#8 – canoe/camp/portage in Algonquin Park, and important reflections

I’ve been hearing a lot, over the past few months, about the experiences of close friends who met and bonded at summer camp.  When I was younger, I spent a few summers at YMCA Camp Wanakita, conveniently located on the lake of my family’s cottage.  I remember anxiously looking forward to the day when I would be old enough to be a counselor there, but for some reason when that summer finally came, other things (saving up for university, for example) seemed more important, and so I spent the summer cleaning hotel rooms instead.  True story.  At the time, I was pleased with my decision.  I felt as though I was ready to move on to more adult things, and that summer camp was something I had outgrown.  Today, thinking back on that decision gives me pangs of regret.

I have had a decent amount of camping experience, and my share of weeks away at day camp, but still I feel jealous of the kind of bonds that are built over long, repeated summers with the same people – spending months at a time doing everything together, and then parting in August only to see each other again the following June.

In part, it was desire for that kind of bonding experience that motivated my desire to go camping in Algonquin this summer; though I couldn’t replicate the duration and repetition of those earlier experiences, at least I could hope to recreate the immersive aspect over the short-term.  Furthermore, though I’ve been camping many times, I’ve never been to Algonquin, and that seemed like a huge oversight.  After all, it seems like the kind of place that every legitimate camper should have visited at least once.  A group of my close friends and I tried to organize a big 6-person trip, but it became a big logistically problematic, especially given that many of them are very busy with comprehensive exams and other graduate school requirements, so the end of the summer was drawing near and it looked as though it wasn’t going to happen.

Realizing how disappointed I was, and sharing in my desire to go camping this summer, a close friend suggested we make the trek – just the two of us – to canoe and portage in Algonquin.  We planned a route, booked sites, and assembled our gear, before taking off for 4 days alone together in the wilderness.

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What follows will seem like a digression, but in fact touches upon the very heart of the purpose of this summer list – namely, personal growth.  I’ve drafted this post several times, and each time changed my mind about how to write it.  At first, it was going to be a description of our trip, complete with pictures, a GIF of the tent-building, our pack list & menu, etc.  Then it was going to be an explanation.

In the end, I’ve decided that it needs to be an apology.  I’ll explain.

Though I hate to admit it, I am still very much a child.  On better days, this childishness manifests itself in the form of emphatic wonder, profound awe, and carefree abandon.  On bad days, it bursts forth as obstinacy and cold, hard selfishness.  There are times when I’m upset (not angry – upset) when I can’t seem to will myself to feel better, to feel good, even if I know that the way I’m feeling is completely unreasonable and even hurtful to others.  At the worst times, this feeling of upset transforms into resentment – a deep-wounding, insidious feeling that tarnishes everything it touches, and that lingers far longer than any negative feeling should.

I was recently presented with an opportunity that called upon me to be caring, compassionate, and supportive.  Something unexpected arose on the first day of our camping trip, that required that we turn back and make big modifications to our plan (namely, that we abandon it).  Instead of being compassionate and understanding, my selfish-childishness took over and I said things that I didn’t mean, and announced plans I had no intention of completing.  I was reluctant to adapt, and I stubbornly and selfishly held fast to my desire to get my fill of camping, to experience the kind of summer trip of which I had heard so many wonderful anecdotes.  Instead of being warm and supportive, I was bitter, cold and closed-off.  As a result, I deeply hurt one of the people closest to me, who deserved nothing short of wholehearted love, compassion, and understanding.

I am writing this not with the intention of self-flagellation,  but rather in the hopes that confronting the thing that I’ve done, and trying to work through and understand my lived-experience of it will help me learn how to avoid repeating such unjustifiable behavior.  Vague though it is, the above is intended as one more incarnation of the apology that I continue to repeat – and endeavor to prevent having to make again – to the person I so terribly abandoned.

I would like to say that this was a singular event in an otherwise virtuous life, but that would obviously be a lie.  I’ve hurt people before, and I’m sure I’ll hurt people again.  Recognition of that sad fact does nothing to alter my genuine desire to live compassionately and generously; on the contrary, it reminds me of the pressing and perpetual need to be vigilant to ward off negative childish feelings and reactions before they take expressive root.  I need to remember to be humble, to be fair, to be just, to be caring, and to be considerate.

On that note, I would like to share two pieces that emphasize similar reminders.  The first is the convocation speech given by George Saunders at Syracuse University for the class of 2013 (with thanks to my friend H, from whom I first learned of it), and the second is a compassionate response to an angry letter that has recently been all over social media.  Both emphasize the need for reflection and compassion in all of our interpersonal relations.

