Hips, Thighs, and the Nanaimo Factor

15380497_10154880210114515_1394830291038030524_nMany thanks to my good friend Jeff Buckman for introducing me to the sport of snowshoeing. Having spent most of my adult life in the Great White North, I shouldn’t have needed a guy from Pennsyltucky to perform this essential function. Nor should I need a guy from Michigan to introduce me to ice fishing, but my colleague Joe Stinson will be doing that this winter. But I digress.

This morning I took off down a narrow, frosted trail near the Ottawa River on my new Red Feather snowshoes. I’m an enthusiastic cross country skier, so I wondered how I would enjoy trudging along at a much slower pace, walking like a toddler with a load in his Huggies.

Neither scenario proved to be true. My gait was pretty much as it usually is, despite the additional width of the shoes–and I don’t walk anywhere slowly, either with or without snowshoes. I have to say, it was every bit the workout that skiing is–a very different movement, but with poles, a great way to get some much-needed exercise. In Jeff’s words, “It is fun–just another way to enjoy the snow.” Jeff is an avid downhill skier, so he should know. And now I know, too.

Whenever I use the words, “hips” and, “thighs” in the same sentence, I recall an incident that Donna and I still laughed about many years later. We were in the waiting room of our doctor’s office in Nova Scotia one time when a schoolgirl came by selling Girl Guide cookies. We bought some, but the lady next to us said to the girl, “My mouth says, ‘Yes,’ but my hips and thighs say, ‘No.'”  Donna borrowed that quip many times over the years.

Medical researchers and practitioners alike tell us that as we age, men and women collect our excess weight in different places. In men, fat goes to the gut; in women, it goes to the butt. Diagnostic imaging at Walmart will confirm this.  (If Donna were reading over my shoulder, she would have just slapped me lovingly on the back of the head and said with her delightful giggle, “Rob–delete that!” But she isn’t, so I won’t.)

So ladies, if you’re interested in firming your hips and thighs, etc., I highly recommend snowshoeing. (I know some of you will be, especially after all those holiday goodies. I call this the Nanaimo Factor. If you’re not Canadian, you won’t understand this medical jargon and will have to come up with your own factor.) That’s the region of my body where I really felt it today–far more so than when I ski. You’ll feel it there, too–of this I have no doubt. In fact, after shoeing a few kilometers, your hips and thighs may be on their knees begging you to go home.

Snowshoeing seems like a great family activity, as it can be mastered immediately by anyone who can walk. Poles help with equilibrium and lend an additional aerobic element to the motion. The sport can be enjoyed anywhere you find snow–no grooming is required, or even desirable. (I’m talking about the trail’s grooming, not yours. But wait until after your shower, which you will need.) It’s about blazing your own trail, exploring uncharted territory, and all that. A word of caution from a seasoned professional–don’t attempt using your snowshoes in a hard-packed, icy parking lot as you’re going back to your car. The teeth of the crampons may grab the ice and stop the shoes dead, resulting in serious injury to your face, your pride, or both.

One final comment about snowshoeing. Cross country skiing is a very enjoyable and therapeutic solo activity for me–especially at night, under a full moon. Somehow, snowshoeing seems different. It’s a little like drinking mate, the tea that is such an integral part of the South American cultures I so dearly love. It’s okay to do it alone, but I think it would be much more enjoyable with a partner.




The Middle-Aged Man and the Bike

The forest is fragrant and still. Dappled with sunlight. Birds revel in the glory of the summer morning with chirping and singing. And with what seems to him like derisive laughter. Unseen they laugh, from high in the stout maples and towering pines.

The trail is steep. Rocky. The rocks are sharp. And hard, very hard. The mud, while not deep, is soft. And muddy.  The roots are everywhere, and made of wood. Gnarled, twisted, protruding, hard wood.

He rides on and on, until he falls off. He remounts, determined. Legs pumping, lungs heaving, heart racing, shins bleeding. He rides on and on, on and on, as the birds chirp and sing. And laugh. Derisively.

