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.

A fork in the road

Roughly 40 years ago, I thought I knew where I was going in life. I had my path figured out. I was in high school, and I was going to be an aeronautical engineer, so I was taking math, physics, chemistry, and the other subjects I’d need to get into an engineering program.

And then during my final year, my path came to an unexpected fork – I failed a key math course (advanced geometry if you must know). Despite having done well in math all the way to this point, I had hit a level of math that I just could not figure out. Without high marks in all of the math disciplines, I had no hope of getting into an engineering program, so I had to take a decision about where to go. I chose a sharp turn and switched my goal to a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature.

As I progressed through university, I didn’t know where that BA would take me. What do you do with an English Lit degree? Teach? While I didn’t really want to do that, I also didn’t know what else I could do when I graduated. Then out of the blue, a friend at school told me about a great part time job, answering customer calls in a help centre for a bank. I didn’t realize it but applying for that job turned into a major fork-in-the-road life choice, partly because that part-time help desk job eventually led me into a career in software development, and more importantly because the person who hired me eventually became my friend and then my wife.

Looking back now, as I watch my son finish high school and prepare for university, I can see that I eventually did end up more or less in an engineering role, it was just in software rather than aerospace. A call centre help desk led to managing an ATM network, which led to managing problems and changes in a large data centre, which led to developing software and process solutions to handle problems and changes, which led to requirements gathering and project management, which led into general software development, and eventually to consulting in the field of program and problem management.

That’s the thing about choices and life paths. You make plans and choose paths, and sometimes those paths go where you want them to go, but other times they take you in unexpected directions.

When I walk, I will often set off along a particular route or to a specific destination – Sunnybrook Park, or the Lower Don Trail, or whatever. And while most of the time I’ll follow the path I had intended, there will be those odd occasions when life will put a fork in the road. The City is reconstructing a trail, so there’s a detour. I’m getting a blister. A thunderstorm is brewing. What do I do? Going off the trail has taken me into some interesting neighbourhoods I otherwise might have missed.

If every walk was predictable, every path foreseen, would it be fun? Probably not. Deep down, we want our paths to fork unexpectedly every once in a while, as long as it’s not too drastic a fork. Who hasn’t accidentally missed a turn and stumbled across a great little coffee shop, a beautiful garden, or a cool shady park? Those serendipitous finds are part of the charm of a good walk.

And once in a while, as well, the fork will be a big one. A career-changing opportunity to move to a new city? That chance meeting that leads to a new friendship (or marriage)? And then there are the sudden reversals – sometimes the opportunities we lose are the ones that change us the most, rather than the ones we get. And sometimes the paths we don’t chose affect us more than the ones we do. I can never know where we’d be if my wife and I had not chosen to move back to Toronto from London?

What I do know is that when a fork arrives, you have to choose and keep going, wherever that takes you. Pausing and thinking and analyzing and deciding is all well and good, but life doesn’t wait – so pick your path, and go for it. If I’m turned about (never lost, of course!) on a walk and unsure where to go, I’ll pick a direction and just start walking – eventually I’ll come to something and figure it out from there, and like as not, I’ll eventually end up where I wanted to be, at the cost perhaps of a bit of time but with the benefit of learning something new and seeing something interesting along the way. Just as my English Lit degree led to software development, often forks are simply unexpected turns in the path that get you were you want to go by more interesting routes.

So for me, 40 years gone from failing a math course, I could never have foreseen that the fork I chose then would take me to Toronto, point me at software development, lead me to work in London, San Francisco, Sydney, Amsterdam, and Montreal, introduce me to my wife, and wind and meander to the place where I am today. It seemed like a road block then. Looking back, it was more of a lesson – if you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Navigation: The subtle art of not getting lost on your walk

I was walking along a small street near our home the other day, and I noticed that the sidewalks on one side of the street had more ice and snow than on the other. My brain slowly noodled on that and it dawned on me that it was because the south side of an east-west street often gets more shade than the north side. Turning a corner, I realized the same is generally true of the west side of north-south streets.

