Walking for the Long Term

Recently, my wife and I had dinner at the home of a work colleague, where we met his wife as well. I’ve worked with him for a number of years but hour respective spouses had not met us or each other. You go into these social situations with a bit of nerves because you want to hit it off but you’re never quite sure. In this case, it was great – a simple, tasty yet slow meal, enjoyed while sitting for hours at the table chatting till midnight.

I thought of that as I was out for a walk the next day. The pleasure of a simple meal, good chat, laughter and smiles. I like simple things, and I like enjoying them at leisure, like reading a good book for hours of an evening while sipping on a whiskey in front of the fire. And I like long walks, for similar reasons – they’re simple, and yet they are savoured slowly, providing ample time for uncluttered thought. Over the space of several recent walks, on grey and glooming November days, I mulled over some recent news items I’ve seen recently.

The first one was about an announcement by the Ontario government, for a plan to build another major highway and then later for a different proposal to widen one of the major highways in the west end of the Greater Toronto Area. These projects have been mooted for years, and there’s a debate about whether to go ahead with their construction. The argument for is that traffic loads have increased so that more roads are needed to reduce congestion and delays. The argument against is the opposite – that building more roads just increases their supply which effectively lowers the price of driving (i.e. congestion delays) thus creating new demand that soon results in new congestion and delay. In other words, increasing the supply induces demand by reducing price – a basic piece of economics. This might also be phrased as “if you build it, they will come”.

Another recent thought-provoking news item was about Artificial Intelligence (AI). We’re heading quite quickly into a world where AI can power transport. Likely within the next 10-20 years, as cars become more autonomous, AI systems will improve traffic efficiency – in other words more cars can use existing roads. Taking humans out of the equation will also help us reduce and then eliminate the impatience and selfishness that leads to shake-your-head silliness like driving on sidewalks (which really happened recently just a few blocks from where I live).

At the same time, young people do not seem to be driving as much as their parents did nor seem as interested in owning a vehicle (based on a sample size of 1, our son, in mid-town Toronto). Plus, jobs are changing, so that we’re much more able to telecommute rather than physically commute. And then there’s the retirement of the boomer generation (which grew up with cars), and their workplace replacements see less need to drive, especially as public transit improves. All these trends argue that at the very least, traffic patterns are likely to change, if not reduce in volume.

On top of all of this there’s climate change, the cause for which the overwhelming weight of evidence points to carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Cars, and other forms of transport (trucks especially), are one of Canada’s largest sources of carbon dioxide, especially when you take into account the extraction of oil, its transportation, and its refinement into fuel. Adding to that, remember that building roads by itself generates a lot of CO2 emissions – making cement for concrete is an energy-intensive process largely fuelled by natural gas, and asphalt is held together by bitumen tar which comes from petroleum.

So the notion of building more highways, now, at this point of the 21st century, seems like a reactive response to a “today” problem based on the practice from 20 years ago, rather than a proactive response to head off anticipated problems 20 years from now. In other words, it’s backwards-looking decision making. Between advances in AI, changes in demographics, and the need to respond to climate change, it would seem to make more sense to invest the billions of dollars a new highway will cost into better public transit and urban planning.

All that seemed clear to me as I turned over these thoughts on my walks. And then, shortly after the announcements about these highway projects, I saw a much less publicized article about a plan to improve and expand the Waterfront Trail sections near the Scarborough Bluffs, an area through which I had walked this past summer and about which had thought at the time that it was both spectacular and under-utilized. Hallelujah I thought – induced demand strikes again. If you build trails and parks, then walkers will appear.

And that led me back to why I walk. Walking is a simple and self-contained activity – it needs no real equipment or practice, it accomplishes a goal, it requires minimal infrastructure, and it benefits both the practitioner and their fellow citizens. Long term thinking about walking abounds – there is an abundance of urban planning studies, social studies, and practical evidence that making neighbourhoods and cities walkable increases the well-being of the residents.

What gives me hope is that over the past 10-20 years, we’ve seen an increase in walking and cycling infrastructure. Volunteer-led organizations have mapped out, built, and maintained the Great Trail, the Waterfront Trail, and the Bruce Trail, and thousands of other local organizations have created recreational trails throughout Canada. There is a groundswell of interest in and demand for walking infrastructure.

It’s true that there are fewer opportunities for political grandstanding and ribbon-cutting when a new trail opens. The local city councillor and maybe a provincial MPP will show up for a quick photo and that’s about it, compared to premiers and prime ministers who host press conferences and photo ops in hard hats while holding silver shovels, whenever a new highway is announced. Hundreds of walkers will use the former, but hundreds of thousands of voters will use the latter, so where’s the sexy in opening a $2 million trail when you can cut the ribbon on a $2 billion highway?

Still, I see that as blockbuster thinking rather than incremental thinking, big splashy announcements instead of quiet openings. We know from studies in geology and from biology, that evolutionary forces are powerful yet slow-moving. There are few occasions (dinosaur-killing asteroid strikes aside) when evolution must pick up its pace. Long-term, slow changes are the norm. So in why does our decision making insist on quick wins, big announcements, and the timescales of one election to the next? In human terms, long-term ought to mean generational thinking – 20, 50, or 100+-year timespans. Does it help you now, or does it help your great-grandchildren?