Please permit me to interrupt my morning of study with a tongue-in-cheek nod to Hemingway. I haven’t blogged in some months, a fact which I no doubt regret far more than you do. I want to say how much I enjoy living where I do. Within an 8-minute peddle from my house I can be on a winding country road with fat does jumping out of the woods in front of me as I ride.

And we live only a kilometre or so from the South March Highlands Conservation Area, an award-winning space right here in Ottawa that also sports a mountain biking facility operated by the Ottawa Mountain Bike Association.

March-Highlands-Map-894x500This is like a Six Flags for your bike, and the rides even have appealing names like “Rock Hopper”, “North Dogsled”, “Double Down”, “Ribcage”, “Twisted Sisters”, and “Dog’s Breakfast.” And no lines, no admission, no handy paramedics.

Earlier today I took my 20-year-old VeloSport (affectionately disignated, “The Beast”) for a ride on some of these trails, and afterward I thought it prudent to write several memos to myself and make them public for the sake of accountability. I have arranged them in three categories so I can recall them more easily. If you know me, please hold me to them.


  1. Place shirt in laundry.
  2. Realign brakes, which are now seriously caddywampus.
  3. Find out how to spell caddywampus.


  1. En route to the trail, your good friend Preston Martelly passed you in his car and offered to ride with you next time. Do not allow him to wriggle out of this.
  2. Check flyers for good deals on body armour.
  3. While checking, also check for good deals on bandages and other first-aid supplies.
  4. Pack bike tools.
  5. Rear brake is on right.
  6. Walk the Deer Bridge–for now, anyway.
  7. Print route map in colour.
  8. Find out if fishing is permitted in pond. If so, take waders and fly rod.
  9. Do not wear waders while riding bike.
  10. Get to know local helicopter pilot and put number on speed dial.
  11. Pay earnest heed to signs like those below. “Exclamation point” is actually an “i”. It stands for, “idiot” and is printed upside down for a reason.



  1. Place on personal Bucket List: “Complete one circuit of “INTERMEDIATE” trail while staying on both bike and trail for entire ride.”
  2. Do this before attempting “DIFFICULT” trail, at which time entire Bucket List may become suddenly irrelevant.

Our Year on the Farm

The Green Plague

When we had moved into our house, I’d asked our landlord about planting a garden. He tilled up a patch next to our shed, and as the summer wore on, we took great pride in our modest rectangle of neatly tended rows of vegetables. The smell and feel of the earth as we worked it, the appearance of the first blossoms, and the satisfying crunch of freshly-picked spinach or beans made the hours of work seem more like recreation. We made periodic trips to the manure pile for fertilizer, and had animated discussions about whether we should sleep with the windows open or closed. My wife, who grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, rather enjoyed the earthy stench of cow dung. I, being from the suburbs and therefore more fully enlightened, understood this material to be nothing more than raw sewage. If the cesspool had run over, I reasoned, would we set up our lawn chairs in the puddle so we could enjoy its delicate perfume? Of course we would not. So why should we lie in bed and inhale sewer gas? Personally, I would have preferred bus fumes.

This was not a crop; it was a plague.

We had naively planted ten hills of zucchini—enough, we soon discovered, to supply a national chain of vegan restaurants. This was not a crop; it was a plague. We ate zucchini bread, zucchini muffins, zucchini casserole, and zucchini soup. Lying in bed at night (with the windows open), we could almost hear the things growing.

A woman at our church had put her husband on a diet. Every week we took her a grocery bag full of zucchini, and one day her husband, a towering hulk of humanity, grabbed my lapels and slid me up the wall until I was at eye level with him.

“Listen, Pal,” he said amiably between clenched teeth, “if you ever bring one more zucchini into this church, I’m gonna have to kill ya!” He set me down and patted my cheeks good-naturedly.

I heard from him not too long ago, after all these years. He’s fine—a grandfather now—and he told me about his family and his work. He and his wife live in a new house in another town. Business is brisk.

As I recall, the subject of zucchinis never came up.

