Boundary Lines

Does anybody ever want to hike in the rain? This afternoon’s precipitation has settled into softness, but those early morning drops hit hard. An undecided proto-storm was blowing in, the Doug firs around our house billowing every few minutes in a wind that felt barely in check. I thought about staying inside.

My mother, in southern California, dreams of walking in rain. I used to do the same, imagining myself exiled to the perennially dry Ventura coast. We envisioned the sort of pleasant, soaking mist that brings high cool clouds to that near-desert for a few glorious days each winter. When it rains on the Oxnard Plain, arroyos flood, streets become short-lived rivers, and motorists forget how to drive. Staying inside is not only preferable, but wise.

I don’t wish for rain to walk in, not anymore, but neither do I wish it away. It’s a feature of this wet and forested shelf, where the boundary between water and land is often unclear. In the Pacific Northwest, waiting for a break in the rain is a great way to ensure you never get out.

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Our first few steps on Wapato Greenway promise we’ll get wet. Sauvie Island, like everywhere else this dripping spring, is a mudpit. The greenway wraps around a smallish seasonal lake, its unpaved tread mostly wallowing between wetlands. A short stretch breaks out into remnant oak savanna, where the path is dry, draining to the lake. Otherwise, it’s floored in dark, foot-marked sludge, littered with the shell-pink petals of the flowering shrubs that crowd the margins.

I never used to think about surface conditions. Before our weekends coincided, I did most of my walking sans husband. Sloppy trails, downed bridges, or fallen trees were challenges met and negotiated in the moment. I planned ahead for no one’s comfort. Jeremiah is a stoic sort, relegating unpleasant outdoor elements to a sort of ‘this too shall pass’ mentality, flipping over stones to find the fun in the situation. It’s a skill I try to cultivate. But it has the unfortunate side effect of allowing me to forget that his love for mud is roughly the inverse of a lungfish’s. Every time he lets slip a frustrated “eew” – quietly, probably involuntary – I sink a little deeper myself.

My various trail guides have promised me a pleasant, easy walk, and I can see how it’s very nice indeed in summer. In the mess of shredded petals, heavy mud, and sodden skies that is early spring, I still enjoy it. A raft of wintering ring-necked ducks dominates the little lake, and I point them out to Jeremiah, chattering about how it’s the rings on their bills you can really use to identify them.

I’m distracting, of course, which means distracted. In our regular expedition of two, I’m de facto leader, responsible for destination, maps, time and distance estimates, supplies, route-finding. In the past few weeks, I have led my single team member into three consecutive piles of sticky mud. If he were the type to keep score, I’d be voted off the island by now.

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I enjoy the role of hike leader, much more when everything goes well. The opposite duty rewards as well, with less performance anxiety. It’s a joy to share the outdoors with another. But it is new to me to understand that I have a distinct focus when I hike accompanied. I’m fully engaged in being with.

It’s obvious now I say it; I suppose I knew it and forgot. (I’m amazed at the way insights surface and submerge, like diving ducks on the lake.) Walking with, I focus in, on us. My diminished outward glance is directed at sharing the experience of this place. Which is a beautiful, affirming thing. Some of my strongest bonds have been forged exactly this way.

It’s different, though, from meeting a place alone. When I walk without other humans, sometimes I can access a shift, by effort or by luck, that allows me to merge with more than my own self. It feels like a thing I do not so much do as accept. Like the place is meeting me, too. I don’t have a name for this awareness, this way of bringing a picture into focus that is outside myself. Or as outside as a conscious being may achieve.

With the best of human companions, I am myself, accepted and enjoyed, accepting and enjoying. It is the optimal way to be in a human world. I do not know if my wild, non-human trail companions accept or enjoy me. I do know that, walking with them, I am not only myself. Our edges blur, and I walk in a half-world where nothing looks exactly as I know it. It is difficult to cross that invisible boundary in the presence of another human.

The company of ferns and flowers, rivers and robins, is a subtle thing. If you aren’t used to the idea, it’s hard to imagine them as ‘company’ at all. These companions will not remind you to bring a second water bottle; nor will they expect you to know the way. Communication is uncertain, non-verbal. It may be encountered, but should not expected. Rivers are never as interested in my work life and moral dilemmas as my best friends are. But if I listen right, they will let me suspend and submerge those things.