We focus on the now, it seems to me, because that our time horizons have shrunk. We want to shop on-demand, eat on-demand, and entertain ourselves on-demand. Why defer gratification? Why can’t we have it now?

What does a walk have to do with this? Part of the answer is that a walk takes time. As a form of exercise, walking is a slow burn activity – you need a 2 hour walk to burn off similar amounts of calories from a 30 minute high intensity work-out. That’s why walking encourages long-term thinking, because it just takes a while to do it. If I want to walk to Montreal (and that’s on my bucket list), it’s going to take 3-4 weeks instead of 3-4 hours.

Plus walking is green. It’s human-powered and needs minimal infrastructure and equipment. Our ancestors walked barefoot over grasslands, and we can walk with just a pair of shoes over gravelled paths. Building a few km of simple trail, even if you include some park benches, waste bins, toilets, and water fountains, doesn’t cost much because it doesn’t take much effort or equipment. And that also means it’s quick, a concession to our instant gratification culture.

All of this means that walking for the long term has multiple levels. On timescales of hours, walking for the long term is about contemplation, finding space to think and consider and survey multiple points of view before coming to conclusions. On timescales of months and years, walking for the long term is about exercise and health and retaining the ability to contemplate. And on timescales of decades and generations, walking for the long term is about the conservation of resources, creating a legacy for future generations, and attempting to avoid the worst consequences of the now-inevitable changes in climate that we’ve sparked.

Deep thoughts from a few walks on grey days. Maybe I need another stroll to mull it over.

Walking through a Mid-life Crisis

Lately, I find I’m a bit restless. I’ve written previously about my bucket list of Big Walks. It seems that since I crossed a couple of these off my list, I’ve been bitten by the Big Walk bug, and now I can’t wait to try another one.

People talk about mid-life crises. I don’t think it’s a crisis so much as a turning of the page. My professional life is slowing down, our son is soon off to university, and I’m ready for new challenges in my life. I’m relatively healthy, we can afford it, and I have time.

So now what? Winter has arrived, so big walks in Ontario in this weather are much tougher, especially if you’re carrying a pack over snowy/icy unpaved trails, and I’m not enough of a glutton for punishment to take these on right now, so that rules out things the Bruce Trail and the Great Trail until spring. Heading somewhere warmer would be a possibility except that we’ve already used up our travel budget for the year, what with trips to Bermuda, Ireland, and India, plus my Niagara to Toronto walk.

There are some shorter, paved-trail walks I can do as day trips to avoid carrying a pack and running up hotel bills – things like the Waterfront Trail from the Rouge River to Ajax – and that will help keep me fit over the winter.

Other than that, however, it seems that as much as I’d like to just take off on a long multi-day walk right now, I’ll have to do that in armchair fashion for the next few months. That’s ok, there’s something cozy sitting by the fire on a winter’s evening catching up on travel books about walking, diving into maps, and sketching out plans.

So that’s my mid-life crisis. Instead of a Porsche, I’ve invested in packs,

boots instead of a Bentley.

My fashion sense comes from Mountain Equipment Co-op – nothing says sexy like a good pair of GoreTex gaiters.

It’s an obsession, I admit. At least it’s cheaper than a sports car, and it’s better for the environment to boot.

Walks in Autumn

Autumn has always been my favourite season. In Toronto, there are phases to it. Coming out of September and through early October, we usually keep our late summer warmth with the bonus of dryer, clearer weather with lots of bright blue skies. Then as you drift through the rest of October and into early November, the nights get cooler and the autumn colours take over the parks and neighbourhoods. Around then, usually by early or mid- November, we’ll get our first frost overnight and our first snowflakes. Our autumn usually turns into winter temps and weather well before the winter solstice and turn of the season on Dec 21, so when you think about it, between the late summer bit and the early winter bit, a Toronto autumn is really the 4 weeks or so between about early October and early November.

And while it’s a short stretch of the calendar, it’s made for walking. We’ll get lots of dry days, not too cold, and with scenery that never gets old no matter how many times you’ve seen autumn colours transform a park. When we lived in England back in the 1990’s, I missed that turn of the season more than anything else.

This year, autumn arrived right on cue. Late September and early October were glorious – blue-sky autumn days that demanded to be used because you knew that in just a few weeks, those gentle blues would turn to steely greys and the autumn rains would turn to frosts and snow.

So I did – I headed out for several longish walks through favourite parks and soaked up the sun for as long as I could. One favourite hike in early October was through Mount Pleasant Cemetery and down the Moore Park Ravine to the Brickworks. The autumn colours were starting to develop and on a mid-week afternoon, there were only a few people about so I could savour the quiet. I love this place.

Wandering the paths through the park, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the middle of the city. The park is only about 15 years old, and is the result of natural regeneration nudged by careful planning, turning the clay quarry that provided many of the bricks that built Toronto landmarks like Old City Hall and Massey Hall into an urban oasis. It’s wonderful any time of the year, and at its best in the autumn.

Later, in mid-October, I did a hike through Highland Creek Park, Morningside Park, and the Gatineau Corridor as part of my completion of the Great Trail sections that are in Toronto. The weather had cooled just a bit, especially overnight, and the foliage in the parks was perfect.

As the month of October wore on, we started to get some grey skies and gusty rains, stripping those gorgeous colours off the trees and turning the trails to pointillist visions.

