Nature walks help these 'bears' connect in a safe space

Members of the outdoor 'bears' walking group pose during one of their walks in Rockcliffe Park.  (Anchal Sharma/CBC - image credit)
Members of the outdoor 'bears' walking group pose during one of their walks in Rockcliffe Park. (Anchal Sharma/CBC - image credit)

Every Sunday afternoon a group of bears sets out on a nature walk in a different part of Ottawa.

Except, they're not the kind with big teeth and claws. They're men who identify with the term commonly used in the gay community to describe bigger men with a lot of body hair.

Alex Johnston started the "Outdoor Bears" group, as they call themselves, five years ago to meet others who enjoy outdoor activities.

It started with regular outings to skate on the Rideau Canal. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the group started to serve another purpose.

"People realized they had less social activities and this is one of the few ways that they could feel safe with strangers," explained Johnston.

The group added afternoons at Westboro Beach to the mix, and last fall they started weekly walks.

"That became very, very popular," Johnston said. With up to 20 men joining every week, the group decided to keep them going year-round.

"It's one of those things that you only realize afterward what a good idea it is," he said.

"Especially if you're already on the [autism] spectrum [like I am], you're alone enough as it is. So being with a group really is the highlight of my week."

Anchal Sharma/CBC
Anchal Sharma/CBC

All walks of life

You don't have to be a bear to join the group, but Johnston likes the name because for him, it represents a "healthy type of masculinity" that promotes body positivity for bigger men.

While most of the men are in their late 50s or early 60s like Johnston, he said gay and bisexual men from all ages and walks of life have benefited from the weekly outings.

Strolling through the muddy, tree-lined footpaths of the Caldwell-Carver Conservation Area in Rockcliffe on a recent Sunday afternoon, 22-year-old Chaychk Lokata reflected on the ways the group has helped him.

"I'm new to Ottawa and I thought that the best way to discover the city and get to visit different places would be to come out with these guys," he said.

"On the first day of spring, we went outside to see all the flowers. That was beautiful."

Lokata said it was the sense of community that kept him coming back. After his first excursion, he felt at home with the group.

"It felt like there was a place where I could be myself with other people and talk about anything."

Anchal Sharma/CBC
Anchal Sharma/CBC

George Ralph, 58, joined a month ago and says it's been a way for him to socialize safely in the pandemic and practise his social skills.

"You know, I've always wanted to know what's back here," he said, walking along McKay Lake in Rockcliffe.

"I mean, you can look at the city map or other things, but to actually get out and see, it's nice."

Anchal Sharma/CBC
Anchal Sharma/CBC

For 63-year-old Kerry Smith, the walking group serves as an alternative to other gay spaces like bars or clubs.

"I'm a single person and my three best friends all moved out of Ottawa in the last three years … so we're only in touch through social media," he said.

Anchal Sharma/CBC
Anchal Sharma/CBC

Joining the group has been a way for him to meet new people and combat feelings of isolation. For others, it's filling a need Johnston says wasn't being met even before the pandemic.

"There's really no place, especially for men of our generation, where you feel comfortable sharing such details with … a non-gay group," he said.

Johnston said other members of the group have been closeted their whole lives, but have come out to the group.

"They haven't told anyone they were gay except for maybe a psychiatrist or a counsellor. And it's just taking them that long to feel safe to come out," he said.

"But here is a place they can come and they just can fit in."

Outdoor activities became even more important during the pandemic — but they are not equally accessible to all. This fall, CBC Ottawa is highlighting some of those who are creating spaces for everyone to spend time in nature… as well as those finding themselves along the way.

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