Zucchini image came from the Smart Money Guide blog site.

Our Year on the Farm

Do You Deliver?

The calving process provided one of our most poignant memories of that year on the farm.

One weekend a couple we’d known in college came to visit us. We were having brunch when the wife, who had never been on a farm before, sighed wistfully.

“You know, I’ve always wanted to watch a calf being born,” she said.

I’d seen a cow heading down to the barn with two hoofed feet protruding from her stern.

“Well, you’re in luck,” I replied with the smugness of my newfound agricultural expertise, nearly spitting my coffee across the table in my enthusiasm. Glancing out the kitchen window, I’d seen a cow heading down to the barn with two hoofed feet protruding from her stern. We leapt from the table and trotted down the lane to behold the blessed event.

It was a breech delivery, and the vet was unavailable—evidently shoulder-deep in someone else’s heifer. The cow had been in distress for some time. When we arrived at the barn, Jim, our landlord, was already putting a halter on her head and lashing the lead to a steel ring in the wall. Her condition was critical; he was desperate to save her.

He deftly bound the calf’s protruding feet with some nearby baling wire.  At one end of the wire he’d tied a 12-inch length of broom handle, and he grasped this with both hands. Placing both feet on the cow’s flanks, he pushed and pulled with all his considerable strength. The calf didn’t budge.

The next step was more drastic. He fastened one end of a “come-along” (a cable equipped with a ratcheting tightener) to the calf’s feet and the other end to a steel ring in the opposite wall. Pumping the ratchet quickly, he made the cable taut before slowing down and steadily increasing the tension. The poor cow was bawling and snorting in her halter. Her eyes bulged wildly. The only effect of this procedure was to stretch the cow’s neck until I thought her head would fly off.

The final attempt, born not so much of ingenuity as of desperation, stunned us. Lips pursed, our landlord glanced at his oldest boy, who was assisting him.

“Barry, get the tractor.”

Moments later we were staring at the business end of a big International. Jim hooked one end of a logging chain around the calf’s feet and the other to the tractor’s towing bar. From his cow’s side he waved his son out of the barn. The tractor’s engine surged, the cow bellowed, and –Wham! Before we knew it, a 90-pound bull calf flopped down hard on the concrete floor.

My friend’s wife gasped, her lips trembling and tears streaking her face.

“Are they all like this?” she asked, apparently unaware of the absurdity of her question.

“Yep,” said her husband, always quick with the sarcastic retort. “In fact, cows didn’t even have calves before they invented the tractor.”

The tension broken, we all laughed. The cow recovered sufficiently to lick her baby clean, recycling the nutrient-rich placenta. Then, as we watched, her calf staggered to his feet and somehow made it to his mother’s side on his wildly flailing legs, looking for all the world like a drunk with his hips out of joint.

When we left, he was enjoying his first meal.


Our Year on the Farm

The Other Side of the Fence

I discovered a lot about agriculture in the next few months. I learned, for instance, that chickens don’t need roosters to lay eggs, but cows need bulls to give milk. And since milk is the whole point of dairy farming, having a good bull around is important.

I learned that bulls “service” cows, and the farmer on whose farm we lived had a little bull that was the Chairman and C.E.O. of his own flourishing service company. Half Hereford and half Holstein, his virility, ferocity and persistence were legendary, but his short legs were often his downfall. Many times we observed him providing his essential service, which he did with impressive energy and commitment to customer satisfaction, oblivious to the curious glances of voyeuristic suburbanites.  Often his client would take a step backward and flip him as neatly as a black belt. He would land heavily on his back, bellowing in protest and embarrassment, while the cow ambled back into the herd nonchalantly swishing her crusted tail and chewing her crud. Cud.

I learned that bulls ‘service’ cows, and the farmer on whose farm we lived had a little bull that was the Chairman and C.E.O. of his own flourishing service company.

