Big Walks – PEI’s Island Walk

Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking about doing a Big Walk. My bucket list has a number of them – the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain, the Bruce Trail in Ontario, and many more – and I keep reading about ideas for others as well. I had plans to take on at least one of these in each of 2020 and 2021, but the COVID-19 epidemic meant that those dreams stayed just that – dreams.

So come spring 2022, after 2 years of listening to me wish and sigh, my wife finally put the boot in and said it was time to either do one of these walks or else stop talking about it.

OK, agreed, but which walk to do? Knowing that 2022 would probably still have some COVID-19 travel disruptions, I decided to try something that was relatively close to home. Plus, knowing that this was going to be my first multi-week walk, it made sense to choose something that while challenging was also achievable in terms of length and terrain. That line of thought led me to the Island Walk.

Morning, Day 1

This is a relatively new addition to the world of long walks. It was first tried out in 2019 by a couple of experienced walkers from Prince Edward Island who had done the Camino de Santiago in Spain and who wanted to find a similar length walk that would showcase their home province. They came up with a route that combines walking on red-dirt back roads

with sections of the province’s Confederation Trail

to take you more or less around the coast of Prince Edward Island. It’s about 700 km in total, and is divided into a suggested 32 daily stages which range between 12 -26 km in length. In the end, I chose to do it a bit faster than that pace, finishing in 27 days.

Why?

The first question asked by most of the people I spoke to both on the walk as well as friends and family before and after is, why? Why do it?

The lazy answer to that is to say “because it’s there”, and that was part of it. Could I complete a long walk like that? And beyond that, I had a few other things in mind:

  • Exploring PEI – this was the only Maritime province I’d yet to visit, and seeing it on foot seemed like a great way to explore Canada’s smallest province
  • Physical challenge – despite trying to average 75 minutes of activity per day for the past 5 years, I’ve still managed to add a few pounds, and a good long walk was one way to shed a few of those
  • Trying out ideas – if I am going to do other long-distance multi-week walks, I’d like to figure out what works for me in terms of pace, gear, nutrition, etc. Doing so close to home was a bonus.
  • Thinking time – a walk is always a chance for me to clear my mind, but the mental challenge of maintaining focus while remaining observant while walking 5-6 hours a day is a new one
  • Put up or shut up – there comes a point where you either decide to do something or you put it aside.

Impressions

So having done, what did I think? Did I like it? Was it worth it? Did it meet my expectations or preconceptions?

At North Cape, Day 8

A couple of weeks have gone by since I finished it, and I’m still digesting it. There were things I liked – the structure of a long walk, the routine of getting up, getting ready, getting out, and getting it done, day after day. There was the rhythm of it, getting locked into a sort of Zen calmness and clarity, when the steady pace emptied my mind and I simply walked.

I liked some of the scenery. PEI is a low-key kind of place – no rugged mountains or crashing seas, but calm seas, long beaches,

green fields, wild flowers, fishing ports, and friendly people.

I liked the challenge, the push you need to start each day even when your feet hurt and the drive you need to see it through. I liked the solitude (I met exactly 6 other walkers and 4 cyclists on the route over 27 days) and I liked chatting to people that I met along the way.

I didn’t like the bugs – the mosquitoes were voracious.

I didn’t like the monotony of some stretches of the Confederation Trail, running flat and straight and on and on. I didn’t like having to to hitch rides most days to and from the route because there were few accommodation options adjacent to the route. And I didn’t like road walking, long stretches with no place to sit and rest, and hard asphalt that made my heels and ankles ache.

But those are quibbles. No journey contains only the highlights, there are always low lights and often no lights, and to expect otherwise is to be rudely awakened; but I wasn’t so much awakened to those things as resigned to them as being part of the journey that simply taught different lessons.

I guess the biggest takeaway for me is that a journey like this isn’t supposed to have one purpose, one impression, one lesson. Some time ago, a line I read in a blog post about the Camino de Santiago stuck in my head – “everyone walks their own Camino”. That message resonated again and again each day of my journey. No two people are going to do a walk like this, even if they are walking together, and do it for the same reasons while forming the same memories.

If I could distill anything out of this, I think it would be a few little mantras. Cherish the journey, respect the journey, and learn from it. Accept it on its own terms. Don’t overthink it. Your journey is its own lesson. Everybody walks their own Camino.

