It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s winter in Alberta.
It’s also what turns out to be the midway point of a two- to three-month period where social and business activities are severely restricted.
I work from home. I am not legally allowed to have people over to my house, and it’s too cold for outdoor social gatherings (which aren’t allowed either). But I need to be around people in a safe way. And I need to get out of my house. And my partner and I want to get to know the city; there are places I’ve been that he needs clarity on, and there’s others he’s encountered more recently than me. As visually impaired people, I believe it’s important to learn your environments whenever possible. It’s not always possible, but if you’re planning on encountering certain spaces more than a time or two, I believe it’s important to familiarize yourself with those environments. I’m used to doing this myself, as is my partner; if a blind person is used to going through spaces first with the aid of a mobility instructor, please don’t change anything you’re doing because of reading this blog, unless you have safety supports in place.
So, with a sassy black guide dog and an adventurous spirit, we take a haphazard, if purposeful, approach to exploring Edmonton: Let’s prioritize a couple places, then figure the rest out as we go.
Funny… the thing about exploring with someone else? You kinda have to tell them what you’re thinking…

It’s mid-January. It’s not too cold, but it’s ugly enough that we need to be judicious about where we go. My partner wants to get to know City Centre better; I know the main floor and LRT access like the back of my hand. Jenny targets the entrances, the elevator, even shows us where the pickup window for Tim Horton’s is. We pattern it a couple times, just to make sure my partner doesn’t get lost in the dungeon-esque pedways (I use them regularly and can give people excellent directions). It’s cold, we’re tired, we’ve got the January blues…. but we’ve found success.

Our next outing sends us back to City Centre, but not before a trip to Best Buy. Our thermostat is eating through batteries every 2 weeks – at most – and we need some rechargeables. After making our purchase – and flawlessly encountering another service dog team – we head over to the Corona LRT station (and, yes, that’s what it’s actually called). We get to the corner of 109 St and Jasper Avenue, and I angle myself to cross Jasper Avenue, which will have the green light first. My partner tells me I’m going the wrong way; I tell him I’m not going the wrong way to cross Jasper Avenue. Turns out, we have VERY different ideas of how to get to the station. We both regularly access Corona Station from opposite sides of the street – I always access it from the south side, my partner accesses it from the north. It might help if we communicated that. After struggling to find the entrance to the station, which is situated street-side in freestanding “shelters”, we make our way down to the station. My partner familiarizes himself with the station, and also takes the opportunity to fulfill one of the requirements for my guide dog application process. We use our two-way radios to indicate our location – after realizing it’s best for him to “ring” me rather than just speaking into the radio. We hop the train, then head over to City Centre to get more footage. I know where I am – I can do this in my sleep – and Jenny is so thrilled to use the pedway that my partner struggles to keep up! In the end, my partner knows Corona Station better now, and I have one more piece of the application process complete. Since we’re near the train, we head over to Bay Station to catch the bus home. Since there are a bunch of exits, and neither of us has spent much time there since the construction last year, we end up completely confused and turned around and don’t have much concept of which street we exit onto. After crossing the street erroneously – twice – we make our way home, with a clear sense that we need to figure this out some more.

It’s February. It’s gorgeous… until it’s not. The deep freeze settles in. It’s cold. It’s so cold that even the thought of exploring isn’t nearly as appealing as curling up under blankets and eating soup. When we do go somewhere – when it’s warm enough to walk anywhere – we pick up items made available to us through a local Buy Nothing group. We’re getting to know our immediate area, as the group is for items located in a few select neighborhoos of Edmonton (including ours). We learn the importance of asking for good directions (one pickup point offers no more explanation than an address). We learn which secondary streets go through and/or have good sidewalks; they aren’t necessarily the ones you think they should be. Only one of us steps in a puddle…

Once the deep freeze loosens its grip, we decide to figure out Kingsway. It’s a large enough mall that I’m familiar with, though we soon discover that hopping off the bus at the transit centre and walking down is…. complicated. There’s islands in the middle of the street, and the pedestrian signal doesn’t work. Using traffic cues to figure out the light patterns is nearly useless because they just go through anyway, and all of them travel at an angle. It’s so stressful that we decide to navigate another way. After a couple false starts (heading to the McDonald’s because Jenny thinks we need fried food), we make our way to the mall. There’s enough landmarks to act as orientation points, but it’s challenging enough that you can definitely get to know it over several trips. My partner needs a new keyboard, and we pass the store no fewer than three times (my partner is looking for different visuals, and I don’t honestly know where the store is). Once we’re done, we discover walking down 109 St to the bus home is so much less stressful – and takes less time – than monkeying around with the transit centre. WINNER!

Speaking of malls, neither of us is familiar with Southgate. I’ve only been there a handful of times – the most recently probably about three years ago. My partner points out the easy way to get from the bus stop to the mall, which I previously had to go all the way around the station to get inside. We pop in to the LRT station to check out the pedway. There’s just enough doors to get yourself confused if you’re not familiar with it. The trains aren’t running today, so we need to do the full exploration from the platform at a later day, but without the stress of a schedule or a place to HAVE to be, we’re free to explore. Once we get into the mall, I let Jenny figure stuff out. She reliably shows me the exits, flawlessly guides through the food court, and thinks I need to get my nails done. She tries to direct me to the Apple store – which she’s been to once or twice with me – when we’re unceremoneously stopped by someone who we can only presume is a security gard, though he doesn’t identify himself. He orders me to stop, then tells me they only accept appointments. Forgive me; the whole storefront is wide open… We fly through the mall to get back to the bus, and both feel like it was a well-deserved outing.

In the time of COVID-19, I’ve noticed a couple things. First, people leave me be. I’m not forced to be polite when the fourth person in a row demands to know where I’m going or what I’m doing and please let them help me. My partner describes things non-visually, but provides enough visual context that it’s useful for me to know, even if I don’t use the visual cues. I can decide where I go, and when, and either go on my own or with my partner. In a time where people are talking about freedom, I feel that, in this small way, I’m free to be me, to figure things out, to ask questions of myself and my city, and maybe be able to contribute to someone else’s experience along the way.