Crossing Toronto Stage 1 – Etobicoke to the Don

Storm clouds over the lake

Once you’ve made a plan, the next step is to execute it. Stage 1 of my Crossing Toronto plan was to walk from Etobicoke Creek to Corktown Common, beside the Don River. It meant starting at the western edge of the city, and since the Long Branch GO train station is only a few hundred meters from Etobicoke Creek, that was the perfect jumping off point. I had to hustle to catch my train that morning but I could relax and conserve energy on the way there.

From the train station, I walked west along Lakeshore Blvd West over Etobicoke Creek, leaving Toronto and entering Mississauga, where I could pick up a trail down the west side of the creek through Marie Curtis Park.

Etobicoke Creek at Marie Curtis Park

In Marie Curtis park, I turned east to re-enter Toronto by crossing the creek on the Waterfront Trail, part of the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail system. Within Toronto, the Waterfront Trail joins together multiple shorter Trails like the Martin Goodman Trail, the Beaches Boardwalk, and the trail through Port Union Waterfront Park. It’s well signed the whole way, and I would realize over the course of my journey that following its markers made navigation easy.

MapsDonate Now

Great Lakes Waterfront Trail

Given the transit time to get to Long Branch, it was already 9:00 a.m. by the time I got going, with grey skies and forecasts for some rain, and sure enough within 20 minutes some sprinkles forced me to drag out the rain gear, before a light rain took me into a Tim’s for a coffee. That unplanned early stop was welcome nevertheless, because in dashing for my train I hadn’t had a chance to buy a coffee and I was feeling caffeine-starved.

While sitting there drinking my coffee, my mind wandered onto Tim Horton, the hockey player. The current president of the Toronto Maple Leafs is Brendan Shanahan, who was born and raised in Mimico. Tim Horton was a star defenceman who anchored the championship Leafs teams in the 1960’s, including the 1967 team that last claimed the Stanley Cup for Toronto. He was also a canny businessman whose investment in a donut shop grew into a food empire spanning the country, so that today you can order a double-double from St. John’s to Victoria to Iqaliut. For those, unfamiliar with Tim’s, a double-double is a coffee with 2 creams or milks and 2 sugars, and if you say you’re doing a Tim’s run in any workplace in Canada, a chorus of heads will pop up to place their orders.

After that little break, I listened to my inner Gandalf and resolved to follow the Trail. Since much of this area is private property, it can’t always follow the shoreline of the lake so in many places it winds through the back streets of New Toronto and into Mimico, for the most part along Lakeshore Drive (not to be confused with the larger, busier Lakeshore Boulevard which runs parallel but north of Lakeshore Drive). These neighbourhoods have welcomed many new Canadians for decades, arriving from many countries including Poland, and that’s why the Polish Consulate in Toronto is located on Lakeshore Blvd at Royal York in Mimico.

And speaking of immigrants, I also noticed many hints of Newfoundlanders in the area, from bumper stickers to ironic boat names like Chateau Newf. There are many in St. John’s who would view a move to Toronto as move to a foreign country so I guess that’s in keeping with the neighbourhood.

It was a quiet morning, a Thursday in mid summer, and the sky was glowering. There was a bit of humidity though the temperatures weren’t that high, so it felt very close and you knew rain was in the air. There wasn’t that much breeze, nor much traffic, and it felt like I was out on my own – there were few fellow walkers about.

Along the way, I passed through Colonel Samuel Smith Park, which contains some great walking trails (and a really cool ice trail for winter skating). The early part of my walk was quiet and serene – birds everywhere, wildflowers in bloom, bees and butterflies, and even a turtle plopping back into the water. Something about the looming clouds made it even more intimate, like a darkened room.

Col Sam Smith park, in addition to wonderful trails, is also home to the Lakeshore Yacht Club. I spent many a night there with my friend Paul throwing darts, as he was a member. Walking past the boats brought back some warm memories.