For the the last day, I’d deliberately walked extra distance on the preceding few days to ensure I’d have a short day at the end, partly in case of rain and partly because I didn’t want to finish the walk with a long sloggy day. And as I came into Charlottetown I was struggling to digest the journey, what it had meant, what I felt, how I thought of it. Ann wanted to meet me at Joe Ghiz Park where the route starts and ends, and a couple of friends, Michael and Carol, had come up from Lunenburg to surprise me and celebrate crossing the finish line. I was about a kilometre from the park, and way ahead of schedule, so I doddled a bit on the Hillsborough Bridge to look at the city skyline,

and then I texted Ann to say that I wanted to get there by myself so that I could try to process it. And so that’s what I did – walked the last bit trying to be normal, got to the park, took a selfie,

done

took off my pack, and when Ann walked in and gave me a hug, I started to cry. That was how I processed it – with tears, of relief and thanks. I thought I was walking by myself, and at that moment I realized that I was really walking with her.

Memories

Green on red – PEI’s colour palette in June is layers of green upon red earth, with little yellow and purple and pink and white flowered highlights.

Blue maritime skies. Grey rain-filled lowering clouds, and soft misty mornings. Green tunnels of trees and shrubs and bushes and ferns.

Odd sights.

Blue-green seas. Black crows. Red mud. And more green on red, red on green, again and again.

The rural character of the province sinks deep into your brain, until you expect no other colours. Green on red. Sunshine and trails. Memories.


Over the coming weeks, I’ll be writing more about this walk. Stay tuned.

If you feel like supporting my blog, you can buy me a coffee.

Bucket List Walks

An ever-changing list of walks I’ve done or would like to do.

  1. John O’Groats in Scotland to Land’s End in Cornwall, the length of Great Britain
  2. The Sli Dhun na nGall – the trails of Donegal in Ireland, including:
    • The Blue Stack Way
    • Slí Cholmcille
    • Slí An Earagail
    • Slí Na Finne
    • Slí Na Rosann
  3. The European Ramblers E8 trail, from Dublin to Kerry
  4. The Mizen Head to Malin Head path between the southwestern and northwestern tips of Ireland
  5. The Donegal Walk round the coast between Donegal town and Derry
  6. The Rum Runners Trail from Halifax to Lunenburg
  7. The Lahave River Loop, from Lunenburg to Riverport and up the Lehave River across the province to Middleton in the Annapolis Valley and then back to Lunenburg via Windsor and Chester.
  8. The Cabot Trail around the northern end of Cape Breton island
  9. The South Shore/Fundy Shore loop, following the shores around the southern end of Nova Scotia along the rail trails, from Lunenburg down to Yarmouth and then back up the Annapolis Valley to Wolfville
  10. The Bruce Trail, Ontario
    • Niagara Section
    • Iroquois Section
    • Toronto Section
    • Caledon Section
    • Dufferin Highland Section
    • Beaver Valley Section
    • Blue Mountain Section
    • Sydenham Section
    • Peninsula Section
  11. Yonge Street (from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe)
  12. Hadrian’s Wall path, England
  13. The Thames Path in England, from source to the sea
  14. Lord Simcoe’s Ride (Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake to Fort York in Toronto)
  15. The Toronto Cross (west to east and south to north across Toronto)
  16. Toronto Waterfront Trail (Humber River to Rouge River)
  17. The Confederation Trail in PEI
  18. The Island Walk around Prince Edward Island
  19. Waterfront to Wine
    • East, from Toronto to Prince Edward County along the Waterfront Trail
    • West, from Toronto to Niagara along the Waterfront Trail
    • South, from Toronto to Pelee Island along the Waterfront Trail
  20. The Great Trail in Southern Ontario (within 2 hours of Toronto)
    • 100km so far including
    • Toronto Waterfront Trail
    • Toronto Pan-Am Trail
    • Toronto Pan-Am Connector
    • Niagara River Recreational Trail
    • Pickering Waterfront Trail
    • Durham County Recreational Trails
    • Laura Secord Legacy Trail
    • City of Hamiton Trails
    • Fort Erie to Hamilton connector trails
    • Hamilton to Brantford Rail Trail
    • Brantford to Kitchener connector trails
    • Kitchener to Elora connector trails
    • Elora to Barrie connector trails
  21. The Great Trail T-O-M walk – Toronto to Ottawa to Montreal
  22. Montreal to Toronto via the Waterfront Trail
  23. Camino de Santiago, specifically the Comino Portuguese from Porto in Lisbon to Campostella in Spain
  24. Oakridge Moraine Trail around greater Toronto
  25. Manhattan Shore Walk (circumference of the island of Manhattan)
  26. The Newfoundland T’Railway Trail, from Channel Port Aux Basques to St. John’s
  27. Fundy walk, from Moncton to Saint John along the Bay of Fundy
  28. The Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand from the northern tip of the North Island to the southern tip of the South Island
  29. The GR1 Tour de Paris
  30. The Bradt Brothers Trail, tracing my ancestors from New Amsterdam (now New York) up the Hudson to Albany and then west across upstate NY, across to Fort Erie, and along the Talbot Trail to Leamington in Essex County, SW Ontario.

