a kayak from any one of the marinas along Toronto’s lake shore. Oddly, they are very similarly priced. Each year I waffle about taking the motorcycling course because I really doubt I will buy a motorcycle, then later in the summer I waffle about taking the kayaking course because summer is coming to an end and it seems like a waste of money so I’ll do it next year. What does it matter? In less time than it takes to strap a kayak to a roof rack, Robert and Glenn had schooled me in all I needed to know to paddle a massive piece of plastic without drowning (though, in fairness, I was wearing a flotation vest so drowning seemed unlikely). In my aging decrepitude, I think a week of daily swimming followed by lazily kayaking has taken an unexpected toll on my shoulders*. It was quite an introduction to the sport. Although the weather report called for rain and thunderstorms all we saw was beautiful sunshine sparkling on the cold water. There were moments I completely forgot where I was or that less than 24 hours before I had been standing in a lineup at a choking hot bus depot.
“There’s something about physical exertion that makes food taste better. ”
There’s something about physical exertion that makes food taste better. Maybe it’s just the psychology of having earned a few extra indulgent calories. Not that the meal Glenn and Robert made needed any help. Perfectly medium rare steaks (à la Sous Vide) and fresh vegetables and salad were washed down with Beyond the Pale Ales. And the night went on forever but still seemed too short. That was like what the weekend felt like. As though it lasted far longer than scientifically possible but happened too quickly. I think that is the psychology of vacation time. In memory it seemed to last much longer than when you actually experienced it, which feels fleeting.

I guess that sums up the summer for most Canadians. Too short but long in the memory.

*As a way to exercise without continuing shoulder strain, I took to my bike recently, whereby I quickly did something entirely untoward to my troubled left leg. There you go, incapacitated by my willingness to get out there in the summer and have some fun. I'll never understand how to get fit enough to get fit? Perhaps I shall seek some non-shoulder, non-leg summertime fun. Is massage a form of exercise?



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