Crossing Toronto

Since unforeseen circumstances postponed my first attempt at a Big Walk (the Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake journey), I’ve decided to take advantage of a slowish time at work to cross off a different Bucket List Big Walk.

I call this Big Walk the Toronto Crossing. I’ve had the idea for about a year or so, of walking east-west and north-south to criss-cross Toronto. At first I thought of walking west to east along Eglinton or Lawrence Ave and then south to north up Yonge St, because those roads more or less bisect the city north/south and east/west.

But then I had a better thought – Toronto as a walkable city features some fabulous parks and trails, and many of these exist because of the water features that have shaped our landscape. That includes not just the lakefront, but also the many creeks and rivers that flow north/south.

What better way to criss-cross Toronto than to follow the watercourses that define it? By walking west to east across Toronto following the lake shore, and walking south to north following the Don River, I’ll have a much more interesting journey than following rivers of asphalt.

Looking at a map, it’s pretty clear that I’ll cover more than 50 km west to east, and probably 25 km or so south to north, so that means breaking it up into 3 stages. Since the western boundary of Toronto is formed in part by Etobicoke Creek, and the eastern boundary in part by the Rouge River, I am going to make these the starting point in the west and the ending point in the east. Conveniently for my plan, there are rail stations at Long Branch near Etobicoke Creek, and at Rouge Hill near the Rouge River, so that gives me an easier way to get to/from the starting and ending places.

Also since the Don flows into the lake about halfway between Etobicoke and the Rouge, it makes a good half-way spot to break up the west-east stages. It also runs north past the city boundary at Steeles Avenue so that gives me a south-north corridor. Finally, the mouth of the Don is marked by the Corktown Commons, so this park is a perfect nexus to tie the 3 walks together.

Thus the plan: First stage, from Etobicoke Creek to Corktown Common., about 23 km. Second stage, from Corktown to the Rouge River, about 30 km. Finally, the third stage from Corktown north to Steeles along the Don, again around 23 km.

One complication is that given the split of the Don River into the East and West Don branches in the middle of Toronto, I have to choose one or the other to follow. After some consulting of the map, I’ve decided to follow a combination of the two – I’ll follow the West Don from the forks to Sunnybrook Park, and then the East Don from the Betty Sutherland Trail north to the Steeles Avenue city limit. In between these two legs, I’ll follow Wilket Creek for part of it and go urban cross-country for the rest.

Along the way, this 3 day Big Walk will be a chance to test my stamina for the 6 day TONotL Big Walk. It will also let me explore parts of Toronto that I’ve never explored close-up, like Etobicoke and Rouge Hill. While I’ve been to many of the places along the way, and have hiked sections of this Big Walk, I’ve never tied them together. I’m hoping I’ll learn something about the city and get a chance to lots of exercise and fresh air.

So that’s the plan – criss-cross Toronto, get some good walks in, enjoy the sun and summer, and see what I can see. Here goes.

Little Steps

The other day, we paid a visit to my nephew, where we had a chance to catch up with our grand-nephew. He’s about 18 months old now, lively and curious and fun-seeking, a wonderful little guy with blond hair and a chuckling laugh.

While there, I watched him walking about the flat. He’s a bit unsteady of course, as kids can be, but he’s confident in his home, climbing the furniture and crawling under the tables. We played the walk-ride game where a child stands on your feet and holds your hands while you walk. It always brings a smile to both the rider and the ridden, and it reminded me of playing the same game with our son.

Kids learn to walk at their own pace. For our son, it came at about 11 months. We took him on a visit to France, and we stayed at a country farmhouse in the Gard, outside the market town of Uzès. The house had been lovingly restored and had the original flagstone floors in the kitchen and rustic tiles in the living room. Outside there were large shaded patio areas that were covered in gravel.

He was still crawling when we got there, but the rough surfaces soon had him standing alongside chairs and low tables and taking little shuffling steps. By the time we got home, just before his 1st birthday, he was ready to walk having practiced standing for a few weeks.

Life’s like that – people respond to incentives. Little steps towards a bigger goal come from the nudges that nature or parents place in our way. Little steps, like the little ones laughing and toddling into a parent’s outstretched arms. Or little steps like those cramped first strides in the crowd at the start of a marathon. There’s a goal and there’s a start, and there’s the steps to get there. Little steps.