This nameless state – a bit like the last shreds of dream before conscious waking – enspelled me early. A child of six wandering in the redwood forest has little experience to help her articulate the shift. It is only a collection of trees and birdsong – until suddenly it is not. Words come long after the change. A melodramatic teenager and a lonely 20-something seek out this shift as refuge, even crave it above other connections. The state of crossing – or maybe it’s blurring – relieves: you may set yourself aside. You are not all that is.

In my 30s now, increasingly educated, progressively busier with ever-more-fulfilling people and projects, I think about the natural world more often than I feel. Alert, active presence is my default state. I love to be outside, but I forget why I went to the woods in the first place.

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***

Why do I walk today? At last, I have it. Of the many rewards trail-walking offers, this gift of walking outside the self, both magnified and diminished, was the first. This was the siren song.

Arguably, it is not the greatest. Human friendship, knowledge of the natural world, time alone to process your daily life are all valuable, and sustainable, rewards. They are more than enough. I used to see my solitary hiking as a means to an end: with my partner or friends unavailable, I laced up my boots anyway, resigned. I needed to be outside; someday they would join me. Now they do, and it’s a deep source of sustaining joy. I wouldn’t trade it for the lonely way things were. But I have forgotten: there are compensations to loneliness.

It is a healing action, an expansion like a deep belly breath, to shift your relentless focus on being a self. Even describing this bespeaks an attempt to self-actualize. It hear the same language around meditation, and meditation, they tell us, is the province of the spiritually realized human. This is a part-truth, perhaps. It’s also a tiring, self-centered way to view something valuable precisely for its otherness. I do not treasure this half-world crossing because it makes me a better human.

Why, then? But I am unwilling to catch the words that will tell an answer. Now, they are flashing salmon in the stream. Hooked, they are visible, certainly, and also dead on my line. Leave them rippling beneath the wavelets. Peer over the bank, and watch for them yourself.

Let the rain be your gatekeeper. Circle a winter-full marsh on a damp gray morning in early spring. Enter an old-growth forest, thick with silent fog. Already, you cannot tell the boundary lines.

***

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Wapato Access Greenway, a flat trail around what used to be called Virginia Lake, is on Sauvie Island, a few miles north of Portland, Oregon. Once on the island, turn left on Sauvie Island Road and keep straight on the same road for a few miles until you see the wooden sign on your left. There’s a modest amount of trailhead parking; no fee. It’s a short loop, unpaved, about 2.2 miles, with minimal elevation gain. Birders take note: the Portland Audubon Society designates this an important area for bird monitoring.

The Teachings of Mud

I was not the sort of child to make mudpies. Memoirs and novels focus nostalgia for childhood on plenty of more complicated experiences, but the one that always sticks out for me is the universal assumption that small children (at least used to) love to get dirty.

I wasn’t fastidious, either. I loved the outdoors, which is a dirtful place. It is hardly possible to build a fort in the overgrown ivy, start a “secret” club at recess behind the hedge at the back of the school, or follow your cat on his rounds about the yard, without incurring grass stains and grimy fingernails. My mother forever dressed me in beautiful clothing – candy-pink corduroy pants, pastel dresses with white ruffled trim – which I treated with neither particular regard nor disdain. Other mothers asked after my play clothes – would she make sure to pack those for the sleepover party? Mine still finds this amusing: “Why shouldn’t you look pretty? That’s what laundry is for.” Indeed, I’m pretty sure all those “fancy” clothes were the type you could toss in the washer with some color-safe bleach.

But it was a rare day when I brought those clothes home truly filthy. I dealt in the kind of outdoor play that resulted in regular smears, stains, and drips, but I was not generally to be found wrestling in the dirt or making a pretend kitchen out of a mud-puddle. (I might be knee-deep in a tidepool, but my jeans were neatly rolled up.) Dirt was a necessary adjunct to other pleasures, not a pleasure it itself. I don’t recall any parental instruction or deep decision-making involved in this; I can only assume I preferred a sort of unconscious moderation regarding messy outdoor adventures.

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Adulthood has changed nothing about this preference. I can enjoy the odd unavoidable filth-fest, but as a regular pursuit I find such adventure to be more uncomfortable than it’s worth, requiring, for example, the awkward changing of clothing in a freezing trailhead parking lot.