So putting that together with the knowledge that Toronto generally follows a grid-based street pattern, it occurred to me that little clues like this help me navigate even in unfamiliar places. If I plunk myself down in a random Toronto neighbourhood in January, I can figure out which way is roughly north/south or east/west just by looking at the patterns of snow and ice.

That got me thinking about other clues that help me navigate. For example, in Toronto the general practice is that addresses on the north side of east/west streets and on the west side of north/south streets will be evenly numbered, and the other side oddly numbered. Just walking down a street and looking at the house numbers tells me that if the odd numbers are on my right, I must be going either east or south.

As well, Toronto uses Yonge Street as the major east/west dividing line for many streets, so for example you have Eglinton Avenue West and Eglinton Avenue East. The street numbers reset at Yonge as well, so you can have 100 Eglinton East and 100 Eglinton West. That means that the bigger the number, the farther east or west of Yonge I must be. Similarly, Toronto street numbers often start at the south end of a north/south street, so if they are getting bigger I must be walking north.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are many other navigational clues I use in wandering around Toronto. For example, Lake Ontario forms the southern boundary of the city and is the lowest point in the city relative to mean sea level. So, if I am climbing as I go along a street, I am probably going roughly north. This also means that the many creeks and streams in the city, and their ravines, generally run mostly north/south, so if I just follow the water downstream, I am likely to be partially or mostly going south, and eventually I will come to the lake.

Of course, knowing which way is north or south or east or west means having an internal compass in my head, and not everyone does. So what other clues are there? There are landmarks, of course – in Toronto, the most obvious one is the CN Tower. If I can see it, I know that the downtown core is in that direction. The same is true of the headquarters of the major banks – these skyscrapers are all clustered in the downtown core and I can often make out the skyline from many streets.

Then there are landmarks like the subway and the street car lines – these often indicate which street I’m on. And there are other transit clues, like the buses which display route names that often contain the street they follow (like the good old #6 Bay or the #7 Bathurst buses). The city has also spent the past couple of decades putting up neighbourhood street signs, so just looking at those often tells me roughly where I am.

Beyond landmarks, there are other physical clues. For instance, since I know that the prevailing wind direction in Toronto is from the west, the direction of smoke and steam from chimneys can help me figure out east and west. On sunny days, of course, I can also check the direction of my shadow based on the time of day – if it’s more or less in front of me and it’s early morning, then I must be going west. And if I don’t know the time of day, the length of my shadow is a clue too – the shorter the shadow, the closer to noon it must be since that’s when the sun is closest to directly over head.

The more I thought about it as I walked, the more I realized that living here and walking around, I’ve built up a complex navigational rule book in my head. I don’t need a compass, or a map, or a GPS phone app. I’m comfortable wandering and using that mental rulebook to figure out where I am.

All of that also explains why, in wandering around a new city, I’m usually at least a bit disoriented at first. Because I don’t yet have that mental rule book, I have to fumble and feel my way around. I think it’s that sense of not knowing where you are that at partially explains why you are nervous when you visit a new place.

I’ve found that trying to apply my internal Toronto rule book to a new place can also lead to mistakes. For example, early on after we moved to London I would often get lost, in part because the street pattern doesn’t follow a nice neat cardinal grid like most North American cities, so I’d get myself oriented, for example heading east, only to realize that the street curved and before I knew it I’d be heading north or south, and along the way the street name would change.

On the other hand, getting myself lost is part of the fun of exploring a new city, along with slowly building that mental navigational map as I figure out the clues. It’s like solving a puzzle, and that brings a sense of accomplishment.

All of this realization came, as I say, from noticing that there was less snow and ice on one side of a street than the other. I like that, about life in general. By paying attention to the little details, you can both learn new things and you can come to appreciate that you actually know a lot about something that perhaps you had realized. It’s why I like to go for walks.

