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September 23, 2019

#YEG: Running Wild in the Valley

Adventures in the river valley stay with us long after we’ve grown up.

Illustration Riki Kuropatwa

The river valley has been part of my life as long as I’ve called Edmonton home, some two and a half decades. As a kid from a tiny farming community in England, it was a relief to live close to Edmonton’s green heart, a conduit that could take me worlds away from the noise and rush of a young prairie city expanding madly in all directions.

The valley and all its interconnected ravines were a haven for those of us growing up pre-helicopter parents, when summer meant getting booted out the door at sun-up with orders to stay out of trouble and come back by supper. Invariably, we’d find our way to McKenzie or MacKinnon Ravine, and from there to the great green space of the river valley. It was a kid-culture of tree-fort summers and sledding winters, riding Flying Saucers down Seven Bumps or the Devil’s Backbone. Haircuts meant having a weekend’s worth of pine sap hacked away by grumbling mothers. Like the coyotes, we ran in packs, vanishing into the trees at the sight of the occasional junkie or our parents.

I learned to speak the things I saw in the valley during junior high at Crestwood School, when my outdoor-education teacher would take us down to walk the riverbank and learn about hot springs and rotten ice, wildflowers and prairie birds. Sure, the valley was the site of more covert teenage fumblings, too – we were a group of wild things ourselves on our lunch hours, and several of my friends had their first kisses under the bridge at MacKinnon Ravine. But, something about learning the names for the green centre of where we lived resonated with me.

Now, I live on the south side and teach downtown, and the valley is my route to work whenever I’m disinclined to wrangle with potholes, or when the blossoms are out. As a poet, walking the valley is part of my daily practice: It’s my meditation before sitting down at my desk. I walk with my camera, nabbing shots of highbush cranberry and Canada violet, river beaver and wolfwillow. If I post snaps online, no matter where my old school friends are in the world, they write to me about the photos. There’s something about this valley that gets inside of you and becomes personal: We carry those trails with us, each of us who walks them.

Jenna Butler grew up in the west end and has published three trade books of poetry, most recently Seldom Seen Road (NeWest Press, 2013). She teaches at MacEwan University and divides her time between Edmonton and a small organic farm in Alberta’s north country.

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