Once I got caught in a thundering downpour several miles from home with my new husband; we laughed all the way back and let ourselves in soaked to the underwear. It was glorious. But most days, I take a waterproof jacket, so I can keep my core dry and warm. One Easter Sunday a few years back, I gleefully slipped and slid all the way around the perimeter of Hagg Lake in such a quantity of mud that boots and pants came back coated, and no part of my body escaped unspotted. But normally I would seek drier paths.

All of which has me wondering what the crazy hell I’m doing at La Center Bottoms on an actively wet March morning. It’s my first visit to a place I’d never heard of until I riffled through my pocket hiking guide to the Columbia River Gorge. But unfamiliarity is no excuse: bottomland means flat and means wetlands, both of which – after weeks of winter rain – mean a guaranteed mire. There’s no one else here; I remark to my husband that this surprises me. Eloquently, he returns no answer.

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The simple reason I’ve risen early to drive from my home south of Portland, north on I-5 and deep into Clark County, is that winter in our region is the time, and wetlands are the place, to see all kinds of interesting waterfowl. Sunrise and sunset are better than any other time of day for this sort of spotting. And five minutes out of the parking lot, there they are: Trumpeter swans – my first – and a drift of Northern pintails, and scads of Ring-necked ducks, all floating and foraging on the shallow seasonal lake that is this small preserve’s primary attraction. There’s a pair of wooden shelters at lake’s edge – “bird blinds” – with windows where you can steady your elbows and peer through your binoculars, ostensibly without alarming the objects of your attention.

The path as far as the second structure is graveled, but beyond, it descends to a stream crossing that, from here at least, appears to be nothing but sticky clay mud. Jeremiah is a good sport, but not a man who favors even my moderate brand of getting dirty. He looks from the sludge to me, but I’m not looking at him. I’m picking my route. If he sighs, it’s internal. Like the lovely and supportive partner he is, he waits for my decision, then follows me down the churned-up path.

Which is, in fact, a disaster.

 

Our boots are instantly sunk to the ankles, solid-coated in viscous yellow-brown. Balance is a minor challenge, and walking requires much more than usual effort: feet come free with evocative squelching sounds. We’re concentrating on our footing, so we’re through the first long stretch by the time Jeremiah finally raises a mild objection. To which I reply that we’ve come this far; we may as well push on through as turn back.

This would be fine advice if we were walking a loop trail.

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Tricky trail footwork doesn’t usually lend itself to observation of anything but the ground, but endless fields of mud, I am discovering, are the exception. Clearly defeated, I am still determined, so I zigzag carefully to the driest spots (there aren’t any), thinking about how I should fall when my foot inevitably slips. Then I look up, and it’s more of the same in every damn direction. Jeremiah does not say he told me so. I give up: fine, it is going to take approximately forever to walk this one ridiculous mile.

Creative types are well aware that constraint drives invention. It’s more productive to imagine a solution to a problem – or create a fantasy world, or write a song –  when there are certain elements you must include. Even if you give these constraints to yourself, arbitrarily, they function as catalysts, focusing your imagination and directing your ability to innovate.

I’m not making anything on this trail today. If anything, it’s sort of making me. But I expected to move through this landscape as I always do: fluently, easily, the ground subservient to my will. And it’s impossible.

The shift from entitlement to wonder comes sudden as a slip in the mud. Why should trail-walking always be free and easy? If it is, what a lovely gift. If not, the nature of the grant is changed, but not its generosity.

This trail was made by someone else – their hands and their time and their land and their money – for me. The birds I access so easily on this flat, created stretch are wild, and precious, and in no way obligated to display their uniqueness for human consumption. They wouldn’t come here at all if someone – do I even know who? – had not preserved this land as excellent avian habitat.

All of this discomfort – muck and cold and inconvenience and difficulty staying upright – are not only my choice, but my tacit acceptance of an offering, presented for nothing by people, by birds, by rain. I did nothing to ‘deserve’ it. So what do I bring to honor it? Grim determination and occasional swearing look pretty pale in comparison.

