Nose Hill: A Lifetime of Nature Connection

  • Published on Jun 21 2017 |
  • This article is tagged as:

By: Alex Mowat, CPAWS Hiking Guide

One of the flowing favorite places of my life has been Nose Hill Park.  My mother and father were important in the fight to save it as a park in Calgary during the 1970s.  Growing up, as kids, living in a nearby community, we played and explored there often.  We also were regaled with stories of the “Spy Hill Jail” and dangerous men wandering about, maybe escaped convicts.  It was this big beautiful hill of exploration and adventure and it also was an ominous place of danger.  But mostly, it represented wonder, wildness and nature to kids growing up in an urban environment.  At the time it wasn’t ringed by communities on all sides and it certainly didn’t have so many paths, natural or paved, but I think its essential nature has remained unchanged.

After early university experiences in Oregon and Victoria, I finished my degree at the University of Calgary. All the places I chose until then, and for almost a decade after, were in the shadow of Nose Hill.  It became a place to run in the hot sun, sweating up one or another long and steep climb to the glory that awaited, often crisp blue sky. And with only a few hundred feet of elevation gain came the view of a set of rocky, snow capped mountains that seemed to have been brought east on rollers to abut the city, spreading north and south across the horizon.  The same majesty happened in winter on runs and walks through snow. Again under the blue sky, a flow with nature and the universe, it was a place where my running, walking and thinking become creative, exultant and the world and I were renewed for the week.  Once on top of the hill, there are many spots where one feels in the middle of a massive prairie, not a house or sign of human development in sight.

I remember walking up 19th Street from Northmount Drive in a driving winter snow storm, on my way to Nose Hill.  It was around midnight but overcast and with all the reflections of the city lights it was okay to start up the hill itself above John Laurie Boulevard.  I was walking along and the falling snow was so heavy I could only see a few feet in front of me.  I remember early in the walk, with no one around me on the street, suddenly feeling the magic of a Canadian winter wonderland and a feeling welled up inside me quickly and I shouted, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to the universe and smiled in joy and gratefulness as I walked along.  Later, moments after I summitted Nose Hill in the snow storm, and with the storm worsening, I realized that the snow was so deep and coming down so quickly that my tracks were being covered in seconds. I stopped, closed my eyes and thought back.  This hill, named by the local natives, looked out over a city that only 150 years before didn’t exist. There wasn’t even a fort in the area yet - only semi-nomadic native groups, living in teepees throughout the year - even throughout our sometimes minus 40 degree Celsius winters! And here I was in the heart of the paradox, in a natural place in the middle of a snowstorm in the middle of a city of over one million people.  I realized that I had better turn around because if I kept walking I could have become lost up there that night and got myself into survival trouble. I actually loved that moment of insight. Feeling wilderness like that in that moment, in the city, yet separate from the city, felt important and made me feel happy.

And there are many other stories. Discovering and watching great horned owls in a ravine grove on the North East corner of the park, running on the southern slopes in the spring one year and being dive bombed by a Swainson’s Hawk, who was evidently protecting young in a nest. Seeing coyotes, foxes, porcupines, many, many deer and maybe even the presence of a nighttime cougar over the years. And Nosehill keeps me coming back.  After a break-up years ago with a girlfriend from England, I would return to the John Laurie 64th Avenue parking lot, where she and I used to walk look out over the city and  the stars some evenings. Working at the university with new international students, I incorporated a Nose Hill visit with a walk and viewpoint over the city and university into arrival orientation touring; it was usually the most popular part of the whole tour.

When my father died in 2005 we had his memorial at a local Unitarian Church and then a small group of us met and walked up Nose Hill for a native ceremony and farewell to my father’s spirit. Up there, in the early summer, in the heat, with lots of mosquitos by the seasonal pool and beautiful blowing grasses, it’s no surprise that this reminded me of my Dad’s East African homeland of Kenya and Tanzania more than anywhere else that I have been in Canada. It was a powerful place for him and remains a powerful place for me. 

About ten years ago, a friend and I were mountain biking up on Nose Hill and as we looked across the golden grasses to the Rocky Mountains and gorgeous blue sky - we agreed then and there to ride to Banff the next day. The beauty, serenity, space and flow of being up there simply inspires, and has helped me connect to dreams and solutions in my life many times. A few years back, I was in the midst of a tough period emotionally and was struggling back and forth with a decision about a job overseas, making myself miserable.  Off to Nose Hill I went, my running shoes in hand, focused on breath and a familiar Nose Hill flow opening up the moment. An hour later I knew what I was going to do and was back in a space of trusting myself and the universe.

These days I live in Canmore, it’s been thirteen years. I am not in the city much but when I am, Nose Hill often plays a role. I still walk and run there when I can, meet old friends and stroll through the wildflowers, grasslands and gullies, fields of blue and purple spring crocuses lining our pathway. A couple of years ago, I remember meeting a lifelong friend there, our family babysitter growing up, who was a student of my father’s and also became a teacher like him. And as we walked along Nose Hill we had such a wondrous conversation about the spirit of my father, how could we not?  I could feel him there, his footsteps, his example, his soul, as well as my own journey and my spirit.

Thanks, Nose Hill.  In the midst of urbanity, you gifted me a connection to adventure, dreams, my father, nature and my own spirit. I wouldn’t be who I am without you.