Every year, around mid October, there will be newspaper articles and social media posts about where to go to see the perfect fall colours. I ignore these. The perfect fall colours are right outside, in my favourite parks along my favourite trails. Toronto is awesome pretty much all of the time, and autumn is when it’s awesomeness on display, the more so because it’s natural and unforced. We take it for granted at lot of the time, so it’s worth reminding ourselves that we live, as the Parks Department motto says, in a city within a park.

And then in early November, other walks became reminders that winter is around the corner. I went up the East Don Trail on a blustery chilly day, maybe 4-5 C at best with an actual wind-chill under a grey forbidding sky, and was teased by a few snow flakes.

Then a few days later, we had actual snow, only a cm or 2 but enough to leave a trace on the ground. It feels like our 4 weeks of autumn have come and gone for this year. The forecast going forward is early winter – snow showers and low single digits as day time highs, with negative temps overnight.

That’s ok. The cycle of seasons means change, which means variety. Were the weather constant year-round, it would get tedious I think. So walking in wet leaves under blustery skies, now, is the path that leads to walking under soft spring breezes amongst new growth, in a few months. There’s greenery coming – you just have to be patient.

The Great Trail

Having recently completed a couple of the bucket list Big Walks that I’d like to do, the experience has got me thinking about some of the other Big Walks on my list. The one I’m truly itching to do is the walk from John O’Groats in Scotland to Lands End in Cornwall, covering Great Britain end to end.

For various reasons I think that’s a couple of years down the road. For one thing, I’ll need probably 3 months to do it, and I just can’t see making that kind of time available quite yet. For another, I’ll need to train up to that kind of distance. So in the meantime, I’ve been exploring other long walks that are more doable in the here and now, and that’s led me to the Great Trail.

Also known as the Trans Canada Trail, this network of interconnected paths, roads, and waterways covers Canada from coast to coast to coast. The Trail is constantly being updated, and as of 2019 it’s at 24,000 km. Of that total, several thousand km are water-trails for canoe and kayak, so realistically I’ll never be able to walk the whole thing. Nevertheless, I can do parts of it, especially the bits nearby, so my bucket list now includes the approximately 1000 km or so of the Trail within a few hours of Toronto.

When I started exploring the Great Trail map, I realized that in fact I’ve already walked some of the parts that are within the City of Toronto – for example I covered about 80 km of the Waterfront Trail between Etobicoke Creek and the Rouge River this year. What I also noticed was that in Toronto, the Great Trail includes parts of the Toronto Pan-Am Trail and the Pan-Am Connector Trails.

I walked that recently, and now have added another 30 km or so to my lifetime total of the Great Trail. As it turns out, these trails are not yet very well signed-posted and documented trails. This path is a work in progress, but the general idea links together the Port Union Waterfront Trail from the Rouge River to Highland Creek, the Highland Creek trails through Colonel Danforth Park, the trails through Thompson Park, the Gatineau Hydro Corridor, the Taylor Creek Trail, and the Lower Don Trail to the lake. There are also some city streets to cover to link these together, and hopefully soon we’ll get these properly and completely mapped and linked.

Nevertheless, it’s already a great walk. I recently I covered the bulk of this on a glorious October day, and the scenery was spectacular, like this stretch below in Highland Creek Park.

That walk gave me a taste of what the Great Trail holds – if it’s so much fun in my own back yard, what about the other sections?

As a result, I’m now thinking about how to string together parts of the Great Trail into 1- and 2-week journeys that I can do over the next couple of years. For example, there are trails that link Niagara-on-the-Lake to Hamilton, Hamilton to Kitchener, Kitchener to Barrie, and so on.

All of these are within an hour or two from Toronto to either the start or the end of the trail, so the logistics are easy, plus some parts are even close enough that I could use the GO Train network to come home at night so that I can do them as day hikes. That gives me lots of ways to enjoy these trails, work up to long distance treks, and keep costs down.

Outside of Toronto, there are other parts of the Great Trail that look interesting, such as the 100 km Sea to Sky Trail from Vancouver to Whistler, the 200+ km Confederation Trail across Prince Edward Island, or the near-900 km cross-Newfoundland T’Railway Trail. That’s the beauty of it, there’s a range of trails from a few km to hundreds in length, and they cover the whole country.

And one of these days, if I want to get really ambitious, I think I might walk from Toronto to Ottawa (around 600 km by the Trail), walk from Ottawa to Montreal (also around 600 km), and possibly do both back to back over a couple of months – what I’m thinking of calling my TOM walk, from Toronto to Ottawa to Montreal.

I guess one of the perhaps unexpected consequences of the Big Walks I’ve done so far is that, having now scratched the Big Walk itch, I want to take on more of them. They’re a challenge physically, and I like the idea of planning for them and completing them. The Great Trail offers lots of ways to do that.

It reminds me of an old joke, that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. I’m thinking about the Great Trail that way – I’ll take bite-sized chunks from the Great Trail smorgasbord. I’m looking forward to it.

Walking in a Graveyard

I’ve written previously about why I walk – for exercise, for exploration, for contemplation, for escape. One of my favourite walks in Toronto is through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where all of those reasons find a place.

I wandered through recently with a more specific purpose in mind. My friend Paul passed away 6 years ago on Thanksgiving Day, and so in mid-October I wanted to pay a visit and lift a toast to his spirit.