So I look up. To do this, I have to stop, a lot. I cannot step and look at once. I stop, and listen to the swans. Their voices fall somewhere between the brash honk of Canadian geese and the soft wooden rasp of Sandhill cranes. In transit overhead, at rest on the waters, they’re conversing, and I get to listen in.

Above the motionless surface, fog wanders without purpose. I watch it long enough to see its mission accepted: it gathers substance and begins to roll, and in moments the bottoms are blurred by dense, light rain. Life falls quiet, and the morning fills with a soft hiss, like static.

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We’re on the way back now, having understood the trail to be a single muddy mile out and back. We’re soaked, too, unexpectedly and without a waterproof anything between us. I’ve stopped minding, and stopped interpreting my partner’s quiet as some kind of judgment on me. In fact, when we reach the first of the bird blinds and I look up through dripping lashes, my first words are a smile, and he smiles back.

All this for us. Mud, of all things, as a teacher. Not a barrier to enjoyment, not even a means to an end, but a bridge to grace.  

***

La Center Bottoms is a joint project of Clark County, local businesses, and private owners. It’s not a great choice in winter, unless you really love waterfowl, or want to learn your mud-lessons as personally as I did. But in drier seasons, half of the trail is wheelchair-accessible, and the whole thing is very nearly flat. Parking is free. Access is off I-5 exit 16; turn right on 3rd Ave/Aspen Street as soon as you enter the town of La Center.

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Urban Refuge

It storms today. Out of a black pearl sky, winter rains drench Portland’s hills. Wind rises through the Douglas firs: a resonant, insistent song.

Windrush on the north side of Powell Butte, midmorning, spoke of a temporary reprieve. Rain had fallen; more promised. From the promontory, we watched its approach. We took our chance in the interim to circle the ancient volcano.

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You would only know its fiery history from the summit. The Cascade Mountains dominate to the north and east, white peaks undeniably the children of geological violence. A scatter of stranger outcroppings dot the flat valleys below – one of which you stand atop. These extinct cones – four of them stretch for the sky within Portland’s city limits – are green and lush and surprisingly gentle to walk on. They make for beloved city parks.

This one also houses an enormous amount of the city’s water, even more since 2012, when a second 50-million-gallon reservoir was completed. It’s a working place, with wide graveled access roads and city employees out and about. But most of this old mountain is covered in a comfortable patchwork of weathered ecosystems: mature Doug fir forest next to open meadow next to oak savannah.

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To construct the new reservoir – and to update and expand the trail system – Powell Butte Nature Park closed some years ago. Between one thing and another, I haven’t been since the reopening, which means today was my first visit in at least five years.

***

There’s a visitor’s center now, focused as much on the municipal water supply as the natural environment. I wonder if this is the new language of public parks: equal dedication to the practical and the mystical. After the successive reigns of each, perhaps we’re ready for a considered middle ground. If we do not preserve, we will destroy. If we do not use, we will be destroyed.

Since our culture thinks in dichotomies, I’ll put it this way: because we need resources both consumable and intangible (body and soul, if you will), I think we must embrace a more complex construction of our outdoor space.

***

We decide to make a circuit of the perimeter, and soon find ourselves on a vaguely downhill forest path. The rain holds off, but a creek is full somewhere; its plinking and clattering fill the spaces between trees. It takes me a moment to realize that the sound is coming from inside a large metal pipeline snaking down the side of the trail. Without it, the noise I’ve just romanticized as a perfect hillside waterway would be subtler and less focused: very different indeed.

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It’s a longer route than I remember. (We seem to have found the new trails.) The tread is moderately muddy, so that you may pause, but the trail continues on beneath your unwary boot. Even with the slippage, it’s a pleasant walk, with no slope too breathlessly steep, no creekshed crossing too mired.

Wrapping gradually around the south side, we emerge at last in my favorite landscape: the wide and wind-scoured summit meadows. Beneath the sheltering Dougs, no breeze reached the forest floor, but up here it pushes and shouts.

We raise our voices, grinning, while the wind jostles us forward and visibly knocks about the half dozen hawks hunting for lunch in the short grass. A tiny kestrel arrows by, barely in control. One red-tail drops low to skim the ground. A sudden gust nearly bowls her beak-over-tail into the ground, but she saves it, soaring back skyward on crazily tilting pinions. I watch her until she angles down to land in a bare-limbed walnut at the edge of the old orchard.