Lakeshore Yacht Club – it was actually about 10:00 a.m. but the rain clouds made it look like sunset

Continuing on, I passed through a series of parks that have been created around the mouth of the Humber River – Humber Bay West, Humber Bay East, Humber Bay Shores – where the famous white-painted arched foot bridge welcomed me into the old city of Toronto. Prior the 1990’s, Etobicoke was a separate City in its own right, and walking through the area it still has a distinct feel to it.

The Humber River foot bridge

Once you cross the bridge, you’re in Sunnyside Park, where a boardwalk starts and continues on for several km. The boardwalk makes for great people watching as well as bird-spotting. There were Canada geese everywhere and their poo grenades made the boardwalk slippery. There were also mallard ducks, wood ducks, cormorants, herring gulls, swans, and even a great blue heron. I’m not a bird watcher, but it was funny seeing a flotilla of geese gliding majestically along the shore while in the distance a smaller and more ragged flotilla of sail boats competed in a race.

Along the waterfront, the City has installed hundreds of Adirondack-style chairs, dotted along the path all the way to Queens Quay. I chose one that gave a great view and enjoyed a bit of lunch. I was at about 12 km, so just over half-way, and ready for a rest.

From Sunnyside, the Waterfront Trail follows the shoreline east through a series of parks, and past landmarks like the Argonaut Rowing Club, the Palais Royale, and the Boulevard Club. The Trail is also adjacent to the Gardiner Expressway, and as I was walking along I noticed a large semi truck and trailer passing by. It caught my eye because the sides of the trailer were brightly painted with faces of some of the performers in Wrestlemania. And then I spotted another vehicle in the Wrestlemania caravan, and another, and another, till I lost count at around 15. How much stuff does it take to mount this particular circus? Does the world need 15 trucks worth of loud, spandexed athlete entertainers to consider itself amused? It put my walking into perspective – I amuse myself differently I guess.

At around the 15 km mark I passed Exhibition Place, and there noticed one of the 3 sure signs of the end of summer – I spotted a truck turning into the Exhibition grounds loaded with rides to set up for the Canadian National Exhibition aka the CNE or just the Ex (the other 2 signs being the calls of bluejays (the bird, not the baseball team), and the calls of commentators on the state of the Maple Leafs).

I have to say, this stretch of the Trail is a slog, exposed to the sun, greenery-free, and sandwiched between a busy Lakeshore Blvd/Gardiner Expressway and acres of car parks. But finally you come to Coronation Park. It’s a welcome stretch of greenery and is usually quiet, but on this day I came across a fundraising group that was having a softball home run derby – some of those folks could really put a charge into a ball, and the PA announcer was providing a running commentary.

East of Coronation Park, the trail passes through the Little Norway neighbourhood and then along Queens Quay, past the Toronto Music Garden. This is an interesting idea – the plantings are arranged to illustrate different styles of music. It’s lost on me, tone-deaf as I am, but worth a visit all the same.

I had just reached the shelter of the trees there when the rains returned in buckets, and I had to make a dash for another Tim Hortons along Queens Quay, where I sheltered alongside tourists from many places, judging by the snatches of Spanish, Italian, German, and American that I overheard. They struggled with the concept of a small double-double – that’s not how one orders coffee in Rome.

After a short wait, the rain cleared and I set my sights on the Don. I was about 18 km into the walk, and it was time to push on to the finish. There is an incredible amount of construction happening near the lake, from Yonge east to the river. Condos and office towers are going up left and right, and despite the marked Waterfront Trail, you have to dodge dump trucks and skip over muddy puddles trying to follow it. After the peaceful quiet of the morning’s walk, this was a loud reminder of Toronto’s constant growth. It shouldn’t have been a surprise – Col Sam Smith Park is just one of many built in part on landfill excavated during earlier waves of building, and Toronto is no mood to slow down.