I would also like to add, as a final thought, that the positive moments of that camping trip – which easily form the majority, for me – easily rank as my favourite camping memories ever; in the span of less than 24hrs, we canoed over 12km of distance, and carried gear over 2.25km of portage distance.  Brief though it may have been, we packed a lot into that trip, and easily carpe‘d the heck out of that diem.

#10 – ride a streetcar from one end of the line to the other

This was the item that started the list.

…and then, immediately after getting overwhelmingly excited about it, I got very worried that it would be terribly, terribly boring to actually complete – especially once N suggested that we choose the Queen streetcar, which goes all the way from Longbranch Station in Mississauga to Neville Park in the East Beaches.

Luckily, I was wrong.

We had planned to get up super early in the morning, and ride the streetcar while witnessing the world slowly waking up.  As usual, though, “the plan” quickly went out the window – this time in favour of sleeping in and enjoying a leisurely breakfast (an acceptable substitution).  We also took our time getting to the subway, since the sunlight was so beautiful and the sky was so clear that we wanted to try some double-exposure photography while conditions were ideal.

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(Each picture above contains at least 4 exposures… which is double what we had intended.)
(We double double-exposed them.)

For a first try, and considering our near-complete ignorance of photographic how-to, it was still a pretty neat experiment.  Though the pictures didn’t turn out, I now have a more concrete sense of the process, so it’s easier to understand how to adjust for next time.  Try and try again!  It’s also kind of fun to try to identify each layer of the photographs…

After some gallivanting in Christie Pitts, we trekked out to Long Branch station by subway and bus (so as not to dilute the experience of the long, singular streetcar trip), and stayed true to the mission by grabbing a quick snack at a nearby cafe – Fairgrounds Organic Cafe & Roastery.  I bought an iced americano, a hello dolly bar, and a half-pound of their Mystery Roast coffee beans to try, and N got a muffin.  Perfect fuel for the journey ahead!

We hopped on the streetcar, confirmed that it would take us all the way to the end of the line, and headed all the way to the back to grab some prime seating.

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We settled in, readied the cameras, and then pulled out the scavenger hunt list we had prepared for just this occasion.

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Only, I had forgotten it.  Life happens!  So we spent a few minutes making a new one.

We spotted:

  • a dog on the streetcar…

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  • …sticking his head out the window

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  • a graffiti artist working on a mural (and many more works of street art)

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  • people holding hands

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…and much, much more.

By the end of our adventure, the scavenger list looked like this:

  • an animal on the streetcar
  • a person carrying a plant
  • more than 2 children in a group
  • someone helping a stranger on or off the streetcar
  • the letter Q on a sign (remarkably easy to find on the Queen St. streetcar line…!)
  • someone wearing orange
  • someone carrying something odd
  • someone who gets on for only one stop
  • an animal that isn’t a cat, dog, or bird
  • the number 1009 (we missed both #1009 Queen West and #1009 Queen East)
  • a store or restaurant named after a person
  • people holding hands
  • 10 different graffiti murals
  • a convertible with the top down
  • the letter Z on a license plate
  • a dog with it’s head out the window of a vehicle
  • someone reading a book on the streetcar

It was much more difficult than I anticipated to spot someone carrying a plant!  I was sure that someone would be carrying flowers on such a lovely Sunday… It was also much easier than expected to find people wearing orange, for which I would like to congratulate the residents of this beautiful city on their bold and uninhibited summer palettes.  We saw so many people wearing orange, in fact, that we decided to make a game of it to see who could spot more.  (I won.)

Though N and I were both initially somewhat unsure about the value of the scavenger hunt, it made the whole trip feel like a mission, and also made it feel a bit like an urban road trip.  In fact, I kind of want to do it all over again with some of the other streetcar lines…  It was a really amazing way to see parts of the city that I’d never normally see, and I’ve since made a list of tons of places to revisit, including many in neighborhoods in which I wouldn’t normally find myself.

In the end, that’s really what the summer list is all about!

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#12 (with some creative license…) – have a picnic in Trinity Bellwoods

Scratch that.  #12 is now “Have a Picnic Somewhere.”

August is fast approaching, and desperate times call for desperate measures…

The list is still longer than it should be with little over a month to go, so it’s time to kick things into high gear and focus on crossing items off that list!  This all seemed so achievable in May, but time has flown and now it feels like there aren’t enough weekends left to get everything done.  Thankfully (?), I’ve managed to relieve myself of most of my work so that I now have more free time to devote to personal projects and hopefully some more fulfilling endeavors.  I’m nervous/scared/excited/thrilled/relieved/anxious.  Which is to say that I don’t know how I feel.  I feel many emotions simultaneously, but none with clarity or self-assurance.  Perhaps that’s just the feeling of freelance?

