The Outdoors and Recreation Saved My Life.
Updated: Mar 10, 2020
I share this post to recognize the importance of promoting all levels of recreational sectors as vital foundation to the lives of many, especially the vulnerable.
The title might be a little dramatic, but it is true. The outdoors in combo with recreation truly has saved me time after time.
Lets go back to some of my first memories, when I was 5'ish. Living within the hustle and bustle of downtown Toronto, I had my own piece of paradise. I called it Kid Zone. In my backyard, my father used to garden in the front half, while the back half, I recall almost being rain forest like (looking back now, it really was a jumble of blackberries and overgrown bushes). For living in housing in The Beaches area, we had a big backyard. This is not a childhood perspective. I've gone back since- it was an abnormally big backyard for the area and the circumstance.
I would spend hours digging, finding bones and spoons in the dirt. I would try and mimic my father's garden with dandelions and anything else lush I could get my muddy hands on. I would climb into my favorite tree because it had perfect step like branches. Over time I collected junk wood around the neighborhood and install them onto the branches so I could get higher and higher up the tree. I would spend hours in the tree eating blackberries. I was obsessed. My mother would get mad at me alI the time because she would find trailing berry shoe prints, from the back door straight to the culprit, who happened to be me. In her defense, I could have taken my shoes off more.
Now this is when the narrative changes a bit. As it happens in some families, confrontation arose. In my family, it was a divorce in combination with a father addicted to heavy street drugs. This all led to moving to my mom's birth province with my brother, my mother, and at the time, her troubled boyfriend at the age of 11. I'll get back to that.
Kid Zone. When everything was unfolding inside, I was outside. I was creating a new world. With more junk I collected, I turned Kid Zone into my imaginative 'dream home.' In warmer weather, I had a sink made from a plastic-wrapped-hole-in-the-ground. I would have the house special as a snack - blackberries - and do my homework. In the winter, I MacGyver'ed a similar set up, but with snow and wearing a lot more layers. If it wasn't for being able to escape the madness by going to Kid Zone, I don't know who I'd have become.
Fast forward to high school and junior high, living in rural Nova Scotia.
I tried almost every recreational activity I possibly could. I was in band until high school playing the flute. I joined planning committees. I tried table tennis, volleyball, track and field to name some. What stuck for me the most was basketball and soccer. Mainly basketball.
I had good grades, but my mental health and home life was incredibly unstable throughout junior high and high school. Half my motivation to join teams was because I wanted to embrace the opportunities I had in front of me. The other half however, was because of the upsets I felt at home. I did everything in my power to be anywhere but home. In my mother's defense, she did not lack love and for circumstances beyond her, was unable to be fully present.
I was left a lot of the time with three choices: staying with friends, family or my mother's boyfriend in our tiny, messy house. This meant a lot of self-parenting and independence. I had to decide what I would eat, when to wake up and where I was going after practices. I also really had to pay attention to my moral compass, and for a lack of better words, had to grow up fast.
Last Year of High School Basketball, 2012
My saving graces in high school were basketball, running and hiking (even into adulthood). For the days I was home, I was so lucky to have the woods be my backyard. I could go outside when I needed space and to clear me head. Besides just wandering in the woods, what I now consider to be my favorite place in the world, happened to be a five minute drive away from my residence. The second I was able to get my license, I working my butt off to buy my first car, which is why I was able to hike almost daily in high school and eventually could get myself to and from practices without relying on any adult or having to face the embarrassment of asking for a lift home.
Focusing on Basketball:
This is when my community comes into play. It truly does take a village to raise a child. The amount of financial and attentive support I received from coaches and parents is mind blowing to me when I reflect as an adult.
I don't know if I would have graduated high school if it wasn't for basketball. It motivated me to get out of bed. It motivated me to keep up my grades because I needed them in order to play.
In high school, we had tournaments almost every weekend. This meant hotels, dinners, and travel. During which, I was working two jobs and my mother could only pitch in so much. Any thing basketball, like shoes and fees I was paying on my own. Even then, I could not afford the weekend tournaments.
Although I have never confirmed, I am pretty sure my basketball coach used to pay for my hotel fees out of his own pocket. I remember him sliding me a twenty once, right before we sat down to have a team dinner at a nicer restaurant versus our usual fast food runs. I cannot explain the relief I felt, knowing full well I had $15 in my account to get me through the weekend.
The mom of a good friend always made sure I had a way home. Sometimes driving 45 minutes out of her way to take me home herself, or letting me sleep over a million times. She had always been fully aware of my home life and made sure I was okay. To this day, regardless of how much I see her now, I consider her a second mother.
These examples are just two out of so many who have showed me support in ways I could never truly repay. The people that guided me at forks in the road to do the right things.
Hiking and Running:
The Gibraltar Rock Loop: A beautiful 3 km hiking loop, with a 1 km steep incline. My favorite features being the scenery that changes like symphony movements and the gratification one can feel when making it to the top after huffing and puffing to see the breathtaking look out(s).
In high school, just as I did with Kid Zone, this was my runaway spot. I would sit at the top peak and read, write, take photos and sometimes, just cry. Not only was this my spot as a youth, it has grown into my later life.
If I was to guess how many times I did this loop, I would say I've hiked this trail literally hundreds of times. Just in one season, I completed the loop over 90 times. One fall, after moving home (to rural, Meaghers Grant, NS) from Montreal and recovering from a break up, I vowed I would run or hike the loop everyday until the snow came to get over my blues. I did, and continued throughout the winter before moving into the city of Halifax.
This trail is the first place I go when I come back to Nova Scotia. This is the place I take the people I love. This is the place I go to ground myself. This is the place where I reflect on who I was and who I have become. This is the place I will always return to. Considering the instability in my early life, this is the place I truly call home.
Gibraltar Loop Lookout, Summer 2009-10?
Looking back on my continuous journey, I've climbed some mountains, but with the help of so many. Although I tend to reject numerous levels of structure, recreation and taking time outside will always remain in my agenda. There is always time to smell the flowers and there is always time to slip in a ten minute run (or whatever gets your blood flowing). Although I appreciate the benefit to my physical health, the mental health benefits are what have kept me going. These benefits are what make me feel so connected to my recreational experiences. If it weren't for these opportunities and the and multiple motives to get out and connect with nature or my community, I would not be who I am today.
The healing powers of nature and recreation are irrefutable, and I am alive today because of them.
Algonquin Park, Portage Trip, Summer 2017