Boundaries

It’s human nature, I think, to look for the edges and test the boundaries of something. Or maybe that’s just my nature.

Water’s edge

I was thinking this the other day, walking the pier near the Lehave Bakery, testing the edges by walking out along the wharf. Walk to the edge, and follow it round.

That notion of following the edge has been in my head, because now that we’re here in Lunenburg I’ve been thinking about some of the walks I’d like to do within the province, adding them to my bucket list, and those walks are themed by the edges I’d follow.

Nova Scotia is predominately a coastal province. By that I mean that most of the population lives near the sea shore. The larger cities and towns are mostly on the coasts – Halifax, Yarmouth, Sydney, and not least Lunenburg. The population has always faced the sea and looked to it for their livelihood. It means there are lots of roads and now trails that follow those coasts, so that makes walking a coastline activity.

Thinking about that got me thinking about boundaries and edges and limits. There are limits of geography, like the coast lines, and I’ll follow those. There are limits of endurance and strength, and while I don’t think I need those in exceptional quantities, walking several hundred km around the coasts will certainly call for some gusting towards those limits, at least for me.

And then there are limits we set for ourselves, limits of ambition I’ll call them. What do we want to achieve? How far do we push ourselves? Where will we take ourselves? Those limits are different for everyone of course, and I think they are also different at different points in our lives. The limits I set myself in my teens and 20’s are not those of my 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. Do I want to walk these walks now because I want to push back on the shrinking of those physical limits? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that now that I am retired and have a more or less grown child and fewer responsibilities, I feel like I can stretch my limits in ways that would have seemed imprudent or impractical when I was younger and paying mortgages and climbing corporate ladders.

The Olympics are on as I write this, and that is the spectacle of human limits writ large. What are competitive athletics if not tests of the limits of human strength and endurance and ambition? My walks are not my Olympics by any means, but deep down they come from the same source. Find the edge, and explore it.

TO Streets – Spadina

Part of a series, walking the main streets of Toronto

One of the streets I wanted to walk in criss-crossing Toronto is Spadina Avenue. It’s interesting for several reasons. For one thing, it was laid out as one of the grand boulevards downtown, where it’s about 60-70 m wide. For another, it’s been a draw for immigrants from around the world for more than 100 years, again especially downtown, where successive waves of newcomers to Toronto have left their mark. And finally, selfishly, it ends close to my home in mid-town, so in walking the length of it from the Lake I am basically walking home.

It starts right down at the Harbour, at Queens Quay, and on a January day it was pretty chilly down there. Come back in June and there will be people everywhere enjoying the sun, but on this day it just looked a bit bleak.

Looking north, the view is even less inspiring, since you are staring at the Gardiner Expressway, which Spadina has to cross under.

Going under the Gardiner, there’s a sense of a lost opportunity – all that land hidden away and under-utilized in a city that needs more housing, more parks, more green-space, more bike infrastructure, more community space. There are plans to do something with this – further west near Fort York there’s a cool new park area – and it will be interesting to see how this evolves given all the priorities the city faces.

From the gloom under the Gardiner, you emerge onto the bridge over the train tracks – quite a lot of them in fact, with many commuter lines leading in and out of Union Station. These railway lands were originally along Toronto’s waterfront, and development over the past 100 years has moved the water’s edge south. We’ve compounded that by allowing a wall of condo towers on the south side of the tracks, so that we’ve cut off our old downtown from the lake. There are ambitious and expense plans to build over the train tracks and create a park connecting the condos to the core – all part of the evolution of the city I suppose.

Finally, north of these barriers past Front Street, you feel like you’re in an actual busy, humming, urban neighbourhood. The area from Front Street north to 1 Spadina Circle near College is packed with shops, bars, restaurants, markets, people, streetcars, bikes, scooters, buskers, hipsters, students, and hawkers. There’s a lot of energy here, whatever the weather.

There are also some interesting little nods to history. Up until about 30 years ago, the area between King and Queen was Toronto’s Garment District, and it’s still known by that name and is commemorated by a giant thimble sculpture at the corner of Richmond and Spadina.

Between Queen and Dundas, you walk through what is still sometimes referred to as Chinatown, though these days it’s a more eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. Further past that, north of Dundas, you pass Kensington Market. This stretch, between Queen and College, is a great place to explore at leisure – it’s often said you can dine around the world in these few blocks. It was inner-city working class for a long time, and over the past 40-50 years has become first seedy, then bohemian, and now more hipster. The venerable old El Mocambo club is still there, and is soon to re-open. When the El Mo gets gentrified, you know the whole area is going that way.

As I was walking through here, I thought of a tune from the 80’s by a group called the Shuffle Demons – check out Spadina Bus and tell me you don’t think it’s catchy.