In any case, I have been busy accomplishing things despite my lack of posts (which is due, at least in part, to a lack of internet access for almost two whole weeks!  news-worthy details, to be sure).  The biggest item to-date was an improvised picnic in High Park with N, NC and TS.  It was a strange morning – a strange weekend, really – that seemed to demand that we get out and appreciate the gorgeous weather, but also insisted that our appreciation take the form of slothful indulgence.  So we did what any city-dwelling lazy-bones would do and packed some locally-procured snacks and our bathing suits and headed to join the rest of the municipality in chlorine-soaked respite from the hot summer sun.

…At least, that was the plan.

I somehow managed to develop sun-exhaustion-like symptoms from a morning of walking around Bloor, and TS was deeply hungover from some escapades the night before, so only N and NC were in top form by the time we met up around 4pm.  Add to that my frustration at having spent way too long searching for my bathing suit pieces (I knew that they were in a box somewhere…), and it was just not the most upbeat beginning to an outdoor adventure.  That feeling had mostly subsided by the time we got to the park, though, and by the time the cured meats, fresh baguette, soft cheese, sparkling freshly-squeezed lemonade, and NC’s homemade potato salad were unpacked and laid out before us, I was relishing the bounty of summer.

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Praise the gods of soft green grass and bright blue skies; it was a truly gorgeous day.

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We never did make it into the pool; by the time we had tired ourselves out from frisbee enough to want to cool off, the pool was closed for “maintenance” and didn’t re-open until shortly before we left.  The real reason we never made it, though, was because I got excited about the idea of riding the park tram (aka “trackless train”) and managed to convince the others to join me on that instead.

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We grabbed some popsicles and cooled off in the shade while waiting for the tram to return so that we could get choice seating (the back, duh), and then hopped on board.

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For the record, this is what a brain-freeze looks like, from the outside:

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It was such a nice, relaxing way to take in all that High Park has to offer.

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I feel so blessed to have such terrific friends, who indulge my childish desires… (:

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#5 and #6 – attend a concert at fort york

I’m a big fan of multi-tasking, so it is fitting that at least one of my summer activities would combine two items from my list!

I haven’t been to many concerts.  My first ever was a Foo Fighters concert, in grade 10 or 11.  My friend had an extra ticket and none of the other people he wanted to bring were free, which worked out well for me, as a distant fourth-or-something choice.  Score!  Then there were a few high school band concerts, and one trip to Edge Fest in 2004 or something… but it wasn’t until university that I attended another ‘real’ concert, when I saw Leslie Feist play at a small, intimate-ish venue called The Marquee, in Halifax, during my first year of undergrad (way back in 2005).  The next (and last, until this summer) concert I attended was a Broken Social Scene (BSS) show, also in Halifax, in early 2006.  If you’re counting, that makes 4.  I’ve been to 4 concerts.

It’s not that I don’t like music, it’s more so just that I’ve never been big into bands.  I tend to like individuals songs more than albums or bands, which makes attending concerts a less-than-optimal way for me to enjoy music.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy concerts.  It’s just not the kind of thing that I would prioritize, given that there are few bands/artists whom I like enough to want to see them play a whole show.  The aforementioned bands just so happen to be among the very few exceptions to that list, which made me extremely excited to learn that two of them – BSS and Feist – would be playing at an outdoor concert in Toronto this summer.

N suggested it, and I jumped at the opportunity.  There was a very brief discussion about who would buy the tickets (oddly, we were both fighting for the honour), and that was that.  We were going on a Field Trip!

The whole shindig began at 12:30pm, but we only straggled in around 4pm, as a result of a prior commitment that morning (we’re just so busy and important). It worked out well, though, because we still had a decent amount of time to grab some food from some of the many food trucks, and wander around exploring the various setups before settling in to watch the bands we were most eagerly anticipating.

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We met up with N’s friends, who had the foresight to bring a nice big blanket to lie on, and then we wandered back and forth between squishing our way into the crowd for a nice view of the talent onstage, and slinking back to the blanket to hang out between sets.

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There was also a fun episode wherein we tried to loosen N’s concert wristband by poking at the inside teeth with a pen.. which succeeded only in getting the lid stuck.

