Memento Mori

The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us all of the fragility of human life and the inevitability of death. Renaissance artists would often slip a human skull into the background of their paintings as a “memento mori”, or reminder of death amidst life. This spring, as we spend more time in our backyards and local parks, we can find numerous reminders of new life and death.

A pair of robins set up their nest above the downspout beside our dining room window. As I dug my vegetable bed in preparation for planting, the robin parents followed me around, ready to dart in and grab any unlucky worms turned up by the spade. Then they rushed home with their prize, to feed it to their fluffy pair of babies. Within a few days, the last one was teetering on the edge of the nest. A few hours later, he was gone.

I was lucky enough to spy him later, clinging to a branch, with one of his parents nearby looking for fresh worms to feed his insatiable appetite. Close by were a pair of baby starlings, calling loudly for their own parents to come and feed them.

In the last few years a pair of red tailed hawks have patrolled the skies above our neighbourhood. Sometimes they can be seen perched on top of one of the student residences near Wilfrid Laurier University. A raucous racket from a group of crows and starlings attracted my attention from my vegetable garden. Looking up I saw one of the hawks perched on a telephone pole at the end of the garden, dangling a fluffy grey tail from his talons. He was being dive-bombed by the other birds, whether to scare him from the neighbourhood or perhaps to distract him into dropping his lunch. The hawk flapped into a nearby fir tree, which gave him some protection from the attackers. Then he proceeded to ignore the other birds, who continued to squawk noisily, flapping around behind him and even flying into his back. He held tightly onto the branch and the dead grey squirrel and proceeded to eat his lunch, undeterred.

And finally, we discovered our very own memento mori: this almost perfectly preserved fox skull was sitting in the bushes along the Walter Bean Trail near the Humane Society.

Back on the Grand Again

All Ontario campgrounds are currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So plans for a back country camping trip had to be shelved. Fortunately, just before the weekend, the premier announced the first phase of easing of restrictions, including the opening of marinas. The weather forecast promised welcome sunshine and warmth after a long, cold, wet winter and early spring. It was time to try out the new canoe on one of our favourite stretches of the Grand River, as it flows through Waterloo and Kitchener.

We were thwarted in our intention to put our canoes in the water at Kaufman Flats in Waterloo because the access point was still closed by the city. However, the informal access point on Sawmill Rd in Conestogo was available, so we parked by the side of the road and hauled the canoes a short distance to the river. Afterwards we were glad of the change in plans because we had multiple sightings of wildlife between RIM Park and Kaufman Flats: a deer, high on the bank; a wild turkey performing his mating dance; a muskrat; a beaver; mergansers and other ducks; and Canada geese with their babies. Surprisingly, the one species of bird that we didn’t spot was the great blue heron, which is almost always to be found on any trip along the river.

In addition to some fishermen and a few other paddlers, many people were out along the trails beside the river, walking their dogs or children, or biking, keeping a safe distance from other groups. A small indigenous group were singing and drumming as we passed by, reminding us that the river was a highway and grocery store for their ancestors and the early pioneers.

As we passed between Kaufman Flats on the right, and Snyder’s flats on the left, we remembered that this was the location of a ford linking the village of Bloomingdale to Waterloo, enabling farmers to get their grain to Erb’s mill in the village of Waterloo. Abraham Erb was one of the original group of Mennonite settlers in Waterloo Region. He is rightly regarded as the founder of the city of Waterloo, because his grist mill and sawmill at the corner of King St and Erb St were essential to the early settlers, attracting other businesses to set up nearby.

From Kaufman Flats, the river flowed easily to the historic Bridgeport bridge, with only the occasional rapid to keep us alert. This is one of five unique concrete bridges with bowstring arches that were built along the Grand River. The number of arches gradually increased as the river widens, from a one-bow bridge in Fergus, to an impressively photogenic 9-bow bridge in Caledonia.

As we approached the Victoria St bridge over the Grand, we pulled into the right bank and hauled the canoes out of the water. There is a short portage around the ponds which were created in an old gravel pit. We were accompanied by a chorus of frogs singing their courtship songs. Just before the parking lot we were rewarded for our efforts by the sight a painted turtle sunning himself on a partially submerged log.

Trails in a COVID-19 Universe

Spring is here and the urge to get out on the trails gets stronger every day.  Fresh air and exercise are important to physical and mental health and well-being.  To keep everyone safe, we cannot travel away from home. So now is a good time for people to explore their own neighbourhood while keeping a safe distance from everyone else. On one of the first warm sunny days of the spring, we took the opportunity to ride our bikes from our home in Waterloo, to explore some of the potential cycling routes between Waterloo and the West Montrose Kissing Bridge. The Walter Bean Trail, a cycling route from Cambridge to Waterloo, using mainly multi-use trails near the Grand River, currently ends at the corner of Country Squire Road and Grand River Dr, just north of RIM park. Woolwich Township is planning to complete the Walter Bean Trail by creating a hiking trail through Woolwich Township, using the Grand Valley Trail. However, a cycling route is also needed. Country Squire Road is a quiet road that leads to Glasgow St South, crossing the Conestogo River over an old iron one-lane bridge which leads directly to the heart of the village of Conestogo.

From here, we could go east or west along busy Sawmill Road.  The route west requires a long ride on Northfield Dr E, which is a fast, busy road.  We chose to turn R onto Sawmill Road towards Katherine St, which is not as heavily used as Northfield.  There are narrow bike lanes along most of Sawmill Rd, except one section where the road narrows.  After crossing the Grand River, we were relieved to turn L onto Golf Course Rd.  Even here we could not entirely escape evidence of the COVID emergency, with a “Temp Closed … Stay Safe” sign outside the golf course. 

From Golf Course Rd, we rode along quiet country Hunsberger Rd, to Katherine St.  It has a narrow paved shoulder, which adds to cycling comfort.   We proceeded along Katherine St to the tiny village of Winterbourne, stopping to admire the deconsecrated old Chalmers Presbyterian Church at the corner of Peel St.

I had planned to take the route that minimized cycling on busy highways. I had scoped it out using Google Maps and Street View, taking the Peel St bridge over to the other side of the Grand River, proceeding via Crooks Tract Road and then crossing the river again over the Buggy Lane bridge.  Here we discovered that you cannot always rely on Google Maps.  The Peel St bridge has been completely closed to all traffic, even pedestrians and cyclists, due to safety concerns.  We later discovered that the last section of Crooks Tract Road and Buggy Lane is private property, blocked by a large “No Trespassing” sign.

We reluctantly turned around and headed back to Katherine St and rode further up to Letson Dr, keeping a watchful eye on the passing trucks.  This quiet gravel road led directly to our destination, the West Montrose Kissing Bridge, the only remaining covered bridge in Ontario, and the oldest in Canada.

Our ride had answered the question of which is the best cycling route from the Walter Bean Trail in Waterloo to West Montrose, having eliminated two of three possible options!  And we had enjoyed the fresh country air of Woolwich Township while getting some essential sunshine and exercise.