Walkablog

This is a blog about walking, rambling, hiking, trekking, and getting around. I walk, therefore I have sore feet.

It’s more of a journal than a travelog, and tells my story as I experience it walking. I hope it inspires you to get out and walk about your city.

Still Walking in an Epidemic

When I wrote about taking walks during the COVID-19 epidemic a couple of weeks ago, I knew that social changes were coming, but even so I didn’t that things would change as quickly as they have.

Just 3 weeks ago, COVID-19 was serious but still something that impacted someone else, somewhere else. Now it’s here, in Toronto, and very much hitting home. The city and the province have declared states of emergency. Neighbours and acquaintances are in self-isolation. At least one relative has tested positive for COVID-19. Our parents are tucked up at home and sitting tight. Stores and shops are closed or only offering delivery. Our son is home and is probably done school for the year (thankfully he received early acceptance from Dalhousie University so we don’t have to worry about marks).

It seems that plans are being adjusted and changed day to day. And that’s just the precautionary impact. So far, we don’t actually know anyone who’s been seriously ill, but it feels as if it’s only a matter of time.

So there’s a carpe diem feeling in the air to some extent, which is reinforced by spring fever when the sun comes out and then tamped down and mixed a feeling of uncertainty and doubt, especially when it is gloomy and rainy. You want to keep living and enjoy life, because it appears to be just a matter of time before a full-on city-wide lockdown is declared, or worse, you contract it yourself. At the same time, you know more is coming and that we’re still on the bad side of the curve.

Walking is a distraction in times like these, and of course we’re all feeling cooped up and in need of exercise. For the first time in weeks, I’ve actually gotten out 6 days out of 7 this week. I try to keep my distance from others, so I weave from one side of the street to the other as people approach, or walk in the roadway. There are lots of people still out walking dogs, especially as the off-leash dog parks are now closed, so there are still more than a few people out on the streets, and anyone with young kids at home is trying to keep them active. All of it means that in some ways it’s actually harder to find peace and quiet on a walk, even though vehicle traffic is lighter.

One thing I’ve noticed is that, in addition to the usual flotsam left behind by the receding snow tide, there is a new line of jetsam – latex and plastic gloves. 1000 years from now, will archeologists puzzle over this clue?

It’s quieter though – you can hear the birds, the chuckle of squirrels and the rustle of the breeze in the trees. The air is cleaner too, I have to admit that. Turns out that taking cars off the road makes it easier to breath – who knew! It’s ironic that with petrol cheaper than it’s been in almost 20 years and with light traffic about, now is the time for a road trip, but no one wants to be far from home and meeting strangers.

Will that shrink our horizons? Just a few weeks ago, people thought little of jumping on a plane or in the car and buzzing off to New York or Montreal for a weekend. Now we hunker down within a 1-2 km radius – New York is the other side of the moon right now, and in full lockdown even if we could get there.

So I keep walking, even if it’s just in our flat. I can do 5-10 minutes at a time, pacing back and forth across the living room and doing stair climbs as well, and can get it up to 4,000 or 5,000 steps in a day that way. Mostly I try to go out and walk the neighbourhood, careful to touch nothing on the way in or out (I’m getting good at using my elbow to turn the door handle and my foot to push it open). Our son has put a big sign on the powder room door as you enter the flat, to remind us all to WASH HANDS.

Sign of the times.

Walks in Spring Redux

I’ve walked in the spring before of course, and each year there’s an anticipation to getting out and enjoying some warm weather. The parks and trails have cleared of snow as March progresses, and I’m starting to hear birds as they return. It hit more than 15 C the other day to bring out the early shorts wearers, and the sun is always welcome. So why not get out, go for a walk, soak up the warmth, and get some exercise.

That’s been my plan for the past few weeks, to be honest, but it’s been a slog staying motivated and getting out regularly these past few weeks. The weather has been up and down, with clear days then rainy ones. Paths are muddy and the woods are dreary without their green shoots. We are still a couple of weeks away from buds on trees and the first spring flowers.

But this is a spring like no other I’ve known – the elephant in the room is the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing means trying to limit contact with others, and in our case, we have been self-monitoring because my wife was at a conference recently and at least one attendee has since been diagnosed as having it. We’re fine, and it’s been 11 days now, so I don’t think there’s an issue, but still it makes you think.

My fallback when early spring weather makes a walk unappealing has been to catch some spring training baseball to remind myself that warmth and blue skies are on the way, and I could do that earlier in March but that’s now on hold due to the COVID-19 epidemic.

Thinking about baseball reminds me that, if you are a batter and the pitcher throws 4 pitches outside the strike zone that you don’t swing at, then you get to go to first base with a “walk”. It’s telling that there are different verbs used – you “earn” a walk, or are “awarded” a walk. It’s like it’s a prize.

So for me, spring is the perfect time to “earn” a walk. I earn it by feeling healthy and able to go out, so I can “award” myself a walk as long as the weather gods pitch me some decent weather. Social distancing is important, of course, so choosing where to walk to avoid people is part of the planning now.

But since my energy levels have been low this spring, that’s a reminder that Getting fresh air and exercise is important. I’ve gotten a bit out of the habit of long regular walks so I need to jump back on that horse, COVID-19 or not.

Hi Ho Silver indeed.