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Despite slightly menacing skies, the rain held off (for the most part), and the music slipped us gently into the cool summer evening – a barely perceptible shift from dusk to dark.

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Such a lovely way to spend an evening in the city ♥

#7 – bungee jump

This plan had been in the works since before the list was even created.

Truth be told, #7 only made it onto the list because it was already booked.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but never would have prioritized on my own.  Enter EF, my fearless sister.  I got a text from her, out of the blue, that just said: “Want to go bungee jumping?” and I immediately texted back in the affirmative.  Coolest sister ever (though I’d never admit it to her face, lest it go to her head…).

Since the bungee place she had in mind was in Gatineau, Quebec, it seemed only fitting to make a weekend trip to Ottawa for the occasion.  When I mentioned to NB that I was going, he immediately wanted in.  This surprised me greatly.  Apparently he was also somewhat surprised by his own enthusiasm, because he spent the weeks leading up to the trip being nervous and unsure about the decision.  At first I tried to reassure him, but then, when that repeatedly failed (to be fair, there’s no way to calm yourself for this kind of thing, in advance), I switched strategies and started telling him that he was welcome to wimp out, since I could just use his jump to go a second time (I’m supportive that way).  My strategy gained traction when I showed NB a video of my friend doing the same 200ft jump that we’d be doing; it was terrifying.

To give you a sense of what 200ft looks like, here’s a picture with a totally non-helpful attempt to show scale.  You’re welcome.

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The drive to Ottawa on Friday night was absolutely lovely, and felt (to me at least) as though it went by in a blink.   The sun was setting as we passed the exit for the Diefenbunker, which is by far my favourite Ottawa attraction.  If you’ve never been, you should definitely make some time to fit it in next time you’re in the area.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Seriously.  Words cannot describe how much I love the Diefenbunker.  Be sure to go when they’re giving a free guided tour, unless you’re really well-versed in Cold War history.

We arrived at NB’s friend A’s home shortly after midnight, and settled in.  We were both extremely exhausted from an early morning and long day, so our Friday night wasn’t terribly social, unfortunately.  Saturday was a little better; the guys picked up breakfast from Kettleman’s (another must-stop in Ottawa) and then played games while I got some work done, before NB and I headed out to explore the city.   I decided that I could find my way to my sister’s place without directions, which seemed logical enough given that I barely know the city and didn’t even know her address.  I mean, that makes sense, right?  So off we went!  NB was a terrific sport about the whole thing, indulging me as I made up stories about the various things we passed along the way.  Actual things I included on my made-up-as-I-went tour:

“Bank street is so-named because the Ottawa river used to come all the way up to where we are now.  When they filled it in, years ago, to make way for the city, the street was named after the banks of the river that used to lie right about here.  You’d think it had more to do with being a financial district, but you’d be wrong.”

“That laundromat was frequented by Trudeau and his wife.  True story.”
(Not likely a true story)

We did eventually make it to EF’s, but by the time we did I had managed to take us on a whirlwind tour of most of the city, including three lovely drives along the same stretch of the canal.  It’s all about the journey, right?

That afternoon we trekked out to the Canadian Air and Space museum, which was part of a secret plan that I had been looking forward to surprising NB with since we decided to make the trip.  He nerded out like a little kid, which was super adorable.  A school friend from his aerospace program called him when we were approaching the doors, and he was like “Guess where I am?!  The Canadian Air and Space Museum!”  Cutest thing ever.

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(NB got a hug from the Canadarm!)

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…and I made him do all of the interactive things meant for small children…

(like climb in the pilot’s seat of a… whatever that plane, above, was…)

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We attended a talk/demonstration on ejector seats, and then perused the plane collection and even got to see a helicopter take off.   My favourite part was when NB explained to me how turbine engines work.  I also enjoyed the fact that I spent the whole time getting excited about seeing the Avro Arrow, and then forgot that I had seen it, like, 2 minutes after finally seeing it.  le sigh.

The day concluded with a stop in the Byward Market for some (heavenly!) olive baguette from Le Moulin de Provence, and then Chinese take out and board games with A.  A solid Saturday night in.

Sunday began similarly – breakfast from Kettleman’s and some window-shopping in the Glieb.  The day had a very different tone, right from the start, though; today was the day we’d tease death.