Walking in Summer

The West Don River at Serena Gundy Park

Toronto is a city of climatic extremes. Winters can dip to -30 C, while summers can soar into the mid 30’s. A 6-month swing of 60 C between January and July leaves just a few weeks of middle temps in late spring and early autumn when walking is at its best. The extremes of summer are a walker’s labour, but you have to get out and get through it.

So yes, it gets hot here, and these past few days it has been officially HOT. The City of Toronto declares a Heat Alert when temps exceed 31 C during the day and stay above 20 C overnight, and we’re in one right now. Forecast highs are in the mid 30s and it will feel like 40+ with the humidity.

All of that heat makes walking hot work. There’s no way round it, if you want to go out you’re going to feel it. Just like extreme cold in winter, when it gets this hot you tend to stay indoors out of the sun. Still, you need to get to work, so for me it means leaving early while it’s still cool, cutting across the park to smell the dewy grass.

Eglinton Park at 7:00 a.m. on the way to the subway

Walking in the heat also means dressing for it – loose, light fabrics that breath, hats to shade your nose and ears, and a water bottle to stay hydrated. I’m lucky, the software shop where I’m working is very casual so I can get away with a tee shirt and shorts, though the irony of AC means that I need an extra layer when in the office.

Walking in heat is also a bit of a dance, cutting back and forth across the street to find shade from buildings or better yet trees. It’s also a slow waltz rather than a fast foxtrot. Take your time to conserve energy, and drift from shade to shade.

Summer walks can feel like a desert journey from oasis to oasis, trudging through sun-baked streets to reach parks that have water fountains and shady cool grass, stringing the parks together to reach a destination. Toronto’s park system helps to make that possible, while generations of urban planning has ensured that many streets are lined with mature trees.

Burkes Brook at Chatsworth Ravine

Downtown, however, it’s a concrete heat sink. The buildings, sidewalks, roads, and rooftops suck up the heat and radiate it back out so that even in the shade you feel it roasting you. Getting from the subway to the office for me is less than a 20 minute walk, but that 20 minutes leaves me drenched. No one wants to crowd on the subway, we’re all feeling sticky, so we spread out and bless the AC.

When walking in summer, there are clues to the heat. The silvery shimmer on the underside of maple leaves turned up by hot breezes. Old tongue-lolling dogs slowly shambling to find shade or cool grass upon which to lie panting. Young, trim athletes in skimpy work out gear running in the heat to sweat-shame the lazy and unfit.

And then there are small moments of relief, like passing an open office door to be hit with a blast of AC. Or a cool breeze off the lake finds a path down an alley onto the sidewalk, or a drifting cloud turns off the heat lamp. These little moments of relief remind you that in just a few weeks we’ll be into the autumn and wondering where the summer went. Our summers are short, really only about 8-10 weeks of hot weather, and despite that we moan when it’s hot just as we moan when it’s cold.

It’s a constant conversation topic, the weather, in Toronto and everywhere. Did humans evolve language specifically to moan about the weather? Perhaps it’s not far-fetched to think that “too hot” may have been mankind’s first words. And with climate change a reality, will “too hot” be our last words as well?

Change of Plans

Aerial view of St Stephen’s Green
By Dronepicr (edited by King of Hearts) Edit corrects CA and sharpens image – File:Dublin Stephen’s Green-44.jpg, CC BY 3.0, Link

This week was supposed to have seen me complete my TONotL hike, and as I wrote last week, those plans had to change when we made an unscheduled trip to Ireland for a funeral. It’s meant that this past week has been a mixed bag of walks.

Sunday – walking the strand at Portnoo in Donegal.

One of the secrets of Ireland is that while it’s a northerly climate, and it’s associated with soft rains and green pastures, there are in fact quite a few fabulous beaches. Portnoo is one of them – several km of sand and shallow waters that are perfect for sunning yourself or swimming, if you don’t mind the chill.

Monday – city walking in Dublin, wandering favourite neighbourhoods near St. Stephens Green and Marion Square, window shopping and sightseeing.