Continuing north, if you stand in the middle of Spadina at one of the streetcar stops, you get a great view south back towards the lake,

as well as north, towards the old hospital at 1 Spadina Circle that is now the University of Toronto Daniels School of Architecture.

North of Spadina Circle, coming up towards Bloor, you are on the west edge of the U of T campus, where some of the residences present a bold look.

Past Bloor, you keep climbing, subtly at first and then, when you get to the Baldwin Steps, quite steeply. The steps look pretty daunting – I was walking through here one summer day when I passed a bored personal trainer who was working out a poor slob (i.e. a middle aged overweight guy like me), making him do reps up and down the stairs. I thought of that as I slogged up on this day.

But, the view you get looking back south over the city from the top of the stairs is great, one of the best in the city. You can tell yourself when you are standing here that, 20,000 years ago you’d be on the beach overlooking Lake Iroquois which extended to this point – the Baldwin Steps are basically climbing to the ancient shoreline.

And of course, when you get to the top, you’re right next to one of Toronto’s most famous landmarks, Casa Loma. This ornate pile is now owned by the City, and is also home to a schwanky restaurant as well as lots of free events throughout the year. Whenever I go past, there’s always a swarm of tourists taking selfies.

Spadina keeps going north past Casa Loma, and you soon come to the bridge over the Nordheimer Ravine, part of the park/trail system that is today where the infamous Spadina Expressway would have been had it been built. I’m so glad that never happened.

On the other side of the ravine, you come to St. Clair Avenue. This is a residential area, and the gateway to Forest Hill, one of the more upscale neighbourhoods in Toronto. That said, the area around Spadina and Lonsdale is home to Forest Hill Village, a cozy little shopping area that’s just “the village” to those in the hood.

Spadina keeps climbing through here, and the village gives way to more houses and blocks of flats as you progress towards Eglinton. When you get to Eg, it looks like Spadina ends at a T-junction, and a pretty ugly junction at that, what with the Eglinton Crosstown construction underway and an auto repair shop on the corner. But, if you keep going east about 100 meters to Chaplin, you can turn north, cross Chaplin, and find the remaining few hundred meters of Spadina.

The Avenue here finishes its journey with houses on one side and Memorial Park on the west side.

My son played baseball here when he was in little league, and that image stuck in my mind despite the snow over the diamond.

Many times, walking Toronto’s streets is a journey through time for me, and Spadina captures that perfectly. The shops and markets, the Garment District, U of T, Casa Loma, and Memorial Park at the end are all reminders of different eras, personal and civic.

I like Spadina for what it is today as well as what it has meant to our city. It’s a timeline and a time tunnel, and a time-saver for getting down town. Walk it and see.

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.

Armchair Walks

On a cold, blustery, snowy, sleety, grey, and miserably wintery day, the thought of getting out for a walk is less than appealing. I know I should go out, but it looks nasty and it’s hard to muster the energy to put on the layers and winter gear.

So instead, I’m lingering inside over coffee and thinking about walks – armchair trekking if you will.

There’s the local walks around the city I could do over the winter – perhaps the Rouge River trails, or the upper Humber. And there are neighbourhood walks that are fun, like Bloor West and around High Park. Then again, I can revisit old favs, like the Don Valley, the Brickworks, and Wilket Creek/Sunnybrook Park. All that can keep me busy, but it doesn’t really need a lot of armchair planning.

So what about the long walks I want to do in the summer – perhaps another section or 2 of the Bruce Trail, or some parts of the Great Trail or the Waterfront Trail? There are lots of trails on my bucket list that I’d like to get to. I’m poring over maps looking at the trail and figuring out distances between accommodation. That will keep me occupied for a bit.

I like doing that, what might be termed map planning or “maplanning” – opening up All Trails or Google Maps and exploring different places where I’d like to take a long walk, like the Chemins de Grandes Randonnées in France, or the National Trails of England, or the Te Aroroa Trail in New Zealand.

Of course, you aren’t armchair walking if you’re not gear-dreaming too – what will I need if I take a particular trail? Is there enough accommodation available that I can skip a tent? How rugged is the trail so what foot gear is best? What about clothes – is it wet or dry, cool or hot? What percentage of time will I need to be in a tent versus a warm, dry bed? How big of a pack will I need? What’s the mean length of time between hot showers likely to be?

And logistics – how long will it take? How many days do I plan for? How do I get to and from the start and end points? How much does it cost to fly to that country in the first place? What sort of budget will I need? What time of year is best for that trail, in terms of weather, accommodation, and avoiding the tourist hordes?

Of course I’d like to actually be out on the trails actually walking carrying actual gear. Armchair walking is fun for an afternoon, but sooner or later you need to get to it. Soon … when the snow stops.

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.

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.