Low Budget Staycation Holidays

Low Budget Staycation Holidays
What if I told you that you don’t need to leave Calgary to go on an exotic trip or to find affordable recreational opportunities? Our sprawling city has so much to explore and the vast majority of it is free. In light of the COVID19 pandemic and a sudden surge in outdoor activity, I am writing about recreation this month and have focused on those things that are free and can be done with the smallest environmental footprint. If you can do an activity for free, it’s most likely very sustainable.

Generally, anything that costs money requires valuable resources and as a result, creates emissions that pollute air, water and soil. For example, lots of energy is required to maintain heated indoor swimming pools in the winter or ice rinks in the summer. Travelling by car or plane also requires valuable fuel and creates pollution. If you golf, know that large amounts of fertilizer are needed to keep those greens in perfect shape. This causes pollution too. Generally, the more expensive the activity, the more resources it requires and the more pollution it creates. Even visiting the zoo or science centre comes with a cost. You can observe wild animals (eagles, owls, beaver, deer, moose, coyotes, bobcats, bears, turkeys) and science just outside your door right here in Calgary and get some exercise doing it.

Regular physical activity is part of a healthy lifestyle. Often, getting enough exercise can feel like a chore but if you make it part of a local adventure it won't feel like work anymore. We all need to take time for ourselves to unwind from busy days or just recover from constant stress. We just need to take a break from work. I strive to live a life with enough balance that I don’t actually need a holiday or vacation or, at least that is the goal. I aim for this balance by taking time to regularly to enjoy the great outdoors and by living within the seasons. It feels even better to know that I get to enjoy all these low environmental impact activities at no cost.

Calgary offers year round seasonal opportunities but spring and summer are still my favourite. I just love watching the city turn green in the spring and often take a picnic lunch to a local park on a bicycle to places not accessible by car. I enjoy getting away from the noise of traffic and listening to the birds chirping and breathing in the smell of blossoms. If you live downtown, Lawrey Gardens is probably the closest and most accessible area that really feels like you’re in a forest. When you’re in it, it’s hard to imagine you're in the middle of a big, sprawling city. It is accessible by foot or bike on the Bow River pathway running along the south side of the river. Follow the pathway east under the Crowchild Bridge towards Edworthy Park. In this area you will find a pond with Cattails, Red-winged Black Birds, dense deciduous forest and pretty grassy meadows. If you’re quiet enough you can even hear the toads croaking in the pond. Sadly, there are no bathrooms or picnics tables so I recommend going to the toilet before you leave and bring small folding chairs or a blanket to sit on. Please also be prepared to carry out any garbage and recyclables. You can also access the Douglas Fir Trail from this pathway. The trail offers a challenging urban hike!

Our endless summer days are the best. To be honest, everytime I have visited the tropics I always feel a bit ripped off by the early sunsets. During summers here, I love swimming in freshwater rivers and lakes. The Bow River offers many such spots to cool off in the hot sun. One of my favourites is just downstream from Harvie Passage at Pearce Estate Park. There is a swimming hole just deep and big enough to do laps but separated by an upstream man made peninsula keeping the spot calm and without a current. The park has washrooms, a playground, picnic tables and barbeques. It’s right beside the Bow Habitat too. The hatchery has a fun interpretive centre to explore if the weather turns. But, that costs money and you could entertain yourself for free by watching the kayakers navigate the passage or the pelicans catching fish off the weir.

If you have small children, there is a nice little wading area on Saint Patrick’s Island. In addition to this, the island also has washrooms, a playground, barbeques and a huge group fire pit at the top of the rise. This whole island was recently redeveloped and although there are some additional amenities that I love, I feel that overall, it’s missing the original forest setting it once was before redevelopment. To me, it is just another urban outdoor area. That said, it is very accessible by train, automobile and active transport. This makes it an easy getaway from just about anywhere in the city and it offers a pleasant urban design.

Another more manicured park I always enjoy is Stanley Park. When my daughter was younger, we used to ride our bikes down there to swim in the Elbow River and dry off on the grass in the sun. I’ve always thought that Stanley Park looks like the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat. The riverfront has a lush lawn instead of a sandy beach. The trees are tall and create a nice shady canopy and the river is shallow in this location making it pretty safe for swimming. Be sure to check for any water advisories though. Sadly, the river gets contaminated with harmful bacteria. This has been a big problem since the floods of 2013. I hope the city will finally be able to resolve this issue by summer this year. If swimming in rivers isn’t for you, there is an outdoor pool in the park.