The trip had been a whirlwind, and we’d given ourselves Monday afternoon and evening in Dublin to decompress after the emotional visit to Donegal. The sun was out and it was a lovely day, perfect to find a little out of the way pub with some outdoor tables and a pint of Guinness. Dinner was equally lovely, enjoying seafood and crisp French wine at Sole. The stroll through St. Stephens Green after dinner capped off our trip, enjoying the flowers in bloom and watching the other strolling couples.

Tuesday – airports and taxis and a quick stroll around the shops back home to pick up dinner. Welcome back to Toronto summer heat.

Wednesday – since I was off work for the week anyway and had planned to spend it walking, it was off for a tour of Lawrence Park and Bridle Path neighbourhoods and on through Burkes Brook and Sunnybrook Parks.

15km of wandering up and down hills, through cool shaded forest and sun-drenched playing grounds.

Thursday – more hiking, this time the full length of the Beltline.

First west along Roselawn and Castlefield all the way to Caledonia to pick up the start of the Beltline Trail by the Canada Goose factory, and then back east on the Trail all the way through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, down the Moore Ravine into the Brickworks, and then back north up through David Balfour Park and into the Cemetery again to complete the loop. 20 km on an even hotter day.

Friday – yet more hiking, this time down to the lake through inner city neighbourhoods – Whychwood, Christie Pits, Palmerston, Little Italy, Parkdale – and along the Trillium Trail through Ontario Place, then back home through stifling city streets heavy with humid heat.

I passed through several of parks that make Toronto a fantastic place to live – Christie Pits, Trinity-Bellwoods, Coronation Park, and more. Without those green oases, the city would bake in the summer. While they were lovely to walk through, 25km on a hot muggy day wiped me out.

Saturday – after that long day Friday, it was time to take it easy, strolling in the neighbourhood and shopping for new running shoes after wearing out my old pair. It was a day to unwind and let my legs and feet rest a bit.

Overall, I did more walking this past week than I’ve done in any previous week in at least a year, and yet I only did about half of the 160 km I had planned on my TONotL walk. If I’m honest, it would have been a tough challenge to finish that walk as planned, given 30C heat and my evident fitness level despite my training walks. Clearly I need to put in more work so that when I try this in the autumn when the weather will also be cooler, I will be ready for it.

Still, a change of plans isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When life throws up the unexpected, the best path forward is to learn from the experience.

Big Little Walks

Sometimes there are curves in the path that you can’t see round.

This past Friday I was in Ireland, in Donegal Town. I took the biggest little walk I’ve taken in a while, when as a pallbearer I helped to carry my wife’s dear Aunt Nora out of the house to the waiting hearse, then into the church for the service, and finally up the hill in the cemetery to the grave.

My plan had been that on Sunday June 30, I would start my Big Walk from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake but that’s now been postponed. We won’t get home till mid-week and that doesn’t leave me enough time to do the walk I’d planned before I need to be back at work. I guess that will now wait till the autumn.

But more important than those plans was the walk I took on Friday. It was a lovely day, warm and sunny, and the town turned out as we passed walking slowly behind the hearse. I’m glad we came, and that I was able to help on that short little walk.

Over the years, and especially the past few visits, when we were leaving Donegal Nora would always part with the words “I’ll not say goodbye, only farewell”. There’s an Irish saying that’s apt – may the road rise up to meet you. Farewell Nora.

Walking Gear

I’m not one for gear, at least not ostentatious gear like walking poles or fancy boots. I’ve always liked Walking rather than Hiking or Trekking – you don’t need much more than a comfortable pair of shoes for Walking. Most of the walks I’ve described in this blog have been just that – walks, just with some longer than others.

But there are times when a walker needs proper gear, whether it’s footwear or outerwear or packs or water bottles. I’ve written previously about my bucket list of walks, and starting this year I want to try at least one of the Big Walks I’ve been planning. That means it’s time to invest in some proper gear.

As I plan these Big Walks, I’ve realized that I’m going to need certain things:

  • Footwear
  • Pack
  • Walking poles
  • Clothing
  • Support stuff – hydration, rain gear, etc.