It’s beautiful there any time of the year, but I have to admit that autumn is my favourite time. The trees were just starting to turn, and there was enough of a chill in the air, despite the sunshine, that you could feel the change in seasons.

It felt like the autumn scene would soon resemble winter.

But as I walked I thought about the history of Toronto as it’s reflected in the graves and monuments around me. The older parts of the cemetery date to the 1870’s and 1880’s, and the great and good of Toronto at that time have Anglo-Scottish names that testify to the dominant waves of immigration that arrived then – names like Gage, Eaton, Massey, and Strachan are prominent as are the mausoleums they built for themselves.

The waves of immigrants from the British Isles are also reflected in monuments like the one erected by the St. Andrew Society to commemorate the many Scottish families that came to Canada.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery is also a place of history, holding the graves and monuments to many of the men who fought for Canada during World Wars 1 and 2. Some of these monuments are grand, like that for George Barker.

Others are quieter and in some ways more powerful. There is a section of the cemetery dedicated to veterans who passed away at the nearby Sunnybrook Hospital, which was built during World War 2 to help heal the many casualties of that war. Each grave is marked by a simple headstone that lists a name and branch of the service. It’s in a quiet wooded section of the cemetery, and the peacefulness is welcome when you think of what those men must have experienced.

In other sections of the cemetery, new waves of immigration are reflected in their names – the Anglo-Scottish are joined by the Italian, the Greek, the German, the Ukrainian, the Chinese, the Japanese, and many others. It’s the melting pot of Toronto illustrated in stone.

And then there is the personal history, the history of friends and family we knew. The history of a city and of grand families may be familiar to us in a general sense, but the history of a person we knew is much deeper and closer. Touching that history to recall laughter and rich conversation – that’s the essence of a cemetery.

Mount Pleasant has the Forest of Remembrance where ashes can be scattered in a wooded grove. When I’m walking through the Cemetery I usually pass through and pause at the stone that bears a plaque with Paul’s name. I say hello, and let him know how Fiona and the kids are doing. This visit I also raised a flask of Irish whisky and drank a toast. Sláinte.

The other functions of a cemetery – as history, as places of exercise, as places of beauty – all reinforce that main purpose, of remembrance. I walk in graveyards because I need the walk as exercise, because I’m interested in the history they relate, because I crave the quiet atmosphere and the beauty of the setting, and most of all because they connect me to the past as well as to the future we all come to.

As I was leaving the cemetery and walking up the busy Mount Pleasant Road, the image of the fence around the cemetery stuck in my mind. Is the fence to keep people out, or is it to keep the memories in? I think it’s a boundary, separating the memories we want to hold close from the outside world that rushes by because there are things to do and living to get on with. We know that, we know the world has to carry on, but we want to remember. That’s what cemeteries are for.

Crossing Toronto Stage 3 – Up the Don

After my long trek to the Rouge the day before, I was pleasantly surprised to wake up feeling pretty good for Stage 3 of my journey. My feet had been tired at the end of the day, but apart from stiffness in my knees, a good night’s sleep had set me up for the final leg of Crossing Toronto. I would hike from the southern boundary of the City at the lake northwards following the Don River as much as I could all the way the northern boundary at Steeles Avenue.

Since the Don forks in mid-Toronto, I had to choose which branch to follow and I’d decided on both – the way the river flows meant that I could climb the West Don for part of the way (since I could go through several parks that way) and then cut across city suburbs to pick up the East Don and follow that up to Steeles.

After the climbs and challenges of stage 2 between the Don and the Rouge, I reckoned that this final stage would be both easier and harder. Easier because it was a bit shorter than the 2nd stage and because much of it I’d walked before, and harder because after 2 long days of walking I was beginning to feel some of the stresses in my feet and knees.

The good thing about my route was that, like Stage 2, I could take the subway to King and walk past St. Lawrence Market, stopping to have breakfast at Paddington’s Pump once again. I had the same eggs, the same server, and the same warm happy glow of a full tummy when I set off at 8:30.

Since I was doing this final stage on a Saturday, there were many more people about at the Market. That’s their busiest day of the week, and I was tempted to hang about to sample the food, but of course I knew I had to get going. Just like the day before, I followed the Esplanade east through the Distillery District and crossed through Corktown Commons to pick up the Lower Don Trail.

Turning north, I was on a familiar path. I’ve walked this in both directions a number of times in various seasons, but on this day it had been several months since I’d followed the river north. The first thing I noticed was how much the shrubs, bushes, and trees along the trail had filled in and now sheltered the trail. It made for a welcome green tunnel of shade on a sunny summer morning.

Early on a Saturday morning, the trail is used more by cyclists than walkers or runners. You have to be on your toes, listening for bikes coming up behind you while watching for bikes coming towards you, since the trail is only about 2 meters wide. The bikes presume they have right of way since they’re faster, even though the trail etiquette is supposed to be that the pedestrians have priority. Why do cyclists think that if they ring their bell, you’ll just jump out of the way?

As I walked, my curiosity was piqued in noticing the difference between walkers and cyclists when travelling in pairs. A pair of walkers, especially couples, will often walk side by side even on a busy trail. A pair of cyclists, even if a couple, will usually ride in tandem. Why is that? The trail rang with bike bells as the cyclists wove amongst the walkers.

