Walks Past – Don River Trails, May 2018

In the spring of 2018, I was settling into semi-retirement – actually more retirement than semi. I spent my time walking, doing the shopping, cooking, and catching up on my reading. I was also mapping out some longer walks to explore Toronto, and decided to take 2 days and hike the trails along the East and West Don Rivers.

In the past I’d walked south along the East and West Don and the Lower Don, from Sunnybrook Park down to the lake. I had never, however, gone up the East or West Don north from Sunnybrook Park. Looking at a map, the first challenge was picking routes – there are no trails along both branches of the river for several inaccessible stretches due to private ownership of land. That meant I had to plan how to get around these while walking as much as I could through the public parks that surround the river, especially north of Sheppard Avenue. The East and West Don rivers actually extend north of the city proper, but this walk was about trails in the City so I wasn’t going north of Steeles.

As a result, I decided to go north up the East Don jumping off from the Betty Sutherland Trail south of Sheppard and hiking on up past Finch Avenue to the Finch Hydro Corridor park, which runs east-west for 20+ km across the top of Toronto between Finch and Steeles Ave. From the East Don at the Hydro Corridor park, I would go west over to Yonge Street and then subway home. That way, the next day I could subway back to Finch and pick up where I’d left off to go west on the Hydro Corridor to connect with the West Don River at G. Ross Lord Park and walk down that back to the residential area around Armour Heights (Wilson Avenue and Avenue Road). By splitting it up, it meant I’d walk around 20-23 km each day and around 45 km in total.

Once I had decided on the route, I just had to wait for a couple of nice days, and I found them May 23-24. Preparation was simple – a lunch, some water, and a light jacket each day. My walk took me through a series of Toronto parks:

Part of the fun of this walk was that it covered a gorgeous pair of spring days – sunny skies and low 20’s, perfect for walking. We had a bit of a late spring that year, so the early flowers and spring wildlife were still in full form – walking through marshy areas and listening to the chirping frogs and calling birds was a highlight.

It was also a chance to explore parks that I had never visited, especially to the west of Yonge. G. Ross Lord and Earl Bales parks, in particular, are huge and varied in terrain – meadows, forests, hills, flats, lakes, ponds, marshes, and rivers. They are great examples of the City of Toronto’s Parks Department boast, that we live in a “city within a park”. G. Ross Lord is worth a day all by itself – if you like cricket, it has several pitches plus training facilities that let you play or watch to learn more about the game.

The other side of the coin for a walk like this was the sense of frustration that fabulous resources like the Don river valleys are inaccessible in many places because of private development, especially golf courses – the Rosedale Golf Club, Don Valley Golf Course, Flemingdon Park Golf Club, and Donalda Golf Club all block the opportunity for continuous trails along the East and West Don rivers.

These golf courses date back prior to WW2, when the lands north of Lawrence Avenue were being developed residentially and there were still many areas of farmland up to Steeles Avenue. Wealthy golf clubs could buy land in the river valleys that wasn’t suitable for houses, and yet be conveniently located within city limits.

These clubs today sit on highly valuable land, and even though golf seems to be declining in popularity it would be naive to think that the City of Toronto could easily afford to buy them for public use, with so many competing demands on the tax payer’s purse. Still, since one of those golf courses is actually owned by the City (the Don Valley Golf Course), it would be great if the West Don Trail could be extended through it to connect Earl Bales Park with Jolly Miller Park at Hoggs Hollow.

After that, it’s a stretch I know, but perhaps the private golf clubs could be persuaded to open trail access through their properties to complete the chain of trails through the many public parks along the East and West Don. I’m all for respecting property rights, and I’m not saying they’d have to sell the land – just provide a right of way for a trail along the river through their property. Surely course designers can figure out how to allow play while providing mixed use trails.

Despite the frustration, walking the Don in all its forms is one of the highlights of trail walking in Toronto. For many years, the Don was either ignored and industrialized, or segregated and cut-off from public use. It’s only in the past couple of decades that Toronto has woken up to the fact that we have a tremendous resource available to us, and that combined with the Humber river system to the west and the Rouge River to the east, we have a chance to see what the land looked like before the city took shape. Walking Toronto along these trails really means you’re not walking in the “city” so much as walking through the forests that are the lungs of the city.

Turtle day!

If you have chance, walk at least part of the Don. It’s as much a part of the City’s history as any of the perhaps more famous parts like Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Casa Lima, or the Brickworks, and we take it far too much for granted. Hike it, bike it, walk it, stroll it, or run it but one way or the other use it.