That industrial character is also evident in landmarks like the Redpath Sugar Mills and the grain elevators. As you go east towards the Don, you lose sight of the lake amidst the new construction as well as the docks, wharves, and shipping warehouses that still dominate the area. It’s hard to follow the Waterfront Trail through this mess, but if you want to pass the mouth of the Don and get to Corktown Commons, you have to put up with the noise of traffic and construction.

Keating Channel, where the Don River meets Lake Ontario
The mouth of the Don

When you do get to the river, it’s sadness that overwhelms you. Once this was marsh and wetlands alive with wildlife. Today it’s brown lifeless water and rusty bridges, with traffic roars drowning out any hint of birdsong or frog croak.

And then you follow the path a few more meters and there under the Gardiner Expressway, a bright soul has created a series of fantastic murals that add colour and life to the grey concreted mess.

That little artistic interlude takes you past the worst of the construction and then you finally arrive at Corktown Common. It’s a wonderful park, and the warm wet summer we’ve been having has brought wildflowers and greenery exploding onto the paths. 30 years ago, the area that is now the park was a wasteland of old industrial buildings, car parks, and rusty containers. Today, this green oasis served to remind me that the shocking state of the mouth of the Don can be reversed, a fitting thought to finish the first stage of my journey.

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.

Big Walk Diary – TONotL Prep

As I’ve mentioned, I have a bucket list of Big Walks I would like to do, and this year I’ve set myself the challenge of attempting the first one. I’m calling it my TONotL walk – Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake. I’m giving myself 6 days to do the planned 160km (the map above doesn’t show all the twists and turns of the Bruce Trail), and I’ll be carrying clothes, lunches, water, etc. so my pack will be around 8-10 kg.

Since it’s my first Big Walk, I’ve invested in gear like boots and a good backpack, and part of the prep for this trek is breaking in and getting used to the gear. That’s especially true of the boots and pack. I’ve been using walks to try out combinations of socks and orthotics in the boots that will be comfortable over the journey. I’ve also been getting used to carrying a decent weight over the day while ensuring the pack is comfortable and adjusted to suit my body and style. I’ve also been trying out trekking poles, which I haven’t used before.

My prep walks have mostly taken in the Don Valley and related parks and trails, so that I can get lots of up and down hills and a mixture of trails and paved paths. The weather has finally warmed up and it’s been good to work up a sweat.

The biggest challenge has been with my boots. My custom orthotics don’t quite fit into my boots – they are extra thick with cushioning and my feet are too cramped in the boots if I use them. Instead I’ve been trying different off the shelf orthotics combined with different socks to get the arch support combined with cushioning. My custom orthotics do work with my running shoes and this TONotL walk will have a lot of paved trail to it, so I could just go with the running shoes. It will depend on the portion of the walk that covers the Bruce Trail – that will need good hiking shoes at the least and the boots will be better, so I’m trying to get used to them. Still, what I’m finding is that I have the stamina for 20k plus but my feet are killing me after a couple of hours. I’ll need to work through this.

Other than working out issues with my the boots, the rest of the training has been pretty good. I’ve loaded up my pack with some free weights, books, and other ballast so that I carry 10+ kg, probably more than I’ll have on the walk. The pack fits great, and makes it easy to carry the weight. I’ve done 3 hours + with that, and I’ve also done 25 km with a day pack in around 5 hours, so I figure if I give myself 8 hours or so to cover 30 km with the pack, I’ll have time for rest breaks and should be ok covering the distance with the load. I just need to get in another 2 long walks before I jump off and I should be ready to go.

Otherwise the rest of the planning and prep is going well. I’ve arranged my work schedule so that I have the 1st week of July clear, so now I’m following the weather forecast like an anxious farmer. I don’t expect to get 6 consecutive dry days, but I don’t want to walk for 2-3 days in pouring rain and thunderstorms either, so as long as it’s looking good a couple of days ahead of time then the walk will be on.