Footwear is obvious and it’s something I’ve focused on up until now. Generally I just looked for a good pair of running shoes, but for these long walks which will include significant amounts of trails and off-road terrain, I need a good pair of boots. I have a few criteria for these: good arch and ankle support; well structured/cushioned footbeds; water resistance; durability; comfort and breathability; and room for the custom orthotics I need to wear.

For the pack, I did some research and some thinking about what I will need to carry. It came down to the types of long walks I’ll do – will these be wilderness walks where I’ll need sleeping and camping gear? I’ve decided against that. My long walks will be based around finding accommodation at B&Bs, inns, and so on, so I just need to carry clothes, water, food, and some support stuff. That means a a pack in the 30L – 40L range should work. I also want features like easy access pockets, waist belt pockets, water bottle storage, loops for poles, water resistance, durability, comfort, and light weight.

Then comes walking poles. I’ve never been one who used poles, but I’ve read enough to know that they really make a difference when carrying weight. I want poles that are lightweight, quick to breakdown and assemble, comfortable to grip, adjustable yet sturdy, and water resistant so they won’t rust.

For clothing I’ve assembled quite a bit over the years. I have a collection of light, sweat-wicking training gear, compression socks, light clothes that fold tightly yet look dressy enough for dinner, fleecies, hats, and so on. I’ve also read about the benefits of using natural fibres, especially light silks and merino wools, which wick away sweat yet rinse out and dry quickly, and are good for the environment because they are made of biodegradable materials.

Finally, the support stuff is also important. Hydration for me is just a couple of water bottles which I already have. I find water bladders that go into your pack to be too fiddly to fill and keep clean. I’ll also need things like a compact first aid kit, a blister kit, sewing kit, and eating utensils. Rain gear is a must, especially when I start walking in the UK. And of course, you can always find a use for a good old Swiss Army knife like the one I’ve had for 30+ years.

All that adds up to a significant investment – I have budgeted about $1000 CAD for my gear. I’m hoping it will be repaid in the walks I’ll be able to do more comfortably, and over the coming months I’ll post about the gear I’ve chosen and how it performs.

Walking in the Burbs

Steeles West looking back east towards Weston Road

I’ve been working recently in the north of the city, in fact strictly speaking just north out of the city – Steeles Avenue is the city limit so where I work on the the north side of the street, I’m technically outside of Toronto in the City of Vaughan (the City on Top of Toronto, as a cheeky radio advert had it).

It’s not what I would consider to be a great walking neighbourhood such as you’d find in the inner parts of the city – there are no tree-lined streets, parks, light traffic, houses, schools, or gardens. It’s just multilane wide streets full of heavy trucks and buses and cars, laid out in a grid of light industry, office parks, strip malls, gas stations, fast food, and a strangely dense selection of Italian restaurants.

Nevertheless, it’s also quietly interesting in its own way. There’s lots of little things you notice as you walk around. One is the enticing aroma of fresh baked bread, cinnamon, apples, and spices coming from the Ozery Bakery across from the office. They are often baking in the afternoons as I’m leaving and the scent is maddening when you’re hungry.

Another is the odd numbering on the buildings. On the north (Vaughan) side of Steeles, the office address is 3700 Steeles West. On the south (Toronto) side just opposite, the address is something like 4955 Steeles West. Apparently the City of Toronto starts numbering Steeles from Yonge Street, whereas the City of Vaughan starts further west, probably around Keele, so even though you’ve travelled the same distance from Yonge the building numbers are more than a 1000 apart. Who knew.

Who also knew that the City of Vaughan is twinned with the city of Lanciano Italy? I’d often heard that Vaughan and the community of Woodbridge specifically had one of the largest Italian-born populations in Canada, so I guess that explains it.

And that probably also explains the many little Italian restaurants scattered around the neighbourhood, tucked into office towers and strip malls, and down side streets beside auto repair shops. One of them, the Volce Lounge, features homemade pizza and dancing Wed-Sun evenings – again, who knew?