Walking in an Epidemic

Everyone has days when they feel better than others, but this is a first for me, experiencing a pandemic. As a history student, I’ve read about previous epidemics, but it’s a different level of knowledge to live it first-hand.

That said, it’s also true that, while serious, this COVID-19 outbreak is nowhere near as dangerous as diseases such as Ebola or Bubonic Plague. It is of course of great concern, and in discussing it as a family, we agreed that this is probably the most world-changing event of my son’s life. He’s coming up on 18 now, and when I think back on it, by the time I was his age the most world-changing event I had lived through was probably the moon landings – equally world-changing perhaps but at least a positive one.

It’s been interesting walking over the past few days. There are fewer people about, and fewer cars on the road. The shops are pretty packed, however – one of the 7 signs of the zombie apocalypse has to be the simultaneous clear-out of both toilet paper and baked beans from grocery store shelves – and there’s a weird vibe. No one wants to get too close to one another but being Canadian we don’t want to be rude either, so there’s a lot of smiles and after-yous as you enter the shops. The epidemic is no joke, to be sure, and taking sensible precautions mades sense, but now with many types of social gatherings being shut down the tendency is to hunker down and stay indoors.

For me, however, I’d rather get out and walk around in the open air, at least as long as I’m feeling healthy. That’s been my plan for the past few weeks, to be honest, but it’s been a slog staying motivated and getting out regularly when it’s grey and damp, slushy and muddy. I’m hoping we get a stretch of at least clear if not warm days, and then I’ll try to head down to the lake and walk in the fresh breeze.

So it’s a time to keep calm and carry on, I guess. While by no means the Black Death, this current epidemic is in its own way a reminder that we owe ourselves the rewards of health for as long as we are able to enjoy it. I’m going to keep going out as much as I can and thumbing my nose at fears and pestilence and that’s my advice – go for a walk in the sunshine and fresh air. Social distancing doesn’t have to mean becoming a hermit.

Favourite Toronto Walks – Cedarvale-Nordheimer Ravines

Part of a series on my favourite walking trails in Toronto.

Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Toronto was growing and like many North American cities at that time, was investing in transportation infrastructure, and in particular in roads, which led to a plan to create the Spadina Expressway. Thankfully, that wasn’t fully built (other than a short section now known as the Allen Expressway), and instead we have the park and ravine trail system that I think of as Cedarvale. It’s a great walk, and I like to extend it a bit and include Ramsden Park as well so that I end on Yonge.

Length: about 5.5 km, around 1.5 hours

Surface: about 50/50 paved and gravel

Public Transit: To start, take Subway Line 1 to Eglinton West-Allen Station and walk south a few hundred meters to the entrance to Cedarvale Park. Finish and the exit from Ramsden Park at Yonge street, opposite Subway Line 1 Rosedale Station.

Route: From the entrance to Cedarvale Park, off Ava Road, walk south following the paved trail. Continue past the Off Leash Dog Walk area and down into Cedarvale Ravine. Follow the gravel trail through the Ravine and exit at Heath Street. Cross the street and cut through the St. Michael’s College grounds past the Loblaws grocery store to St. Clair Avenue. Cross the street and enter Nordheimer Ravine. Follow the gravel trail down through the ravine to exit at Poplar Plains Road. Cross the road, follow Poplar Plains Crescent to Rathnelly Avenue, then turn south and follow it to MacPherson Avenue. Turn east and walk to Avenue Road, then turn south, crossing Avenue at the traffic lights at Dupont, then keep going south on Avenue to Pears Avenue. Turn east and enter Ramsden Park. Follow the paved trail through the park to finish at the park exit at Yonge Street.

Sights: I love this walk any time of the year. In summer, you might be able to watch a bit of cricket at the pitch in Cedarvale Park, or perhaps some baseball in Ramsden. There are often lots of other walkers, joggers, and strollers of all ages, so people watching is fun too. And there are some wild stretches along the ravine trails where marshy ground combines with bushes and trees to create wetland ecosystems full of wildlife in the heart of the city.

Nordheimer Ravine from the Spadina Bridge

It’s also fun to take your time and stroll on this route, because the many park benches provide opportunities to chill out in the shade or bask in the sun and just sit, soaking up the birds and crickets. It’s usually pretty quiet, especially Monday-Friday, so there’s often times when there’s no one in sight as you’re walking the trail.

Finally, there’s history here as well. For example, cutting through the Rathnelly neighbourhood takes you what is known as The Republic of Rathnelly. It got its name in 1967, when a group of residents decided to form an independent republic, as a bit of joke that turned into a semi-serious movement that was instrumental in fighting the Spadina Expressway.

Between late autumn and early spring, the ravines can be pretty muddy, slushy, or icy, and that just adds to the fun. I’ve done this route in all seasons and the changing scenery keeps it interesting.

Food & Refreshment: On Eglinton near the start, there are several restaurants and coffee shops where you can grab a bite before you start. At the finish on Yonge, there are several places as well, so it’s easy to eat and then walk, or walk and then eat. I’ve also stopped at the Loblaws on St. Clair and grabbed a sandwich. Plus, there are several water fountains in the parks, though they are turned off between November – April.

There are public washrooms at the community arena in Cedarvale Park, and in Ramsden Park. You can also use the washroom at the Loblaws.