For more urban experiences, one can often listen to free music or catch a free comic or magic performance by street buskers at Eau Claire Market. There is a little wading pool located there too. In fact, there are free water parks and wading pools all over the city. Visit the City of Calgary website to find one near you.

Last year I purchased a small portable ukulele that I strap to my bicycle. When I bring that on trips it’s always a big hit. Who doesn’t like live outdoor music? If you don’t know how to play, you can still bring music with a portable speaker. There are also sorts of rechargeable options meant for outdoor use.

Fish Creek Provincial Park is stunning in the summer but even more stunning in the fall as all the foliage turns into the fiery colours of yellow, orange and red. Same goes for Nose Hill Park, Beaver Dam Flats and Confluence Park which are all accessible on foot or by bicycle.

One of the best things about exploring the city in the fall is that it’s generally still a pleasant temperature but the pathways are lot less busy as most head back to school and work. If you plan it right, you can have all the summer fun and all the amenities to yourself. When my daughter was little, we went on multi-family camping trips with our neighbours in late September because parks could more easily accommodate our large group after Labour Day.

I hope that someday tent only campgrounds will start popping up in these urban parks. How fun would it be to take your family on an urban bicycle adventure right out your back door? Each park has parking located nearby if you must drive but I would encourage you to explore Calgary’s extensive pathway system and navigate a route to one of these parks via active transport. Friends and I often make a day of it and ride our bikes in a loop around the city travelling through one of these parks and stopping for a picnic lunch along the way.

Note: Many of these parks have limited facilities which means that it’s hard to find toilets or potable water. Did you know that Beaver Dam Flats had a playground, bathroom facilities and garbage and recycling? Budget cuts have forced the city parks department to remove many of these amenities. Please let your city councillors and provincial MLAs know how important these basic needs are and have them put back into place.

For those a little more adventurous, you could take your bike to the farthest C-train station on the outskirts of town to shorten your bike trip to places like Cochrane or Bragg Creek. There is also a safe paved pathway separate from all car traffic that follows the canal all the way to Chestermere Lake. Check out BikeBike’s blog for tried and true routes complete with useful tips.

Winter won’t limit your recreational opportunities either. As long as you are dressed warm enough you can enjoy long walks, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, tobogganing and skating all for free in parks around the city. There is no such thing as bad weather, there are only bad clothing choices. From my own personal experience, I find winter to be much more tolerable, even enjoyable, when I dress for the temperature and get outside. We certainly endure long winters here and if we are to truly enjoy all the seasons we should take advantage of some of the opportunities the ice, snow and cold has to offer. Olympic Plaza maintains a wonderful free ice skating surface all winter as do many community centres. If you can’t afford to see a hockey game why not try playing shiny with your neighbours on a local rink? Just building a snowman is so much fun and will make your neighbours smile. I even ride my bike in the winter and in recent years it has become my favourite free recreational sport as well as preferred mode of transport. The city now clears a vast amount of pathways and bike shops offer all sorts of winter cycling gear to make your frigid ride comfortable. This year, I broke a personal record by riding my bike in the coldest weather ever - 34 degrees C.

One of the reasons I love Calgary is that despite its sprawling urban land mass, we have the opportunity to enjoy a surprisingly large amount of wonderful outdoor activities all while still maintaining some really pristine wild spaces. Over the years that I have lived in Calgary, I have walked pathways, hiked trails, eaten picnics in the park, skied on snow covered golf-courses, canoed on the canal, rafted down the Bow River, skated on ice at Olympic Plaza, snowshoed in the forest, swam down the Elbow river, splashed in water parks, listened to street buskers, smelled flowers, fed birds from the palm of my hand in Weaselhead Flats, watched eagles hunt in Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, rode my bike around Glenmore Reservoir under a full moon at night, roasted marshmallow at the fire pit on the Rise at Saint Patrick's Island. These are all free, fun things you can do too.

If you have a little extra cash to spend, the city has even more to offer but that’s for another post. In the meantime, my goal this year is to discover and enjoy as many local, sustainable outdoor activities right here at home while spending the least amount of money - budget friendly staycation holidays! I hope you will consider trying one too.

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