Another feature of the neighbourhood are the geese. The local population of Canada Geese are numerous, voracious in their appetite for grass, and voluminous in their production of goose poo. It’s everywhere, covering the sidewalks in mini green landmines. Geese are pretty territorial, and there’s one pair that nest near the parking lot of my building – several times one or the other has been sat square in the middle of the carpark entrance, refusing to move and hissing at cars that try to squeeze by. I also saw one perched triumphantly on the roof of a car, which positively glared at the owner when he came out to shoo the goose away.

Because it’s so open and treeless, and because Steeles runs broad and open east-west with the prevailing wind from the west, it’s always breezy and it can be chilly going for a walk. When the wind swings to the north in winter, it slices icily through your warmest coat. In summer the sun blazes on all that concrete and asphalt which soak up the heat and radiate it back at you. Parking lots and road surfaces get treated with salt by the ton in winter, and rain sheets everywhere. There’s a constant roar of traffic, planes overhead, and trains in the distance, and often the bakery smells are drowned by diesel fumes and dust. It’s no one’s definition of a cozy neighbourhood.

And yet, out for a walk this week, with a little sun trying to poke through and the smell of fresh bread in the air, it was pleasantly surprising. You could hear the birds in the bushes, at least on the side streets away from the traffic on Steeles. There were a few people out walking and more sitting at picnic tables outside office buildings gathering in the sun.

Life is interesting, anywhere, and walking around I kept reminding myself that the chief joy of walking is in the pace. That provides the opportunity to notice the little things if you just let your senses (and nose) guide you.

Little Walks

Mozart wrote many pieces of music, including symphonies and concertos – what I like to think of as the musical equivalent of marathons and long walks. He also wrote Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, known in English as A Little Night Music, and it’s one of his better known and much loved compositions.

Then there are short stories, and poems like limericks or haiku, writing characterized by its relative brevity. Painters sometimes produce minutures, and chefs produce starters, appetizers, hors d’ourvres, and amuse bouche. Many artists like to produce work that is compact and brief, and yet offer intensity of experience. Small doesn’t have to mean boring.

Little walks are like little pieces of music, little poems, or little plates – walku if you pardon the terrible pun. We recognize the word “little” sometimes to mean “concentrated” – the phrase “a little goes a long way” comes to mind. A little hot sauce to spike your chili, a little anchovy paste to give richness to your caesar salad. That’s what I have in mind – a concentrated walk. Little doesn’t have to mean easy or light, it just means short or brief or small. Big things can come in small packages.

The point is that sometimes you just don’t have the time or the inclination for a big walk. Little walks are sometimes all you can squeeze in during a busy day – that 15 minute stroll around the block at mid-day to get some air and clear your head. Little walks can be like having a catnap, to rejuvenate and recharge.

Perhaps more importantly, sometimes you want a little walk simply because it’s little. Little walks through new surroundings are my favourite way to explore and introduce myself to a place. Just because it’s a little walk doesn’t mean you won’t learn or experience something interesting, even profound. Precisely because they are little, over a short period of time you can focus more, concentrate, really notice what’s around you.

Recently in Bermuda, we took a little walk through Hamilton, perhaps only 20-30 minutes, and yet we stumbled onto some interesting shops, public art, people watching, and a great little restaurant. That kind of little walk is like the appetizer before the main course, a way of tasting what the place has to offer and then diving in, and that’s what we did – the next day we indulged in a much longer walk covering many parts of the island.

Little walks in the evening, the stroll home from a favourite neighbourhood restaurant or the beachside amble on a hot day, can be magical. That feeling of carefree wandering, of relaxation, of openness to sensations like the breeze on your skin, the scent of newly watered grass, or the sights in a shop window – it’s lightness and calm.

Little walks add up too. 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there and soon you’ve gotten an hour in without consciously setting out to “go for a walk”. In fact I think of very short walks as micro walks. I set my exercise tracker to buzz every hour to force myself to get up and get in at least 250 steps, just to make sure I don’t settle into a chair and remain budgeless for hours. A micro walk around the office is a chance to say hello, stop at a desk for a quick check-in chat, and refill the water glass, all in just a few minutes, and yet it’s enough to ensure I’m connected and active.