Diversions: If you’re feeling in the mood for a longer walk, you can keep going past Ramsden Park, crossing Yonge and entering the Rosedale Valley behind Rosedale Station. Follow Rosedale Valley Road down to Bayview Avenue and cross to join the Lower Don Trail. You can then turn north and follow that trail up to the Evergreen Brickworks. If you are feeling especially frisky, you can keep following the Beltline Trail from the Brickworks up through Moore Ravine, through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and finish at Yonge near Davisville Station.

I’ve also done all this in reverse, starting at Mount Pleasant Cemetery and following the Beltline to the Brickworks, then going up Rosedale Valley Road to Ramsden, and on continuing up through the ravines to end back at Eglinton. It’s mostly uphill in that direction so it’s a tougher walk.

Finally, since I live close to Yonge & Eg, you can start there at Eglinton Station, and either walk along Eg to Cedarvale, or better yet, go south to Davisville to pick up the Kay Gardiner Beltline Trail and follow that all the way to the Allen, where it ends. Then just cut south a few blocks through the back streets and you end up next to Eg West station, where you can start the route described above. Doing it that way adds another 45 minutes or so to the route.

Favourite Toronto Walks – Mid-town Cemeteries

Part of a series on my favourite walking trails in Toronto.

Toronto, as you probably know, is blessed by geography in the form of the many ravines that cross the city. Over the years, some of these have been woven into the fabric of Toronto as cemeteries.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is something very calming about walking through graveyards. Since Mount Hope, Mount Pleasant, and Prospect cemeteries are all within a few km of my home in mid-town, I’ve worked out a walking route that takes these in and ties them together with some interesting neighbourhoods and paths. The route is lovely any time of the year, but if I had to pick early autumn is my favourite, when the trees are just turning colour.

Length: about 16-17 km, probably between 3.5 and 4.5 hours duration depending on your pace and exact route meandering through the cemeteries

Surface: about 80% paved; only the Kay Gardiner Beltline is gravel

Public Transit: take Subway Line 1 to Eglinton Station to the start; take the eastbound 512 St. Clair Streetcar at the exit of Prospect Cemetery, to get back to the Subway Line 1 at St. Clair Station

Route: Starting at Eglinton Station, walk north on Yonge Street to Erskine Avenue. Go east on Erskine to Mount Hope Cemetery entrance. Walk through cemetery (I like to bear left – to the north – and walk next to the Blythwood ravine) to the exit gate on Bayview Avenue.

Turn right and go south on Bayview to entrance to Mount Pleasant cemetery (about 2 km). Walk through Mount Pleasant (lots of options for meandering) and pick up the Beltline path markers at the west end of the eastern section of the cemetery. Follow the Beltline markers through the underpass beneath Mount Pleasant Road, and then more meandering options through the cemetery to get to the exit at the north-west corner of the cemetery.

Join the Kay Gardiner Beltline and head west all the way to its end at the Allen Expressway. Turn right and go north slightly, to Elmridge Drive and cross the Allen, continuing across Marlee Avenue. On the south-west corner of Marlee and Roselawn (note Elmridge turns into Roselawn when it crosses Marlee), turn left and go south a few meters to the start of the York Beltline trail. Follow this west all the way to the finish at Bowie Avenue.

Exit the trail and walk east along Bowie to Caledonia Road, then south on Caledonia to Eglinton. Go east a couple of blocks to the northern entrance to Prospect Cemetery.

Meander south through Prospect Cemetery to the south entrance on St. Clair. Turn left (east) and cross the street to catch the streetcar back to Line 1 St. Clair station.

Sights: The best part about this route is the variety of sights and sounds, terrain and trails. There’s the calm orderliness of rows of headstones; the subtle geometry of hills and grassland and trees and gardens; the colours in any season; the scents of new cut grass and flowers, and the food smells amongst the shops along Bayview; the sounds of kids playing, dogs barking, birds singing; the crunch of gravel underfoot.

In themselves, these cemeteries are fascinating time-capsules. The history of Toronto is written in the names on the headstones, and you can piece together the waves of immigration by the names and dates. There are the graves of the famous (former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in Mount Pleasant cemetery) and the humble (the graves of the several different orders of nuns in Mount Hope cemetery).

Tying them together are the trails and streets of mid-Toronto. The Kay Gardiner Beltline Trail and the York Beltline Trail follow the route of the Beltline Railway, which carried goods from mid-town to the terminal stations further south. Bayview is a major road and is the main street of Leaside, one of Toronto’s early planned neighbourhoods that dates back to the 1920s. And of course starting on Yonge and ending on St. Clair puts you into some of the most vibrant areas of Toronto.

Food & Refreshment: There are lots of options at the start and end of the route. I suggest fuelling up with a good breakfast or early lunch in the Yonge and Eg area, where there are many options, ranging from organic juice bars to old school diners to grocery stores. At the finish on St. Clair, a short walk east from Prospect Cemetery takes you into the Corso Italia, where you can reward yourself with a gelato, an espresso, or a beer.

Along the way, the stretch along Bayview between Soudan Avenue and Davisville Avenue is packed with shops, restaurants, coffee stops, and bars, so there’s lots to choose from. The Beltline trails don’t have anything directly on them, but you can duck out at say Oriole Park, or near Castlefield Road, where there are a few coffee shops.