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Today’s heavy, marbled skies obscure the Cascade peaks, but the great range’s foothills lift and roll to the east, veiled in distant rain. It’s the sort of view a hiker thinks they ought to work for. All I’ve done is ramble a few easy miles.

In my enthusiasm for the grandeur of the Gorge and the mountains, for the vast unsilent quiet of wilderness, for the comparative solitude of rural walks in places like Sauvie Island, I’ve forgotten this urban refuge exists. Buried in the spill and sprawl of southeast Portland toward Gresham, the wooded shoulders and grassy summit sweep of unassuming Powell Butte provide a haven that is not an escape. It is, instead, a fast route to a new perspective on Portland. And a pleasant adventure I’m pleased to add back to my mental map.

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***

Powell Butte Nature Park is at 162nd and Powell (US 26), just before Portland becomes Gresham. Parking is plentiful and free. You can also reach the butte by walking or cycling on the Springwater Corridor, which touches its southern boundary. The walking is easy, on several miles of graveled or dirt paths; the summit is ADA-accessible. The entire park is a great place for birding. More information: The Intertwine, Friends of Powell Butte.

 

Stop & Smell the Sunrise

Walking is about scent as much as anything else. Imagine a forest without the fragrance of tree or blossoming shrub, a meadow lacking the perfume of dew-wet grass or dried bracken. I can’t do it. I don’t suppose I’d notice the absence right off, the way I would if dropped into a sightless or soundless place. After all, if you’re both sighted and hearing, you don’t need your nose quite as consistently. But a few unscented minutes and I’d grow uneasy, start looking over my shoulder. Even in my dreams, woods and hills and shorelines smell like something. They must, or I’d know when I’m dreaming.

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I left for the tropics (eager) in mid-February, came back (grateful) in March to find spring in Portland well underway. The symmetrical ruffles of the ultra-seasonal daffodil and the tumbling creamy bells of the glossy-leaved Pieris are the obvious giveaway, but let’s say for a moment I hadn’t noticed. I’d know spring by the scent of the forest this morning.

It’s a curious smell: damp and fresh and slightly stinky, interesting and repellent at once. First light entered the space between the trees maybe a half hour ago, and the scent uncoils toward the sun. It’s not unfamiliar, and I’m this close to a better description when it occurs to me that spring is when all of nature has all of the sex. And there it is.

I think the standard writerly descriptor for this scent is “fertile.” I’m not using it, because it leans pretty heavily on the implication that sex is about reproduction. Which, of course, it is. We usually assume that it always is, at least in the plant and (non-human) animal world. But how do we know salmonberry bushes don’t enjoy pollination by hummingbirds and bumblebees? I’ve never asked one. So I’ll stick with the less polite descriptor. It’s a sexy spring sunrise out here.

The robins know it; they keep telling me about it in that aggressively cheerful springtime chirp. Robins are the awkward friend who drinks too much in public and talks just a little too loudly about their love life.

Winter mornings are long, and walking the ridges of Forest Park is a fine way to keep an eye on one. Sunrise flames briefly around the contours of Mt Hood, but otherwise it’s nothing startling, just soft pastels quietly blending themselves into a watercolor skyline that lasts half the day. Cascade foothills roll away purple against a peachy-silver sky. Behind the graceful green spires of the St. John’s Bridge, the mountain, entirely out, glows. For the first winter in four, it’s properly gowned in white. Mother-of-pearl, if the angle of the low-slanting sun aims true.

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The great thing about Forest Park – wait, where was I planning to go with that? Forest Park is the heart, the natural genius, and the jewel of the City of Portland, and great things about it are not scarce. But my favorite thing right now is its solitude. Get out before noon and pick a trailhead south of Germantown Road, especially in winter, especially on a weekday. Other humans are as rare as red-breasted sapsuckers.

Though I did just spot one of those. It’s low-down on a Douglas fir, tap-tapping the already-riddled bark. Sapsuckers don’t have the reinforced drilling machine of a skull that makes most woodpeckers such unflagging percussionists. They do excavate, but softly, and I listen a long time as this one searches for sapwells and small arthropods, rappelling backwards and scuttling sideways on the vertical trunk with the same dexterity he brings to his forward motion.