Walking is an innately human activity. We’re the only species that routinely walks on two legs. We’re biologically optimized for it. That middle-aged tummy is there because in biomechanical terms it’s the optimal place to for a two-legged creature to carry an emergency calorie supply. Little walks are part of my strategy for keeping that tummy from become too tremendous, stringing brief bouts of exercise together for times when I can’t get in a big walk.

Culturally we often prefer bigness – go big or go home, bigger is better, what’s the big idea?. Bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger meals, bigger anything. Why bigger, though? Or at least, why always bigger? Why not little, sometimes. A little lunch, a little music, a little walk.

Here are some of my favourite little walks, in Toronto and elsewhere:

  • From our home to Eglinton subway in the cool, fresh, sunshine of an early summer morning, across the fresh-cut grass of Eglinton Park
  • From my wife’s aunt ‘s home on Castle Street in Donegal town, Ireland, up around the corner towards the Castle and then into town across the Diamond and down along the quay to the Abbey
  • from the Interpretive Centre in Point Pelee National Park to the tip along the nature trails
  • Along the Mall from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace and continuing on through Green Park to Hyde Park Corner
  • Along the water’s edge the length of Hirtles Beach, outside Lunenburg Nova Scotia

I’m sure I can think of more and one of these days I’ll write up a few of these. Till then, go on, you know you want one – just a have little walk.

Walks in Spring

This past weekend offered two great days for walks in the early spring, and they put in mind a few random thoughts.

  • I was suffering from a spring cold and walking when you can’t breath is like eating when you can’t taste – you lose a vital sensory part of the experience
  • These were great walks to hear the sounds of early spring – the snarling farts of downshifting sports cars out for an early Look At Me (LAM) cruise, the tap-tap-tap of roofers’ shingling hammers, the gentle jazz strum of a busker sitting in the sun, and clink of a baseball on a metal bat
  • I was also serenaded by the Toronto Gardener’s Choir – leaf blowers took the lead accompanied by weed whackers, lawnmowers, and hedge trimmers.
  • Speaking of roofers, I counted 4 houses under renovation along one block in our neighbourhood, a sure sign of spring house fever
  • Despite my cold, I could still detect some of the signature smells of spring – wet wood from the construction sites, dust from unwashed streets, damp earth.
  • It was refreshing to feel the sun on my arms and face, finally warming and not just bright, and bringing out a proper sweat as you walk
  • The colours are faded and tired – poking through the tans, washed-out oranges, drab greens, and dull greys were little wispy promises of warmer weather to come – the whites and yellows and pinks of early flowers climbing up through old leaves
  • People watching reveals those still feeling the cold wearing gloves, hats, and winter coats alongside the its-time-to-get-springy types wearing T-shirts, shorts, and running shoes, not to mention a little boy who popped out of his house in pyjamas and bare feet to run down the drive and then dive in the front door
  • The neighbourhood wildlife scene is dominated by birds – robins and cardinals and little sparrows are impatient and competitive as they hunt for nest material and the early worms of spring

It’s still early April and we’re probably another few weeks yet from steady warm temps, green grass with leaves on trees, and the waft of barbecues in the evening. It was a foretaste and more importantly a spur to get going after a winter when I spent far too many days indoors. Can’t wait to get walking wearing shorts.

World’s most boring 5K walk

Today features my nomination for the most boring 5K walk in the world.

It started with a business trip to Portland Maine. That itself was fine, And even when I got to the airport it went well, sailing through security and getting to the gate in plenty of time. I was in the queue to board, and just about to start down the ramp to the plane when there was an ominous squawk on the gate agent’s radio – “hold boarding”.

And thus began my tedious walk. After an hour and a half it was clear that I wasn’t getting out on that flight and the best one I could make left me with another 5 hours to occupy.

And slowly, slowly, pacing back and forth around the terminal I managed to clock off 5K worth of tedium. Hello tourist tat shop; hello Burger King; hello vibrating massage chairs in the middle of the terminal that no one sits in; hello guy pacing up and down in the opposite direction; and on and on.

Eventually I stepped off the time and got out. I did get a more exciting 5 min speed walk at my connecting city to catch my homeward bound flight, small consolation for a wasted day.

But at least I achieved my 60 min of walking activity for the day, which goes to prove that walkers will walk, wherever and whenever they can.