Walking the Humber

Over the past couple of years, I’ve walked the Don River many times, and recently I walked the lakefront as part of my trek across the city from Etobicoke Creek to the Rouge River. On my list of walks in Toronto, there was one, however, that I had never done – walking the Humber River. Late this past summer, in early September, I decided to scratch that itch.

The Humber rises well north of the city, and flows through western Toronto from the city boundary at Steeles Avenue and down to Lake Ontario. Like the Don River, there is a well-laid out trail system and a series of parks that let you walk most of its length, and also like the Don there are also a few private areas like golf courses that force some detours.

I started my journey at the Lake, in Sunnyside Park, which is on the east bank of the river. The boardwalk here leads directly to the Humber Bay Arch Bridge.

On a Sunday in early September, it was crowded with walkers and cyclists. I followed the Humber Trail path which starts on the west bank of the river at the Sheldon Lookout. The river is quite wide here compared to the Don – the Humber is actually a much more substantial river than the Don is in terms of water volume, and at the mouth of the river on this day there were a couple of canoeists out as well as a guy on a jet ski heading out onto the lake.

The path at the mouth of the river heads straight north, and takes you under the Gardiner Expressway and the adjacent Lakeshore Boulevard. You are right beside the river and there are marsh areas full of waterfowl on the eastern bank, but the traffic noise and the dark tunnels under the roadways take away any sense of the natural environment. It’s a relief to clear those and emerge into sunshine, and within a few hundred meters you’re back amongst the trees.

Walking north, I passed a mural painted along a fence by the Humber Water Treatment Plant. It was done as part of the Toronto Street Art project by Anishinaabe artist Philip Cote, and it explores different themes from Anishinaabe culture in a street-art/graffiti kind of style. I was struck by the vivid imagery, and it reminded me that the Humber was part of the transportation network of rivers used by the First Nations peoples who lived here prior to the immigration of Europeans.

The land where the City of Toronto is now was settled by First Nations peoples for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The name of the city itself, Toronto, comes from the Mohawk language. And yet, while we rightly celebrate the cultural diversity of Toronto, we always seem to do it in terms of the global melting pot – we talk about the United Nations of Toronto and we seek out restaurants and foods from dozens of cultures outside of North America. We rarely, however, talk about the other nations that were already here when Europeans first arrived – the Mohawk, the Seneca, the Algonquin, the Ojibwe, and others. There are many clues to this history scattered about the city in place names, street names, historical plaques, and now this mural, and for the rest of my walk that day along the Humber, I mulled over this vital part of our history and asked myself why we take it for granted.

Pre-colonization, and early in the colonization period, in the 1600’s and 1700’s, the Humber River formed part of the canoe route from the Great Lakes into the interior of the province of Ontario, helping to connect Lake Simcoe to Lake Ontario along what has become known as the Carrying Place Trail. One of the first Europeans to travel along the Humber, at least according to a somewhat murky history, was the Frenchman Etienne Brule, and so today there is Etienne Brule park along the river. I had forgotten about that part of the city’s history – as Yogi Berra said, you can see a lot just by observing.

Continuing north from the park, the Humber Trail goes up the east bank of the river in this section. You soon pass the first of several fish ladders that have been added to the river. These small dams help with flood control, and since the river is part of the Lake Ontario salmon run, the fish ladders help them as they head up river to spawn.

I kept going, on the lookout for a quiet spot to sit for lunch, and around Magwood Park I found a nice bench overlooking the river beside another fish ladder, a perfect spot to stop for a bite.

It was a coolish day, but nevertheless I had worked up a sweat on my hike, so when I stopped for lunch I had to put on a jacket. It was a reminder that late summer would soon turn to early autumn.

After that pause, I kept going north. I had had thoughts of going all the way up to Steeles Avenue, but part way along I changed my mind and decided to aim for Eglinton Avenue. The Humber Trail keeps going north and I could have caught a bus and gotten home from Steeles that way. Instead, by turning east at Eglinton I could cut through back streets to pick up the York Beltline trail and walk all the way home.

Between Magwood Park and Eglinton, you cross the river to the west bank, near Dundas Street. As I walked north, I was struck by how much quieter it was along the Humber compared to walking along the Don. I didn’t miss the constant traffic on the Don Valley Expressway. Instead, the wider Humber river flowed between shaded river banks with marsh areas attracting many herons, geese, ducks, and gulls.

I was really enjoying the walk and was disappointed to realize that I’d come to Eglinton after only about 2 hours. I didn’t want to leave the river, but by this time I also realized that the new running shoes I was breaking in had led to a hot spot on the heel of one foot. That confirmed that here was where I’d have to start heading back home. I crossed Eglinton and took one last picture of the Humber as it flows under that busy road.

The walk home from this point was a different kind of adventure altogether. After the peacefulness of burbling water, I was back into traffic and city streets. I didn’t want to walk along the busy Eglinton Avenue, so I skirted north aiming for Tretheway, so that I could cut through the Mount Denison neighbourhood and cross Black Creek Drive and Keele Street.

As I walked up and down the hills in this area, the hot spot on my heel turned into a full blown blister. Stubbornly, I decided to tough it out and kept walking. I told myself if it got really bad, I could just jump on a bus and let the TTC get me home, so I gritted teeth and kept going.

When I reached the York Beltline, near Caledonia Road, I knew I had about 45 minutes of walking to go so after a short break to catch my breath, I set my mind to ignoring the blister to see this through. I was limping by now, but I didn’t want to quit. Each one of those 45 minutes seemed to take about 90 seconds instead of 60, but slowly I got closer to home. It was a relief to finally reach our flat and take off my shoes to survey the damage. There was a raw patch on my heel, and that night I resolved to always carry a blister kit in my pack.

Once home, and out of my shoes, I reflected on the Humber. I think I prefer walking along it compared to the Don River, because of the traffic noise that can overwhelm you along the latter. I definitely would like to keep going and walk the whole length of the river within the city boundaries, and the cool thing is that if you keep going north of Steeles, there are trails along the Humber that continue north for another 10 or 20 km. I need to add that to my bucket list, so that I can say that I’ve walked the length of the Humber.

But that’s a trip for another day.

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