Continuing north, I found myself walking in “the zone”, spaced out and unaware of time passing. I knew the trail well so I didn’t pay much attention to the landmarks. Still, I was pleased to pop out of my walker’s trance when I came to the Prince Edward Viaduct, carrying the Bloor Street roadway as well as Line 2 of the subway over the Don Valley, in less than an hour after leaving St. Lawrence Market.

Past this, as you head north towards Pottery Road, there’s a little sculpture installation by artist Duane Linklater featuring some pieces meant to evoke old castles and crumbled monuments. I always tell myself I should stop and explore, and yet again this day my focus on walking meant that I paused just long enough to snap a picture, and then kept on walking.

Continuing past the sculptures, you soon come to Pottery Road. There’s a crossing island here and there was a queue of bikes in both directions waiting to cross. I had to fight to protect my pedestrian rights amongst them, as they surged forward in a break in the traffic.

From this point, about 5 km from Corktown, there’s a stretch of several km along the river that takes you to the forks of the Don near the Taylor Creek confluence. It’s a bipolar bit of trail – on the one hand the shimmering rapids, green shuffles of leaves, and meadows of nodding flowers, and on the other hand the steady intrusive hum and mumble of traffic on the Don Valley Expressway just to the east of the trail. It looks rustic but it sounds urban. The constant stream of cyclists didn’t help.

Another thing that I kept noticing was that stinging nettles were overgrowing onto the edge of the trail, so that you wanted to walk in the centre, but the bikes kept pushing you back to the edge where you risked brushing up against the nettles. Having grown up in the country and been stung by nettles in the past, I was in no mood for that, so I had to listen for approaching bikes whenever I skirted the nettles, making for an uncomfortable walk.

Watch out for nettles!

Eventually, however, I came to the forks of the Don. This is where the Lower Don Trail connects with both the Taylor Creek Trail (which initially follows the East Don River) and the West Don Trail. You hard to see the actual confluence of the two branches of the river, at least in summer with full greenery about, but again I was kind of head-down and focused and not paying too much attention. I just followed familiar trails and started heading west, crossing under Don Mills Road to enter E.T. Seton Park.

I took a break here, refilling my water bottles – I had 2 because I knew there were no water refills on the trail north of Lawrence – and sitting for a bit in some shade. There were still lots of cyclists and they often roved in packs of 3-5 riders. I made the assumption that they were all weekend warriors, and smugly sniggered at their Tour de Something wannabe jerseys and fancy kit.

As you continue north through E.T. Seaton Park you pass through one of Toronto’s only disk golf courses. The “holes” are on both sides of the trail and there were a few disk golfers out enjoying the sun.

Fore!

On weekends in good weather, E.T. Seaton Park fills up with families enjoying communal picnics and cookouts. The air is scented with tantalizing aromas, and the many cultures living in nearby Thorncliffe Park (one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the country) gather to take advantage of the green space. I was a bit early for that, plowing through there well before noon, so I missed having my appetite stirred early. I resolved to keep walking in order to try to get north of Sheppard before stopping for lunch.

The Trail keeps going through E.T. Seton, and eventually you pass under Eglinton Avenue and into Serena Gundy Park. There is a lot of construction going on in this section, part of the Eglinton Crosstown rail project, and it’s muddy and busy with trucks. There are also lots of cars on a weekend, because the car parks are the base for the cyclists. It made me want to walk through as fast as I could so I continued through the east end of Serena Gundy Park to arrive at Wilket Creek and the entrance to the trail along that watercourse that would take me through Wilket Creek Park and on to Edwards Gardens.

Wilket Creek Park on a summer’s day – imagine this decked in full autumn colours

I kept chugging, with a clock in my head that wanted to get to Edwards Gardens well before noon. The trail through Wilket Creek is quite lovely, and having been through here previously in late September, I know it’s even prettier in autumn. I wasn’t thinking about that, however, I just wanted to get to Edwards Gardens for a rest break and a water refill.

I made it there before 11:30, 3 hours and around 13km out from St. Lawrence Market, and was a bit surprised to see that there was a sculpture market in full swing, with pieces set throughout the gardens. It was tempting, but how would I carry a $5000 piece of marble out on my back?

After a short break, I crossed out of the Gardens to the east side of Leslie Street, where there is the entrance to the Don Mills Trail. This follows a rail line north between Lawrence and York Mills. I set off up the trail with my inner clock still ticking, aiming to get to the East Don Trail at Sheppard by 12:30 so that I could find a quiet spot to rest.

The Don Mills Trail is fairly new, yet it’s matured quickly. There were lots of trees shading the trail, and there weren’t too many fellow walkers or bikers this day, so it was relatively peaceful. Nevertheless, it was also relatively boring – there’s no river, just the trail plowing strait and narrow through suburban backyards. I walked at a steady pace and chewed up the kms, to find myself at the north end. Unfortunately, the peacefulness of the Trail is undone by its finish under a road overpass. You have to climb up onto York Mills Road, and follow it east for a few hundred meters. At Lesmill Drive, you turn north again and follow the streets along the Valleybrook and Lesmill Bike Path.