Toilet facilities can be a challenge between November and April. In warm months, there are public washrooms in some of the parks along the way, but these close in the cold months. There is one year-round toilet in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, near the office in the middle, but otherwise you’ll have to leave the route to hit a coffee shop.

Diversions: There are several ways to add some variety to the route.

  1. Walk it in reverse – it’s uphill this way, and it’s fun to end at Yonge & Eg and the shops/bars/restaurants.
  2. Split it up – a good mid-way point is to bail out as you leave Mount Pleasant Cemetery, near Oriole Park. That puts you at Davisville Station on Line 1, an easy way to jump back on.
  3. Exit Mount Pleasant Cemetery through the main entrance in the south-west corner and walk down Yonge to St. Clair. This way you skip the Beltline and instead walk along St. Clair to Prospect Cemetery, passing through the Wychwood, Hillcrest, and Corso Italia neighbourhoods with their shops, restaurants and bars . This lets you finish on Eg, and you can take the bus back to Eglinton Station on Line 1. In winter this can be a better route, especially if it’s muddy on the Beltline.
  4. There are several other cemeteries in mid-town that you can incorporate into the route. There is St. Michael’s Cemetery, tucked behind a gate off Yonge just south of St. Clair. There are also the series of small Hebrew cemeteries along Roselawn Avenue between Avenue Road and Bathurst, just north of the Beltline Trail. Each of these are interesting in their own way, expanding on the story of Toronto as they illustrate the waves of immigration that have made up the city over the past 150 years.

TO Streets – Spadina

Part of a series, walking the main streets of Toronto

One of the streets I wanted to walk in criss-crossing Toronto is Spadina Avenue. It’s interesting for several reasons. For one thing, it was laid out as one of the grand boulevards downtown, where it’s about 60-70 m wide. For another, it’s been a draw for immigrants from around the world for more than 100 years, again especially downtown, where successive waves of newcomers to Toronto have left their mark. And finally, selfishly, it ends close to my home in mid-town, so in walking the length of it from the Lake I am basically walking home.

It starts right down at the Harbour, at Queens Quay, and on a January day it was pretty chilly down there. Come back in June and there will be people everywhere enjoying the sun, but on this day it just looked a bit bleak.

Looking north, the view is even less inspiring, since you are staring at the Gardiner Expressway, which Spadina has to cross under.

Going under the Gardiner, there’s a sense of a lost opportunity – all that land hidden away and under-utilized in a city that needs more housing, more parks, more green-space, more bike infrastructure, more community space. There are plans to do something with this – further west near Fort York there’s a cool new park area – and it will be interesting to see how this evolves given all the priorities the city faces.

From the gloom under the Gardiner, you emerge onto the bridge over the train tracks – quite a lot of them in fact, with many commuter lines leading in and out of Union Station. These railway lands were originally along Toronto’s waterfront, and development over the past 100 years has moved the water’s edge south. We’ve compounded that by allowing a wall of condo towers on the south side of the tracks, so that we’ve cut off our old downtown from the lake. There are ambitious and expense plans to build over the train tracks and create a park connecting the condos to the core – all part of the evolution of the city I suppose.

Finally, north of these barriers past Front Street, you feel like you’re in an actual busy, humming, urban neighbourhood. The area from Front Street north to 1 Spadina Circle near College is packed with shops, bars, restaurants, markets, people, streetcars, bikes, scooters, buskers, hipsters, students, and hawkers. There’s a lot of energy here, whatever the weather.

There are also some interesting little nods to history. Up until about 30 years ago, the area between King and Queen was Toronto’s Garment District, and it’s still known by that name and is commemorated by a giant thimble sculpture at the corner of Richmond and Spadina.

Between Queen and Dundas, you walk through what is still sometimes referred to as Chinatown, though these days it’s a more eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. Further past that, north of Dundas, you pass Kensington Market. This stretch, between Queen and College, is a great place to explore at leisure – it’s often said you can dine around the world in these few blocks. It was inner-city working class for a long time, and over the past 40-50 years has become first seedy, then bohemian, and now more hipster. The venerable old El Mocambo club is still there, and is soon to re-open. When the El Mo gets gentrified, you know the whole area is going that way.

As I was walking through here, I thought of a tune from the 80’s by a group called the Shuffle Demons – check out Spadina Bus and tell me you don’t think it’s catchy.

Continuing north, if you stand in the middle of Spadina at one of the streetcar stops, you get a great view south back towards the lake,

as well as north, towards the old hospital at 1 Spadina Circle that is now the University of Toronto Daniels School of Architecture.

North of Spadina Circle, coming up towards Bloor, you are on the west edge of the U of T campus, where some of the residences present a bold look.

Past Bloor, you keep climbing, subtly at first and then, when you get to the Baldwin Steps, quite steeply. The steps look pretty daunting – I was walking through here one summer day when I passed a bored personal trainer who was working out a poor slob (i.e. a middle aged overweight guy like me), making him do reps up and down the stairs. I thought of that as I slogged up on this day.

But, the view you get looking back south over the city from the top of the stairs is great, one of the best in the city. You can tell yourself when you are standing here that, 20,000 years ago you’d be on the beach overlooking Lake Iroquois which extended to this point – the Baldwin Steps are basically climbing to the ancient shoreline.