Bird names are an endless source of amusement. The more descriptive they try to be, the better. On first hearing, the words sound familiar, yet their total meaning eludes us. Flip through a bird guide and you’ll see what I mean: Mustached puffbird, White-cheeked pintail, Northern shoveler, Rough-winged swallow, Smew. A room full of birders must sound like bad actors mumbling Shakespearean insults.

In front of me now is the real actor: the winter wren. These guys can sing like nobody’s business, but it’s not their lovely soprano solos I’m hearing right now. I can’t tell if it’s my presence or something else that’s alarmed him, but this barred brown bird perched on a flowering branch of Indian plum is pissed off. Wrens always look a little pugnacious: tiny, energetic sprites hopping and twitching and posturing like they can’t wait to give you a piece of this. (House wrens, which this angry little soul is not, have even been known to get shirty with other bird species nesting too near their territory, specifically by attacking their eggs.) It’s funny because they’re small, but imagine a cassowary-sized wren. Now think about how fast you can run.

***

I’m making a loop through central Forest Park, starting at the up-ridge terminus of Saltzman Road. The particular configuration of my route is new to me, and I miss a turn and have some trouble with my map. I’m not in a hurry, and there isn’t an ugly trail to be found in this part of the world. My misstep means more pleasant walking on moderately muddy country roads. I can live with that kind of mistake.

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There’s a lot of flat walking in Forest Park, though the primary roads providing it follow different contour lines. Loop trips generally involve a couple of steep scrambles between them. Today’s winner is the Cleator Trail: a narrow chute of churned-up clay about as well-graded as Dog Mountain but – praise creation – so much shorter. That tropical hiatus I mentioned earlier was a Caribbean cruise, and this isn’t my first pointed reminder of the short-term consequences of high-calorie food and nowhere to walk for a week. I threw myself into work the moment I returned, which makes today my first chance to be a body again, not just for eating. It feels good. Mostly.

I’m keeping a lookout for the year’s first trillium. They’re up, but on each plant I find, the characteristic leaves and flowers remain tightly furled. They face outwards, petal-tips white as the mountain. Soon. The wood violets are blooming, though: tiny yellow eyes blinking from the moss, as un-shy as any daffodil. One spring, I spent half of a hike on my hands and knees and front, trying to detect the scents of these forest-floor flowers. I learned: they don’t smell like much to a human, other humans find this behavior mildly disconcerting, mud is not the worst thing that can happen when you do this. I carry wet wipes in my pack now, in case of further encounters with…well, I didn’t look too closely to find out whose scat.

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I still spend a lot of time crouching, touching, and sniffing when I’m out for a walk. Along with my 20s, I left the inevitable I look crazy right now narrative behind. Not that it was stopping me in the first place, but it did deflect my focus toward myself, instead of the moss or flower I’d meant to explore. Self-consciousness is a prerequisite of humanity, and also a daily disaster. Social inhibition and over-analysis are the enemies of observation.

Actively ignoring these barriers has changed my hiking style. Instead of a driven stride, I tend to wander now, stopping often. Paused, I might pivot suddenly, searching for the source of a sound or scent. If I’m carrying binoculars or a camera, I use them often. I get less exercise, but I notice a whole lot more. Yesterday, I tried to take a fast morning walk by the river before work. I failed completely. Look at the sunrise in each wavelet! What was that flash of white wing?

I’ve said often that I walk because I have to, though I’ve never been able to divine a reason. I leave that question alone these days, but I’m starting to answer another I never even asked. What’s worthwhile about my personal compulsion is the access it allows to a world that contains me, but which I do not contain. Nothing here can be assumed; conclusions are precarious. It is mostly necessary to watch. To listen. To smell.

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***

Central Forest Park is accessible from any of several trailheads on NW Germantown, Skyline, and Saltzman roads. The Friends of Forest Park organization has a good set of resources to get you oriented. This particular hike started and ended at the Saltzman Road trailhead off Skyline Drive. The exact route (except for my accidental detour) is described in One City’s Wilderness, a hiking & field guide to the entire park that also makes pleasant afternoon reading. There is no fee to park, but also not much space. Tread can get muddy in winter; opt for boots, not sneakers. Forest Park is technically open something like dawn-dusk.

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