What else have I been missing by ignoring the details? I think I need a walk to think about it.

Walk Journal – January 1, 2020

The pond at Earl Bales Park

Where: West Don Valley through Earl Bales Park

Distance: about 7 km, 1.5 hours

Weather: about 0 with a chilly wind, cloudy at first and then some sun

Most years, we try to get out for a walk on New Year’s Day, and this year was no different. I wanted to take Ann somewhere she’d never been, so we drove a short way north up Avenue Road, to the top of the road just north of the 401. Here, Avenue ends in the Armour Heights neighbourhood, and by following Bombay Avenue west a few blocks and then going north up Armour Blvd to West Gate, we parked at the entrance to the West Don Valley trail system.

There had been a bit of snow on New Year’s Eve so there was some ice about but otherwise it was a nice walk. I’ve been through here in summer, so it was interesting for me to see it in winter. As you come down the hill on the trail going east and north, there’s a pond down in the valley at the south end of Earl Bales Park, opposite the Don Valley golf course, and it was frozen over today. The bits of snow, the ice, the grey skies – their dreariness was contrasted by red bursts of colour from the sumac buds, and the deep purple of berries on shrubs.

There were a fair number of walkers about, and we meandered north along the trail deeper into Earl Bales Park. Walking past the ski lifts, I was a bit surprised that no one was skiing, but then again there wasn’t very much snow – a bare couple of cm at best and mostly grass in other places. Still, it always pleases me to see that you can ski right in the middle of the city. Parks like Earl Bales are the reason that Toronto is so livable.

Continuing north, we passed the inevitable dog barks and owners’ shouts near the off leash dog area – I guess on New Year’s Day, all parties need some time out. Continuing north, under Sheppard Avenue along Don River Boulevard, we crossed the West Don River and walked into a little collection of houses in the valley that feels like its own world. I’m sure that 50 or 75 years ago, this was the edge of the countryside, and it felt like that today.

There were planes flying overhead, and some apartment high rise buildings on the skyline, but otherwise you could be miles out of the city.

After a few hundred meters, the road ends and there are trails that keep going north into the Hinder Property. We weren’t feeling that ambitious, so we turned east and climbed up out of the valley on a side trail to Burnett Park, and from there followed the local streets east and south back towards Sheppard Avenue.

At Addington Avenue, we crossed a bridge over a ravine and stopped to read the plaque. It was built in 1966, when the area north of Sheppard Avenue was still outside of the city of Toronto – this was then known as North Toronto Township. It was a reminder of how much the city has grown in just a couple of generations – soon after this bridge was built, the area became the City of North York which was itself part of Metropolitan Toronto, and then in the 1990’s became part of the redefined and expanded City of Toronto.

From there, coming south back to Sheppard, we headed west back over the West Don River to Bathurst Street, and then turned south to walk a couple of blocks back to the upper part of Earl Bales Park, by the community centre. One of Toronto’s oldest remaining homes, the original Bales farmhouse, is located here, built in 1824. Today it houses the Russia Society of Toronto and we were amused to see on the notice board that salsa lessons were coming up soon.

Earl Bales is a big park, and much of it was a farm owned by the Bales family back when this area was well north of the town that was then known as York. Later, when the city extended north to Eglinton, the area of today’s park became a golf course, and in 1975 the city took it over to create the park. Many of the houses in the area date from the 1960’s and 1970’s, really only 50-60 years or so, but there is still a bit of a rural feel in the park and the West Don River valley.

As we walked, I couldn’t help thinking about the rapid growth that Toronto has experienced in the past 75 years, and is still undergoing. People move here from all around the globe (on a different recent walk, we passed through Italy, Portugal, Mexico, and Jamaica in the span of a few blocks of St. Clair West). Those immigrants fuel the relentless push of its boundaries north, east, and west, and it would probably go south too if not for the lake. Despite that push, and the need for housing that goes with it, the City has done a great job holding onto relatively unspoiled ravines, wood lots, meadows, parks, and green space. We need that space, to moderate the concrete and give wildlife some breathing room.