And of course, when you get to the top, you’re right next to one of Toronto’s most famous landmarks, Casa Loma. This ornate pile is now owned by the City, and is also home to a schwanky restaurant as well as lots of free events throughout the year. Whenever I go past, there’s always a swarm of tourists taking selfies.

Spadina keeps going north past Casa Loma, and you soon come to the bridge over the Nordheimer Ravine, part of the park/trail system that is today where the infamous Spadina Expressway would have been had it been built. I’m so glad that never happened.

On the other side of the ravine, you come to St. Clair Avenue. This is a residential area, and the gateway to Forest Hill, one of the more upscale neighbourhoods in Toronto. That said, the area around Spadina and Lonsdale is home to Forest Hill Village, a cozy little shopping area that’s just “the village” to those in the hood.

Spadina keeps climbing through here, and the village gives way to more houses and blocks of flats as you progress towards Eglinton. When you get to Eg, it looks like Spadina ends at a T-junction, and a pretty ugly junction at that, what with the Eglinton Crosstown construction underway and an auto repair shop on the corner. But, if you keep going east about 100 meters to Chaplin, you can turn north, cross Chaplin, and find the remaining few hundred meters of Spadina.

The Avenue here finishes its journey with houses on one side and Memorial Park on the west side.

My son played baseball here when he was in little league, and that image stuck in my mind despite the snow over the diamond.

Many times, walking Toronto’s streets is a journey through time for me, and Spadina captures that perfectly. The shops and markets, the Garment District, U of T, Casa Loma, and Memorial Park at the end are all reminders of different eras, personal and civic.

I like Spadina for what it is today as well as what it has meant to our city. It’s a timeline and a time tunnel, and a time-saver for getting down town. Walk it and see.

A Week without a Walk

Sometimes you just feel blah. Call it February blues – I read an article in the Economist, that analysis of song downloads on Spotify showed that month to have the most downbeat tunes. Some call it Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I call it the blahs.

And maybe I should also call it a hangover from walking TO Streets over the past few weeks. My sinuses have been clogged and I’ve had a mild headache for days, since I finished walking Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue. I don’t know if it’s the weather or just the pollution and gunge in the air. It does seem worse in winter, when damp heavy air seems to hold the dust and traffic exhaust and create a grimy blanket that you have to breath as you walk along these streets.

Anyway, whatever the reason, I’ve just needed a break from walking. I know I should be out and getting exercise, but it’s been hard to get motivated. It’s been a long time since I went a full week without at least one proper 90+ minute walk. Resting my knees, feet, and ankles, which all hurt more this time of year, is probably a good thing once in a while. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself.

I comfort myself with the thought that baseball spring training starts soon, followed by my fantasy baseball league’s annual draft, followed by Easter, followed by, I hope, some warmer, drier weather. To be able to walk without having to pull on 4 layers of clothing, trudge through slush, and dodge sprays of melt; to feel a warm breeze and hear a robin – in February these seem a million days a way. In reality it’s just 6 or 7 weeks, so I just need to be patient and get out anyway.

Give me 3 months and I’ll be cursing the heat.

TO Streets – Eglinton

Part of a series, walking the main streets of Toronto

Back in the 80’s, Yonge and Eglinton was known derisively as Young and Eligible, and I was then young, somewhat eligible, and lived in the neighbourhood. I also worked a couple of km ways east along Eglinton, just off of Laird Drive, so I travelled back and forth along it every day. It all means that I have a somewhat nostalgic attachment to Eg, so it was natural that I’d include this one in my tour of TO streets. And in case you’re wondering, many Torontonians know it as “Eg” more than “Eglinton”.

There is also the fact (and I didn’t know this until I looked it up) that Eg is the only major street in today’s City of Toronto that takes you through all 6 of the former boroughs of Metro Toronto – Scarborough, East York, Toronto, North York, York, and Etobicoke. By walking it, I’d get a chance to explore Toronto’s history as well as its present, and that’s the whole point of this TO Streets exercise.

So all that said, I decided to do the walk in 2 halves, travelling out to the east and west ends of Eg and walking back towards mid-town. That way I’d be travelling against the commuter rush in the morning and walking towards home.

I decided to start on the eastern end, and that is at the intersection of Kingston Road and Eglinton, well out into Scarborough.

Since the Eglinton Go Train station is near that intersection, I travelled out to it to start off, but to avoid retracing my steps along Eg, I left the station heading a bit south and east, so that I walked through what is the old heart of Scarborough village and up along Kingston Road to get to the start of my walk. There isn’t, to be honest, very much to look at as you stare west along Eg from Kingston Road.

Still, it was a nice sunny day, so the walk was pleasant. Heading west, I kept thinking of the punch lines to a running joke – you know you are in Scarborough when …. there are more Chevies than Bentley’s; there are more Tim’s than Starbucks; there are more payday loan shops than bank branches; there are more “ethnic” restaurants than “Canadian” ones; and on and on.

You get the point. It’s a place of newcomers and of working class people building a life. Downtown Torontonians tend to look down on the suburbs, and Scarborough is that writ large. It’s easy to turn up your nose at the endless strip malls, but you have to admit that these suburbs are where the majority of Toronto’s population actually lives.