On other occasions, the bull would attempt to service a cow that was standing on the opposite side of an electric fence. When the jolt hit him he would leap away from her, his eyes bulging with rage, and often get buzzed again as he tried to backpedal awkwardly to safety. The cow would bolt, starting a minor stampede on the other side of the wire and further infuriating the little bull.

Despite these frequent setbacks, the bull’s performance record was impressive. “It’s a girl!” are the dairyman’s favorite words. Bull calves don’t give milk; heifers do, or will one day. This bull sired an astounding number of heifers–so many, in fact, that our landlord had to rent the adjoining property to accommodate them. His dozen white plywood calf hutches were nearly always occupied by slobbering, knobby-kneed tenants that would suck our fingers and butt us happily when we stopped to admire them.

The image above is from The Telegraph.

Our Year on the Farm

Awakened Out of a Profound Connubial-bucolic Coma

Early one morning my wife sat up with a start, taking a couple of my extremities with her on the ascent. It was nowhere near time to get up, and I could not imagine what had aroused her prematurely from her profound connubial-bucolic coma (the technical term for our nocturnal state).

“Did you hear that?” she asked excitedly.

“Hear what?” I responded, with less enthusiasm.

“A baby is crying.”

Had a rutting moose bellowed in my ear, I might have twitched.

Now, I had two objections to this proposition. First, I never heard anything before 5:00 AM. Had a rutting moose bellowed in my ear, I might have twitched. Had a Cessna crashed in our flower bed, I might have rolled over. But a crying baby would not have induced the firing of even a single synapse.

And there was no baby. This fact constituted my second objection. We had not produced one, or surely we would have realized it. So it was not our baby. My wife was not technically wrong. Indeed, a baby was crying somewhere–in Thailand, perhaps, or in Liechtenstein or in the hospital nursery twenty miles down the road–but not in our house or on our farm or anywhere nearby.

“I’m telling you I heard a baby crying. It sounds like it’s outside–there! Did you hear that? It is a baby–I’m sure of it!”

I heard it that time. It was neither the call of the diaper nor the call of the breast, both of which we would later come to recognize all too well. Instead, it was a plaintive sound borne of sorrow or loneliness or grief–all emotions still foreign to newborns.

My wife was already pulling on her jeans when I concluded she was right. Of course she was right! She was a young woman, wired to hear the sounds of babies in the night even though she had none of her own. I heaved the blankets aside and together we went outside to find the mysterious infant.

It was lying next to the fence across the lane from our bedroom window. Someone had laid it in the tall grass, naked and trembling. It bawled when it saw us, though we couldn’t tell if it was from fright or relief. In the beam of my flashlight, its pleading eyes blinked up at us, defying us to resist it.

It turned out to be a she, and I had to admit she was the cutest kid I’d ever seen. But then we hadn’t had many goats in the suburbs.


Our Year on the Farm

So Dark We Could Taste It

During the next ten months, my misgivings proved unfounded. We learned quickly that raw milk is indeed measured in pounds, and that selective breeding had produced animals capable of making fifty pounds a day seem inconsequential. Furthermore, we discovered people who not only are peace-loving, but industrious, resourceful, generous, humorous and expert in things agricultural.

The dark and stillness made the alarm clock’s intrusion into our happy dreams sound, in comparison, like a fire whistle in an outhouse.

The farm where we lived was half a mile off the road that led from town to the wrinkled blue ridges standing sentry over the undulating fields of the broad valley below. When we turned the lights out at night (which, as newlyweds, we tended to do rather early), the dark was so intense we could taste it. The accompanying silence, broken only by the occasional lowing of a cow or the hum of a far-away aircraft, gave our nights on the farm an other-worldly quality with which I, as a former suburbanite, was unfamiliar.

We arose each weekday before dawn to get ready for work. The dark and stillness made the alarm clock’s intrusion into our happy dreams sound, in comparison, like a fire whistle in an outhouse. Its shriek would lift us several inches from the mattress, quilts, sheets and all, where we would levitate momentarily while we disentangled ourselves from one another.

Image is from the Sydney Observatory. Next installment coming up in a day or two.