By then, the afternoon was winding down and we were feeling a bit chilled, so we wandered back to where we’d parked. Overall, it was a shorter outing compared to some years, though still interesting in a melancholy way. Can we keep growing, keep building, keep paving, keep thrusting up, and yet keep our green soul? The turning of a new year, a new decade this time, should be a time for optimism, but I couldn’t help thinking about change and the evidence for it that we’d walked through – almost 200 years of history, captured in Earl Bales Park and its surroundings. What would the next 200 years bring?

And yet, despite that thought, the day ended with a fantastic sunset, hopefully a good omen for the city and the coming decade, and also for me personally, for the hiking and trekking plans I’ve got for the coming year.

Here’s to a new decade, new journeys, and long walks. Slainte.

A Year of Walkablog

It’s hard to believe that a year has gone by and I’m at my first anniversary of blogging. Looking back, I’m proud of myself for accomplishing some bucket list goals, like the TONotL walk and the Crossing Toronto walk. I’ve also been able to complete some great walks around Toronto that I’d been wanting to do for quite awhile, like the Humber River walk, and that’s been fun too. And then there have been some especially memorable walks, for different reasons – my change of plans or our wandering around in Bermuda.

It’s also been a period of transition. I’ve been slowing down at work over the past couple of years, gradually reducing my consulting work, and now with the turn of the decade I’m going to take a long pause, possibly a permanent working pause, and try turning my semi-retirement into something closer to full retirement. I’m ready for long walks, multi-day or multi-week, or even multi-month, travels and treks. My bucket list isn’t getting shorter, because I keep reading about this or that trail that I’d like to try, so I want to hit the road and see what I can do.

So the plan for the coming year is more of the same, and then some. Walks around Toronto for sure, and hopefully chunks of the Great Trail, the Waterfront Trail, the Bruce Trail, and maybe others. Long walks, short walks, journeys, treks, and trails. New boots and new gear, and proper hikes with tents and sleeping bags. New posts with new stories. New memories, for sure.

Happy holidays, and may the road rise to meet you.

Following Your Nose

The other day, as I was walking, my mind was noodling along by itself, mulling over expressions that we use in everyday conversation. I’ve been re-reading (for the 5th time I think) Aubrey-Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian. They’re set in the Royal Navy of the early 19th C, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

One of thing many things that sets them apart is O’Brian’s command of the vernacular of the time. While written more than 150 years after their settings, he’s able to immerse himself in the language of the time and put words into the mouths of his characters that their actual contemporaries would have used, especially the many seafaring terms used at the time on a sailing vessel. Phrases likes “batten down the hatches“, “by and large“, or “to the bitter end” all have a naval origin but as they’ve been absorbed into everyday speech their original meaning has been lost to the casual user.

And that made me wonder, what phrases do we use in every day speech that arise from walking and travelling? How about “follow your nose”? When we use this, do we mean it literally?

I know there have been times when I have, literally, followed my nose. I remember wandering and exploring in downtown Kuwait City, and catching the scent of grilled lamb, which lead me through some backstreets to the old souk and its maze of little restaurants where I snacked on shwarma as I continued to wander.

There have also been times when I’ve more or less done the opposite, and followed my nose away from something, like when I’ve been walking near the Beaches Boardwalk in Toronto and caught a whiff of the Ashbridge’s Bay Sewage Treatment facility – it definitely puts some extra humpety into your steps to get downwind in a hurry.

But when we use that phrase, do we mean it literally like that? It’s true that you do actually have to follow your nose since it sticks out on the front of your head, so anytime you walk you’re doing just that. Still, I think we often mean it figuratively more than literally, as something like “it’s right there in front of you so just keep going”.