One thing that is absolutely apparent is that it’s a car’s world. The street is wide because cars are how people get around. At the eastern and western ends of Eglinton, the only public transit is by bus. For long stretches, until I was within 2 km of Yonge from the east and about 3 km of Yonge from the west, I was the only pedestrian. This isn’t a place where people walk around, or bike for that matter. It’s mostly open and unshaded, the wind whips and bites (or the sun bakes in summer), and if it had been raining it would have been very unpleasant. As it was, the dust and grit off the road as the traffic flowed steadily, not to mention the mess from the Eglinton Crosstown construction, clogged my sinuses and left me with a brutal headache when I got home. What idiot walks 40km across Eglinton?

After a steady hour plus of walking, I came to the east end of the giant construction project that is the current state of the Eglinton Crosstown. It will provide almost 20km of light rail transit, from Mount Dennis in the west to Kennedy Road in the east, and after living through the first 3 years of the project, I’ll be very glad to see it finish (fingers crossed) in 2021.

It’s necessary of course, it will be great when it’s done, and there’s no way to build something on this scale without mess and disruption. Still, everyone who lives near Eg is getting tired of it.

It also made my walk from the east problematic between Victoria Park and Brentcliffe. In this section, pedestrians are even more of an afterthought than elsewhere – sidewalks on one side or other of the road were closed, and for one 500 meter stretch just west of Don Mills Road, there wasn’t any sidewalk or foot path at all.

I trudged through thick mud along the lane used by the construction equipment in order to keep going, attracting stares from the workers and preparing to jump out of the way if a lorry came by.

Still, there is culture along Eglinton. At Wynford Drive, on the north side of the road, there is the Aga Khan Park surrounding the Aga Khan Museum with its asymmetrical and distinctive glass pyramid roof.

OK, the construction meant that I couldn’t easily detour to get there, and even if there hadn’t been construction there is no easy walking path to it off of Eglinton (all hail the car!), but it is a wonderful place and well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

One other cultural feature of both east and west Eglinton, and one that reinforces the downtown hipster stereotypes about the suburbs – the only 2 bowling alleys I can think of in Toronto were the two I passed along Eg in Scarborough and in Etobicoke. Surrounded by parking lots and fast food joints, they are exactly what hipsters find so amusing about these areas.

I finished my walk from the east coming through the Yonge & Eg mid town intersection. With the sun pouring down on a January day, it was quite pleasant in a noisy, messy way. It’s like when your child destroys the house when they are playing – you know it’s healthy for them to play, you love it when they laugh, so you put up with the mess and join in rolling on the floor.

A couple of days after walking Eglinton East, it was time to do Eglinton West. At this end of the city, my starting point was Centennial Park at the City boundary at Etobicoke Creek. While this is the official western edge of Toronto, Eglinton keeps going west from here deep into Mississauga.

My wife was kind and drove me out to the park, saving me an hour on the bus, but it was a grey day for a long walk. There had been a little dusting of snow overnight, and walking through the park was quite pretty, with just a few squirrels skittering through dried leaves.

I came out of the park onto Eglinton at Etobicoke Creek. Looking south, over the creek and the park, you’d never guess you were next to Canada’s busiest airport and busiest roads.

But looking back east, toward Yonge, was a bit daunting – the road rises out of the creek valley, and just keeps going and going.

As I set off, I was startled to see that I was at about 5500 Eglinton West. Since Eg East ends at 3500 and that had taken me 3+ hours to walk, I realized that I had a long way to go from this end. And for the first 2 hours, that’s what it seemed like. There is a bike path along Eg at this end, but there was very little foot or bike traffic – just me and the cars.

Years ago, in the early 90’s, we had lived near Runnymede and Annette in the Bloor West neighbourhood. I had a consulting gig then which took me to Montreal a lot, and the quickest drive to the airport was up Scarlett Road and then west along Eglinton. I thought of that as I was walking, because Centennial Park is actually a bit west of the airport, and I always think of the airport as being west outside the city, yet here I was still in Toronto. It reinforced the fact that Toronto covers a lot of area – 800+ square km.

I was also struck by how much this area had changed. 30 years ago, Eg West took you through open fields and meadows. Now, it’s lined with townhouses and condo towers. The old Plant City nursery near Jane is now closed, soon to become more condo’s I assume.

And meanwhile Eg goes on and on. There isn’t a lot of scenery out here – it was just houses, condos, apartments, and the occasional strip mall.

There was a little scenic break when I crossed the Humber River near Scarlett Road, and that reminded me that this is where I had stopped when I walked up the river in the autumn. I need to come back to this spot and keep going north, sometime this spring.

East of the river, as you climb towards the Mount Dennis neighbourhood, you come to the construction site at the west end of the Eg Crosstown.

There are some hills to climb here – and by the way, walking the length of Eg across the city means you traverse the valleys of the Don, the Humber, and Black Creek, so you are climbing a lot. According to my fitness tracker, I did the equivalent of 160+ flights of stairs over the 2 days.

The climb up the hill to Mount Dennis is also the exit from the residential stretch of Eglinton West – from there to Yonge, the street becomes narrower and more densely packed, with with actual shops rather than strip malls and stretches of houses amongst the condos and apartments.

I kept trudging through here, because soon I passed the Allen Expressway exit, and was into the home stretch through the Upper Village. This is my ‘hood, and I know the area well. Eg is busy here, both with the everyday commerce of any big city as well as with the ongoing construction, so that the walk back to Yonge and Eg requires a back and forth shuttle from one side of the street to the other given closed footpaths.