Eventually, you come to Duncan Mills Road, where you can then connect with the Betty Sutherland Trail and rejoin the East Don River as you head north. This trail continues for about 3 km, and while it’s a lovely bit of woods, it’s hard to love the trail itself. I could hear the roar of traffic along the 12 lanes of the 401 expressway when I joined the trail and it just kept getting louder and louder as I approached. The trail actually goes under the 401, and it’s an unsettling experience to pass through a space where the slanted light reminded me of the columns of a cathedral and yet the traffic noise blocked any thoughts of tranquility.

When you come out the other side of the roadway, you find the trail continuing north for another half a km or so, soon depositing you at the exit of the trail upon Sheppard Avenue. There you have to cross from the south-east corner of Leslie & Sheppard to the north-west corner where you can drop down onto the East Don Trail.

By the time I reached this, just after 12:30, I was feeling quite hungry and ready for a rest, so I quickly rambled off looking for a nice quiet spot to have lunch. Unfortunately, while the trail is in the ravine of the river, it’s still just meters from Leslie Street and there seemed to be a stream of fire trucks and ambulances shrieking past. I had to walk for 5 minutes to get far enough along the trail to find a little clearing with a bench in the sun that was the perfect spot for lunch.

I had been prudent enough to use my breakfast stop at St. Lawrence Market to also visit Churrasco St. Lawrence and pick up one of their classic chicken sandwiches. It’s made with Portuguese-style rotisserie chicken on a soft bun, with piri piri sauce, mayo, lettuce, and tomato, and it’s been a favourite of mine since Churrasco St. Lawrence opened in the late 1980’s. Sitting in the sun, resting tired feet, savouring a sandwich, and listening to the birds was a perfect way to relax.

By this point, I’d covered about 18 km, and looking at the map I realized that I probably only needed about another hour to finish my journey. I had been so focused on my inner clock, passing through familiar trails, that I had lost track of time and distance. I was a bit disappointed, coming to that realization.

The point of my Crossing Toronto journey was to discover more about the city, and yet I’d managed to climb most of the way through the city and hadn’t really noticed anything. Upon reflection, it occurred to me that my Big Walks were going to be quite different in character from my regular walks, because the rhythm of steady day-in, day-out walking imposes a different kind of observation. On a more conventional 1 or 2 hour walk, I might zone out a for a bit, but for the most part I would notice my surroundings. On a Big Walk after a couple of days already spent “observing”, I was starting to feel both jaded in my attention-span and locked into the routine of walking. Big Walks take on a life of their own, and are about the quest, it seems, as much as they are about the journey.

On that somewhat depressing note, I resigned myself to “notice” something, and yet while the scenery on this part of the trail is perfectly fine, I had a hard time loving it. There’s only so much green-lined trail next to a burbling river that you can walk along.

The only observation of note that I could come up with was the predictable fact that as I had climbed north from the lake, the river had narrowed and diminished. It was interesting, however, to see that as the river’s flow grew smaller, the landscape dried out so that the upper reaches of the river now featured more meadow areas, and dryer ground trees like cedars and ash. The birds shifted from marsh species to meadow species, including a chorus of kill-deers that squawked noisily as I passed.

Those kill-deers did make me realize that the traffic noise had finally faded a bit, though even here traffic sounds were still noticeable. The soundscape of the Don Valley, unfortunately, is dominated by cars, trucks, motorcycles, and noise. You can mostly tune it out as you walk but it’s only when it diminishes to a background hum that you realize how loud it has been.

Soon I came to the Finch Hydro Corridor, a public space that traces the path of the high voltage electricity transmission lines across the top of the city. In the past, I’ve done part of this and it’s actually a great walk in its own right – one of these days I’ll see how far I can go across the top of the city following this path.

Finch Hydro Corridor Trail looking west from the East Don Trail

North of the Finch Hydro Corridor, the river forks again, somewhat confusingly, into a western arm and an eastern arm. The western arm is actually the East Don River and the eastern arm is German Mills Creek, but the western arm flows through private property so that you can’t actually follow it to Steeles. Instead I was forced to follow the eastern arm where a trail brings you to the south side of Steeles and the northern boundary of the City of Toronto.

By now, I wasn’t that interested in the niceties of hydrology and names, I just wanted to finish my journey. The river/creek was narrowing, and there weren’t many people about. I kept climbing, following the trail north-east towards Leslie. It continued to be green and lovely and boring, so it was anticlimactic to cross Leslie just south of Steeles and reach my finishing point, a pedestrian bridge crossing the creek adjacent to Steeles. I had climbed the Don (more or less) from the lake to leave the city, and yet it didn’t feel particularly memorable.

The eastern arm of the East Don River (aka German Mills Creek) crossing under Steeles Avenue

Toronto is a huge city in terms of land area. It stretches roughly 50 km east to west, and 20 km north to south – more than 1000 square km. It contains dozens of fascinating neighbourhoods, 100’s of parks, and many kilometres worth of trails. I had hoped that Crossing Toronto would teach me something the city, and it did in many ways.

Yet, more importantly, it taught me something about myself and the nature of a Big Walk. Big Walks are their own reward, they are the meal, and the observations along the way are the spices that make it interesting.

Crossing Toronto Stage 2 – The Don to the Rouge

After a good first stage on my Crossing Toronto Big Walk, I was looking forward to Stage 2, covering the section east of the Don River. This would follow the Waterfront Trail as much as possible, taking me from Corktown Common on the Don River eastwards all the way to the Rouge River.