To stave off a nervous breakdown from anticipation, we spent the morning distracting ourselves with touristy fun.  I had never been inside the parliament buildings before, so we got free tickets for the walking tour at 12:50pm.  Since we had about half an hour to kill before it began, we had to find some way to amuse ourselves.  Luckily, parliament features a lovely grassy lawn that is conveniently bereft of prohibitionist fences.  It practically begged for lunatic frolicking.  And I was more than happy to oblige, with rolling…

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…and cartwheels…

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…and somersaults…

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…and random jumping (staple tourist photos)

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And then we went on the tour.  I took two pictures inside parliament, and they’re not even slightly interesting.  In contrast, there were over 85 pictures of our frolicking on the lawn.  Clearly my priorities are in order.

Finally, on to the main event!

We were bungeeing (no really, that’s a word.) with Great Canadian Bungee, in Chelsea, Quebec – about a 25min drive from downtown Ottawa.  We got there, as recommended, 30min before our jump and used the time to try to relax our frenetic nerves.  It’s terrifying to know that you’re about to jump off a super-high platform into a gigantic quarry and have to watch and hear many people do it before you.  It doesn’t help that the waiver you need to sign before jumping is double sided and involves waiving your right to sue if you die.   Pft.  As if you could sue once you were dead…

For the record, here’s the platform, viewed from the office/hut:

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After what felt like an eternity, we were finally given the green light to climb up that gigantic hill, just so that we could jump back down.  Totally logical.

My favourite part of the safety instruction was when the staff member described part of the process as “not an exact science” (his exact words).  He was telling us that we had three choices to make: (1) whether to have an ankle harness or just a waist harness; (2) whether or not we wanted to be ‘dipped’ into the water; and (3) something else I’ve since forgotten.  EF, NB and I all chose to be dipped, but the wettest any of us got was that NB’s hands went in the water (hence the “exact science” comment).  They then arranged us in jump order.  EF was first, I was second, and NB and JB (EF’s boyfriend) were last, which meant that the least nervous of us got to go first, and the most nervous had to watch everyone else go before them…

I don’t have any pictures of my jump, or EF’s, but I had time to run to the car before the guys jumped, so here’s a still image of NB, flailing through the air:

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…and safe and sound in the boat, after being unharnessed…

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The most terrifying part of the whole experience, for me, was climbing the metal staircase up to the platform itself, from the ground.  There’s so much procedure after that that you get a chance to calm down and catch your breath before they walk you, individually, along the long extension to the jump platform itself.  After that, two guys tie you in and double-check your harness, then you shimmy over to the ledge, put your toes over the edge, and before you know it it’s “5, 4, 3, 2…” and then your body somehow propels itself into the air.  For me, it felt as though my body just decided to go before my head could make sense of how high up I was, or that I should be scared.  NB said that for him, it was more like his body was rejecting the whole situation, but his brain was like “well, we’re already pretty committed…”  Either way, it seems that people experience a bit of an internal conflict over the whole thing.  But then you find yourself free-falling, and all you can think is “DEAR GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE” followed insanely quickly by “THIS IS AMAZING.”  For me, the whole jump (after the initial 0.0001 second of sheer terror) was utterly relaxing.  My whole body went limp and I flopped around very gently.  At a few points, I couldn’t tell that I was moving at all – let alone whether I was falling or bouncing back up – because the whole thing was just so gentle and smooth.  As soon as I finished, I wanted to go again.  So I did.  And the second time was way better, because I just stood straight and let my body fall forward from the platform, without thinking about trying to jump/propel it forward.  I highly recommend doing it that way.  It was also much more graceful than what I did on my first jump, which was something resembling a squat-and-fall.  Ugh.

If you’re thinking of going, I highly recommend Great Canadian Bungee.  It costs about $120 for the first jump (an even $60 for a second jump on the same day), the staff were phenomenal, and the whole day was a total blast.  Apparently they offer first jumps of the day at dawn, and I can only imagine how gorgeous it would be to jump into the beautiful early morning sky.  I might just have to go back…

#16 – practice random acts of cheer

It began on a rainy afternoon with over 100 plastic animal figurines…

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…which were liberally coated with the contents of a few cans of lime green spray paint…

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…and then, one by one, deposited around the city in nooks, crannies, and other corners and hideouts…

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…such as in under-construction subway stairwells

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…on pedestrian walkways…

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…on big red canoes by the highway…

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…in trees (the most logical places to look for hippos)…

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…on streetcars…

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(there’s nothing quite like the feeling of the breeze through your mane on a warm spring day!)

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…at crosswalks…

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…supervising home construction sites…

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…monitoring hydro use…

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…and generally hiding out in the urban jungle…

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What better than a tiny lime green creature to brighten the mood on a grey day, n’est-ce pas?

(this song also helps, in my humble opinion…)