I finished up at back at Avenue Road, with a little bit of snow just starting to fall. The day was starting to wind down, having taken 4+ hours to walk Eglinton West, and I was glad to get home and reflect on the walk.

One strong impression was that it’s a long way across Toronto, 40 km or so. It’s also a long way across the history of Toronto. Eglinton East in Scarborough calls the 1950s and ’60s to mind, the worship of the car, the development of strip malls and the Golden Mile, and low density housing spread out over wide areas. A big old 1962 Caddie with tail fins still wouldn’t look out of place here.

Eg West is a bit newer – the condos are only 10-20 years old, so it’s more of a ’90’s and ’00s kind of place that calls a Humvee to mind. It’s still about cars with its multiple lanes of traffic, and there’s a feeling of begrudgement in conceding some small sliver of space for pedestrians – “oh I guess we have to build a side walk but hey who’s going be dumb enough to walk out here!”

What’s more subtle and yet for me stronger, is the sense of Eglinton as a cross cultural slice of Toronto’s diversity. All those apartment blocks and condo towers are full of 1st and 2nd generation Canadians. They want their tastes of home and so there’s Jamaican, and Bengali, and Mandarin, and Persian, and Afghan, and Syrian, and lots of other “ethnic” restaurants (and by the way, what’s an “ethnic” restaurant anymore? Is that even an appropriate term? Maybe I’m dating myself with that term, perhaps a culturally-specific restaurant is what I mean.)

And then there are thrift shops and money transfer outlets, used car lots, bus shelters, Tim Hortons, and community centres. There’s energy and multi-generational families and playgrounds along with gas stations. There’s new development, renewal, and regeneration. There’s investment and the sense that these were in the 1960’s and 70’s and now are again “up and coming” neighbourhoods. You can’t help but feel that they represent what Toronto is, as much or even more so than the glass towers downtown.

The neighbourhoods strung along Eg – Mount Dennis, Fairbank, Oakwood, the Upper Village, Leaside, Don Mills, the Golden Mile, and Scarborough Village – are for me some of the jewels in Toronto’s necklace. They represent what I’m most proud of in my country – the opportunity we provide to start a new and better life.

Yes, Eglinton also illustrates some of the things that I am not proud of – the traffic and pollution and over-consumption, the racism, the poverty – but I keep seeing the gleam under the grit, the hope in the toil, and the future emerging from our past.

I like Eg. It’s Toronto. And that makes it fun, even if my sinuses are clogged with the dust of this walk.

TO Streets – Yonge

Part of a series, walking the main streets of Toronto

If I am going to write a series of posts about walking the main streets of Toronto, of course I have to start with Yonge Street. My centre point for these walks is the intersection of Yonge & Eglinton, and there’s a certain anchoring that Yonge provides to Torontonians – you’re either an East-of-Yonge or a West-of-Yonge person. And then again, there’s a personal attachment to the street, having lived in a condo with a Yonge Street address, worked at an office on Yonge, and walked parts of it many, many times over the past 40 years.

Back in 1970, a film called Goin’ Down the Road was released, and it’s become an iconic statement of, in part, how the rest of the country sees Toronto. Back in the early 1980’s, SCTV did a spoof of the film (“We’re going to Yonge Street!”), and it’s still funny today – wow do John Candy & Joe Flaherty look young! – and I couldn’t help but recall it as I started out on my walk.

The street starts at Queens Quay at Toronto Harbour, and on a cold January day there was ice to remind me that there’d be a wind-chill as I walked north. It was grey overhead, and hardly more inviting as I stared north towards the underpass below the Gardiner Expressway.

Walking north along Yonge from the lake isn’t really a pleasant walk, given the traffic, the gloomy underpasses, the noise, and on this day the mud and slush. It’s uphill of course, as the city rises away from the lake. In fact over the length of my walk, I climbed from about 76m above Mean Sea Level at Yonge and Queens Quay to almost 200m MSL at Yonge and Steeles.

That led me to think that for Torontonians, “downtown” literally means “down” town. If you ask the average person, they’ll probably say that Downtown is between Front and Bloor. MidTown is roughly around St. Clair up to Eglinton. Uptown is more variable – to me anything north of Sheppard is above the tree line, but if you live up at Cummer then Sheppard is probably like your downtown. And all of this is measured, for the most part, based on where you are along Yonge. You can be on King Street, for example, but if you’re more than about 500 m east or west of Yonge, then you’re not “Downtown” – you’re in the Entertainment District maybe or Corktown, but that distance from Yonge is the key.

One of the things you notice as you walk north is that, downtown, the subway stations are only about 5-6 minutes walk apart (King to Queen, Queen to Dundas), but as you go north they get farther and farther apart, so that by the time you are at Lawrence, you’re a good 30 minutes walk to get to York Mills. That compression of distance is, I suppose, appropriate – it’s more densely packed and there’s that big-city-downtown feel you get.

I couldn’t help but notice how much is changing along Yonge. We have a thing in Toronto for faux preservation, where new buildings retain a portion of an old one as a facade, to give the illusion of preservation. At Yonge and Alexander there’s a good example, where the venerable clock tower of an 1870’s fire station will be incorporated into a new condo.