Since this stage meant that I could take the subway to King Station and walk to Corktown, along the way I knew I would pass by St. Lawrence Market. I didn’t want to repeat my coffeeless start of the day before, so I stopped at an old favourite, Paddington’s Pump, for a right proper diner breakfast.

The mushroom omelette with home fries and toast (and don’t forget the token tomato!) – yummm!

From the Market, it’s about 2 km to Corktown Common, so I added that to my journey. It was a gorgeous summer morning, and walking along the Esplanade, I passed the apartment block that was our first home when my wife and I married. There are basketball courts out front, and gardens, and kids, and joyful play – it was perfect. It put a spring into my steps, and I felt pretty good considering the 20+ km I’d covered the previous day.

Arriving at Corktown from the west, you have to climb a few steps to the crown of a small hill. The warm, wet summer we’ve been having meant that the steps were lined with greenery that burst its bounds and crowded the path like the waving throngs that cheer on a parade. Welcome brave hiker!

On the east side of the park, the path takes you down onto the Lower Don Trail, and turning south you come to a bridge over the Don. On a Friday morning, it was a stream of cyclists heading into the city – I actually had to wait for the traffic to pass. Build a bike infrastructure, and lo and behold, it will be used!

Martin Goodman Trail along Lakeshore Blvd East

Once you cross the Don, the Lower Don Trail turns into the Martin Goodman Trail, which is part of the Waterfront Trail. I followed it eastwards parallel to Lakeshore Blvd East, towards Ashbridge’s Bay Park where I could pick up the Boardwalk.

Toronto is sometimes referred to as Hollywood North, given the number of movies and TV shows that have been produced here. Walking east from the Don, you see that writ large. The Lakeshore and Leslie area is known as Studio City, home to several large production companies, and you pass their sound stage facilities as you go, along with prop rental companies, location scouts, and parking lots full of movie shoot vehicles (including various NYC taxis, police cars, and buses – amazing how often Toronto doubles for New York).

Further east, in the Beaches, you see our own version of Venice Beach North. There is a gorgeous beach of course, and the boardwalk. And there are bodybuilders and joggers, spandexed cyclists and beach yogaists. We have soy lattes and organic cold pressed juice, très cute dogs, and Bugaboo baby carriages. I even passed an aerobics class complete with enthusiastic trainers, energy pop music, and the requisite Lululemon outfits, and I had to repress a smile – “Keep it Going! Count it Down! Seven!, Six!, Five!, Four! …..”.

the Boardwalk @ Woodbine Beach, freshly groomed on a summer morning

Continuing along the Boardwalk beside Woodbine Beach and then Kew Beach, I kept passing little scenes that amused. There was an independent video shoot featuring a young actor who ran fetchingly towards the water and then stopped, to stare pensively off into the distance. There was a charming older couple strolling hand in hand wearing impressively large sun hats. There were sun worshippers stretched out reading books, kids making sand castles, newby paddle boarders trying to stay upright. It was perfect.

But time presses, and eventually I came to the end of the Boardwalk at Balmy Beach. I took a short break there, and then followed the Waterfront Trail signs up to Queen Street East. Near the eastern end of Queen, I passed a citadel-like structure that reminded me of the fortifications of Citadel Hill in Halifax, but this is actually a fortress of sanitation called the RC Harris Water Treatment Plant.

Past that, Queen Street ends and the road turns north to become Fallingbrook Drive. The Waterfront Trail climbs here and takes you north to just south of Kingston Road. When I was planning the walk, I had been afraid that I’d have to walk long stretches along the busy Kingston Road, but the route planners of the Waterfront Trail must have had an equal aversion to traffic, so instead they’ve chosen streets that get you as close to the water as private property allows, and along the actual lakeshore whenever public parks permit.

(I have to apologize here for my alliterative aspirations. I positively promise to pare back this predilection.)

Following the Trail, I realized that I had also forgotten some basic geography. The Beaches Boardwalk is essentially at lake elevation. As you go east from there, however, the land behind the water’s edge rises steeply to become the Scarborough Bluffs, in places 90 meters above the lake. Obviously I had to climb, and climb, and climb, and then descend, descend, descend. I ended up doing the equivalent of 75 flights of stairs as a result – oh my aching quads.

Continuing east along the Trail, I passed a familiar landmark – the Toronto Hunt golf course. As it happens, we live in the Hunt’s original 1919 building, now refurbished into condos. When this building was requisitioned by the Canadian government during WW2 and subsequently retained by the Ministry of Defence, the club needed to relocate and so they bought land to the east of the city in Scarborough. That became the Toronto Hunt property, and it was also eventually surrounded as the city expanded eastwards, so the club turned their land into a golf course and it was the familiar club crest that greeted me on the wall outside the golf course. I pondered wandering in claiming membership by proxy, but decided they’d probably throw out a sweaty hiker.

Entrance to the Toronto Hunt golf course

East of the Toronto Hunt, the Trail took me through the Rosetta McClain Gardens. I was stunned at the beauty of the grounds. It’s a gem of a park, and yet having lived 35+ years in Toronto I’d never heard of it. You have to go there – this park deserves to be better known.

Rosetta McClain Gardens

As well as the flowers, the park offers fantastic views over the lake – you’re near the maximum height of the Bluffs at this point, 90 meters above the lake, and on a clear summer’s day it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re staring over oceans and dreaming of fragrant shores.