And then again, I think we use that phrase, to follow your nose, more along the lines of going after something that you know instinctively you really want. Deep down, I have this itch to go on long walks, to see new places and explore, to trek the Bruce Trail or the Waterfront Trail and see how far I can go and what I’ll find along the way. I want to follow my nose and see where it goes.

So follow your nose. It always knows where to point your toes.

Favourite Toronto Walks – Don Valley Trails

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

A great walk in any season, following the Don River north from the lake takes you through some of the best parks in Toronto.

Length: about 13.5 km

Surface: 90% paved with a bit of packed gravel

Public Transit options to get to Corktown include the street car from King Station on subway Line 1, along King to Cherry Street and then a short walk to Corktown. I like to subway to King Station and walk from there to Corktown, about 2 km. At the other end, there’s the Leslie 51 or the Lawrence East 54 bus from Edwards Gardens, which both take you back to Eglinton Station on subway Line 1.

From the south end at Corktown Common, the Lower Don Trail takes you up past several points where you can jump on or off – at Queen Street, Riverdale Park, Pottery Road, Crothers Woods, Don Mills, Thorncliffe, or Eglinton. You can take public transit to or from all of these, or you can find parking in many of the parks. Also the Toronto cycle path network intersects with the Trail at multiple points, so you can jump on/off that way as well.

In addition to starting at a Park at Corktown and ending in one at the Toronto Botanical Gardens, you’ll also travel through or past multiple parks along the way, including Riverdale Park, Riverdale Farm, the Evergreen Brickworks, Crother’s Woods, E.T. Seton Park, Serena Gundy Park, and Wilket Creek Park. Any of these offer shade, benches, and picnic tables, and water fountains and toilets are available from May through October. If you’re walking November through April, there are washrooms and water fountains at the Brickworks and at Riverdale Farm, as well as Edwards Gardens.

I like to start at Corktown Common and go north. Years ago, this area was industrial, rundown, and polluted – I can remember travelling through here at the bottom of the Bayview Extension. Starting in the early 2000’s, the City of Toronto has led a transformation, so that today the new residential buildings are anchored by the green space of the park.

I’ve walked these trails in both directions multiple times, in all seasons. There’s always wildlife – ducks and geese, salmon spawning in the autumn, chipmunks and squirrels, coyotes, deer, raccoons, robins, redwing blackbirds, jays, crows, hawks, and falcons. There’s also the wildflowers, the autumn colours, the spring blooms, and the cool shaded groves, the willowy grasses and the whispering reeds. And of course the burble of the river, especially north of the Bloor Viaduct, is a constant.

There is a downside in the traffic on the Don Valley Expressway, which the trail abuts along the lower stretch, but you leave that behind once you get to E.T. Seton Park. When you walk north, you’re walking from the urban to the suburban, from the industrial to the pastoral.

Also, when you walk north you realize that there is a significant elevation gradient to Toronto. The Lake is at roughly 90 m above mean sea level, so at Corktown you’re just above that. Travelling north you are climbing, and by the time you get to the Botanical Gardens, you’ll have gained almost 100m to about 180m or so above MSL. That, plus the humps over the bridges, will easily get your stair count up.

That said, since the trail is mostly paved and you are climbing gently over a 13 km length, it’s an easy walk. You can stroll it or jog it, and it’s suitable for mobility devices like walkers and wheel chairs, as well as for baby carriages, strollers, and wagons. Just keep in mind that it is a shared path for bikes, so you have to keep an eye out for them.

Finally, there are lots of options for food and refreshment along the way. Near Corktown is the Distillery District, where there are several restaurants and bars. A bit further west from there is St. Lawrence Market, with even more choice. As you head north, there is a good restaurant at the Don Valley Brickworks, and there’s a cafe at the Botanical Gardens at the end of your hike. Or you can do what I like to do, and take a picnic lunch with you and find a spot to enjoy it – a favourite is the fish ladder about 1 km north of Pottery Road where you can sit by the river in the shade.