I noticed, as I continued along, that one of the things that contributed to that gloomy feel, besides the grey skies and slushy streets, was the fact that most people seemed to be walking with their eyes cast downwards. For every person looking straight ahead and catching your eye with a twinkle, there would be several either looking at their feet or looking at their phones. In any big city, people scurry about lost in their thoughts, but when the sun is out and there’s a warmth in the air, people seem to look up more. They’re more engaged in their surroundings then. On this day, the gloomy skies equalled gloomy expressions. Oh, for spring to arrive.

Another thing I noticed is the street numbers. I started at #1 Yonge Street, and walking north, the climbing numbers mounted with my steps. In fact, if you pay attention moving about the city, over time you’ll get to know roughly how far north along Yonge an address is based on the numbers. Anything below 1000 is south of Bloor. St. Clair is at about 1600 Yonge, Eglinton is at about 2400, Sheppard is around 4000, and all the way up at Steeles you’re at about 6400. The numbers keep climbing north of Toronto, and go up into the 12,000’s by the time you get up to Richmond Hill. As you’re walking up Yonge, if a cold north wind is in your face then it feels like the numbers equal the icy heights you’re ascending.

Walking north, while you are mostly climbing the whole way, there are some dips as well. Between St. Clair and Eglinton, then Eglinton and Lawrence, and finally between Yonge Boulevard and Sheppard, you cross the ravines of Mud Creek, Burke’s Brook, and the West Don River. The latter is especially steep,

descending almost a 100m into Hoggs Hollow as you cross the Don,

and then climbing fairly steeply towards Sheppard.

I’ve walked lower Yonge before, between the lake and Eglinton, and living in mid town means I’ve ranged up as far as York Mills. I’ve never done the upper part of Yonge however, north of York Mills, so it was new to me to walk through here. I was surprised to find, at about Cummer, that there is a small cemetery on the east side of Yonge, that dates back to the mid 1800’s.

When I looked it up after my walk, I learned that this was established by the Cummer family, who settled in this area in the 1820’s. It was a reminder of how this area was the market garden that fed Toronto, right up into the 1940’s, back when it was known as Willowdale.

Today, however, it’s about as far from a pastoral setting as can be – it’s just a wide canyon of condo towers, designed for cars and packed with fast food restaurants.

That said, it’s interesting to see Toronto’s melting pot expressed in those fast food restaurants. I passed Italian, French, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Turkish, Lebanese, Syrian, Persian, Indian, American, and of course the uber-Canadian Tim Horton’s along the way. As you go north, the residents change from multiple-generations-in-Canada near Rosedale to just-arrived-and-sinking-roots above Sheppard.

When you do get to Steeles, there’s a bit of an anticlimactic feeling, because it doesn’t look any different on the north side of Steeles, in Markham, as it does on the south side, still in Toronto.

It’s a car’s world up here. There are some people walking around, but mainly this is laid out for cars. How it will evolve over the next 20-30 years will be interesting. I’d love to see the sidewalks widened, bike lanes expanded, street furniture and trees installed, and an actual pedestrian feel introduced. Whether we get there soon or not is up in the air. This area is, like it or not, more representative of Toronto than, say, Dundas Square. Turning the downtown into a walker-centric space is one thing, but I’m not holding my breath that areas like Yonge & Steeles will look like that any time soon.

Still, breathing in scents of auto exhaust mingled with BBQ duck, flavoured vape, and frying onions; reading shop signs written in Korean, Mandarin, Persian, and Hindi; overhearing snatches of conversation in a dozen languages; feeling the energy – it’s what makes Toronto dynamic. We are a melting pot, and people still want to go down the road to Yonge Street. We look different today than in the 1970’s, let alone the 1870’s, and in 50 years time the 2070’s will probably still see the energy of Toronto expressed along Yonge.

TOStreets – Walking the City

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to keep my walking boots busy over the winter while at the same time avoiding the same-old, same-old paths I’ve walked many times already. It came to me, as I was out for a walk (of course), that the thing to do was walk the streets of Toronto.

That sounds perhaps a bit of a cliche, walking the mean streets of the Big Smoke, but that’s not what I had in mind. As I thought about, my mind revolved around the idea of some of the major streets in Toronto, and doing it in a way that could fit into some sort of pattern. Instead of random walking here and there, I wanted to find a way to organize my walks, and I realized that Toronto’s east/west grid system lends itself perfectly to my plan.

As it happens, I live pretty close the middle of Toronto. The intersection of Eglinton Avenue and Yonge Street, is only about a km from home, so I can use that as a starting point to anchor my walks while I explore the major streets of Toronto.

So, that’s my cunning plan to make my winter walking more interesting. I can walk Yonge Street, from the Lake to Steeles, and Eglinton from mid-town to its east and west end points. And I can use Yonge & Eg as a transit jump-off, and head to other streets like Dundas, or Finch, or Bathurst, or Lakeshore. By following these, I’ll criss-cross Toronto and wander through the many neighbourhoods that make up the city, and along the way get exposure to the diversity of cultures in our mosaic.

I reckon winter and spring are good times to do this, since it would be baking hot in July. I’ll pick decent weather days and chunks of the city that will keep me occupied all day. I have about 3 months till April, and then we’ll see what the weather looks like for trail hikes outside Toronto.

I’m going to call this project my TOStreets plan, and as I complete each section I’ll update a map to show where I’ve been.

Hey Toronto, here I come.