The views, the views …..

As I left the Gardens, I realized that I was not yet half way on my journey, and despite the big breakfast I was getting hungry. I probably should have stopped in the Gardens, but it had only been about 11:30 or so at that point. I kept following the Trail east for several km, about an hour of walking and winding through the backstreets of the Cliffside and Cliffcrest neighbourhoods, and since there was nowhere to picnic I just kept plowing along.

Eventually I came to the Doris McCarthy Trail which plunges down Gates Gully next to Sylvan Park. The Waterfront Trail signs by the road indicated that I should continue to follow the trail along the Hill Crescent roadway rather than descend, but I decided to go off piste and follow the alternative trail. I trusted that Google Maps, which showed an unnamed trail along the beach, would not leave me stranded and it was a gamble that paid off in spades.

The McCarthy Trail takes you about 70 or 80 meters down a steep gravel path, and after a few minutes of slithering I thought to myself that this better work out because I DO NOT want to climb back up. But after continuing on, when I reached the bottom along the lake shore, I found myself on a waterside trail that stretched east along the base of the bluffs for as far as I could see. And there was no one around – I had the trail to myself.

By this time I was starving so I found a little point where a tree provided shelter overlooking the lake, and stretched out on a rock to eat my lunch. The only sound was the surge of a gentle swell. It was heaven.

After that much needed break, I followed the beach trail east. It’s not private property, but it’s not a city park either. It looks like the City has built the trail in order to construct a breakwater along the base of the bluffs, to prevent erosion. If that’s the case, then it’s public property but I was amazed at seeing no other hikers. I guess since there are no washrooms, no actual beach, and – god forbid – no parking, there’s no attraction for most people. I didn’t care, I was just amazed to be able to walk for several km just listening to the birds and the waves.

Still, after 45 minutes walking, I was starting to wonder when I’d come to a way off the beach. The bluffs were still at least 50-60 meters high at this point so there was no way to climb vertically, and I didn’t want to have to turn back and climb up the gully, but eventually I found a trail up and off the beach. It turned out to be a maintenance road climbing into the Guild Park and that led me (after scrambling over a fence) back to the Waterfront Trail on the Guildwood Parkway.

Despite the best intentions of the Waterfront Trail designers, there’s no option here but to include several km of rather boring road-walk stretches between Guildwood Parkway and the start of the Port Union Waterfront Park, by Beechgrove Drive.

By this time, I was 20+ km in, and wondering how much longer I had to go. I’d drunk most of my water but there no parks at which to refill (though ironically I passed a water treatment plant and wondered if I could just pop in and borrow a cup).

Following the Waterfront Trail signs, I saw that I was in an industrial part of Scarborough – a chemical plant, train lines, and the olfactory delights of the Highland Creek Waste Treatment Plant, where sewage is biologically digested. The prevailing winds from the west meant that the aromas followed me for a km or so.

The Trail here runs, in part, parallel to the Lakeshore east rail line, and with the industries in the area, the soundscape is dominated by trucks, trains, and transport. And yet, along Copperfield Road, the track is lined with marsh grasses, and in quiet stretches the breeze rustling the reeds made me appreciate the difference between the higher-pitched “HISSSSSSS” of wind through grasses compared to the lower-timbred “Shushhhhh” of leaves in trees.

After that road stretch, I was glad to reach the Port Union Waterfront Park where I could descend again down to water level. I was just nicely onto this trail, about 4 km from my destination, when the clouds that had been gathering unloaded and I had to scramble into rain gear. I kept walking through the rain, and soon enough it stopped. I was footsore and thirsty, still looking for a place to fill a water bottle, and was just chugging for the finish by this time.

There are many species of insects along the waterfront, and one of the more annoying ones is a small type of fly that congregates in wavering columns along the open stretches near the water, often at about head-height. When you are walking, you have to keep your mouth closed to avoid digesting them. I was pleased to pass a flock of swallows, and then a swarm of dragonflies, both doing their best to reduce the population.

The Port Union Waterfront Park is exactly that – it offers a well maintained trail that runs along the shore for several km. There are little lookouts with benches, and trees have been planted to anchor the shore against erosion. There were people about here, families on bikes, strolling lovers, a few fishermen, and even 3 guys who were apparently shooting a music video. It was all interesting, but I was tired and just wanted to get to the finish.

And then, the rain came back one more time, just a few hundred meters from the Rouge River. It only lasted about 5 minutes and I needed 2 of that to get back into rain gear, so I was wet, sweating, and grumpy when I arrived at the Rouge National Urban Park, to find the washrooms closed due to high water and crowd of kids blocking access to the water fountain. But I’d made it – Corktown to the Rouge.

The Rouge River

The Park is interesting. It represents an understanding that natural marshlands are the best way to absorb rain water, while providing a diverse mix of flora and fauna. We’ve paved over, constrained, and covered the mouth of the Don, which used to look like the Rouge. We’ve tried to rebuild a watershed with landfill and parks at the mouth of the Humber. But the natural state that the Rouge park preserves is the way that nature has evolved to handle rivers and creeks. If we can just get out of the way, we can let the elements rearrange themselves into a sustainable ecosystem.

A family of ducks ignoring the speed bump

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?