I’m aiming to do this in 6 legs, each around 30 km, give or take. The route will take me through Toronto to the Lake and then west along the shore to Port Credit. From there the next day it’s on to Burlington, then Grimsby, Jordan, Thorold, and finally Niagara-on-the-Lake. From Grimsby to Queenston outside Niagara Falls I’ll be doing the 88 km stretch of the Bruce Trail known as the Niagara section, and finally the last 10 km from Queenston to Niagara-on-the-Lake will be along the Niagara River trail. It will give me both interesting city life and quiet countryside, fields, and forests.

I’ve picked this route as a starter because the first 3 days are easy flat ground walking near the lake, so I can work out the kinks before I get to some hills climbing the Niagara Escarpment onto the Bruce Trail, plus I get an easy finish on the last day with a relaxing walk on a flat shaded trail. Even so I know it will be challenging just because it’s my first Big Walk, yet I’m also hoping it’s a small enough challenge that I can enjoy it as a good walk through interesting places.

The countdown has started. Stay tuned.

Big Walks

I’ve written about Little Walks, and of course about walks in general. Now I think I’m ready to talk about Big Walks.

Big Walks, to me, are the ones that take days and cover dozens or even hundreds of kilometres. I’ve been thinking about this often for a couple of years. I’ve always had a travel bug and that’s usually been satisfied in holiday and business travel by car or plane or train. I’ve been lucky enough to visit and immerse myself in some wonderful places, many of which have also featured as locations for memorable walks – London, Paris, New York, Sydney, and more.

That’s all well and good, but I’ve decided that I also want to combine the intimacy and pace of walking with the delights of visiting places and exploring new things. Big Walks are a way to do that.

My bucket list has several of these, some decidedly Bigger Walks than others. My ultimate Big Walk is to journey from John O’Groats at the northern tip of Scotland to Lands End at the south-west tip of Cornwall. It’s about 1450 km by the shortest route and I reckon it will take me several months. I have a thought that it would be cool to do it the year I turn 60 and that’s coming up in a few years, and that thought has spurred me to start planning some shorter but still Big Walks to build up to this Biggest Walk.

I’m going to start with a walk that combines some town and some country, and takes in a part of the Bruce Trail, the whole of which is on my Bucket List. This first Big Walk will be from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake, by way of the Waterfront Trail and the Niagara portion of the Bruce. It’s going to be around 160km depending on stops, and I’m giving myself 6 days to do it. Since it’s in the Golden Horseshoe near Toronto, it’s close which makes the logistics simpler – in fact I think the first night I can actually sleep at home because I can walk to Port Credit, GO Train home, and then GO Train back to Port Credit to pick up the next day. Still, it is going to be my first Big Walk, and that’s going to be a test of whether or not I can really do this.

That’s why I’m now in training mode. Working up to a Big Walk will take a lot of preparation to minimize the risk of overdoing it and injuring myself. I’m going to take progressively longer walks carrying some weight – 10k, 15k, 20k, and on up to 35k. Then 20-30k on back to back days over a weekend, and then back to back to back including a Friday too. Start with a load of around 4-5kg, and then up it gradually to get to around 10kg. My goal is to be able to carry 10kg over about 30k-35k in about 6-8 hours of walking day after day, and do it comfortably without wrecking my body.

Preparation also means planning the Big Walk. I’ve been looking through guide books and pouring over Google Maps to figure out distances so that I can look for accommodation. That part is important because I don’t want to carry camping or sleeping gear, so I’ll need a bed at the end of each day. Some Big Walks will make that easier than others – there’s an inn or a pub every mile or less in Ireland – but others will take some ingenuity, like the northern end of the Bruce Trail. If you’re going to walk from bed to bed while covering a decent distance per day, then you need to figure out where those beds will be and whether you’ll need to book ahead. There’s also the weather, so you need to look at seasonal average temperatures and rainfall to pick a suitable time of year, and then look at the medium and short term forecasts to pick a good set of dates. And of course there’s the walking conditions and terrain to plan for, and food, and getting to and from the start/end points. It’s all going to add up to some serious planning time.

These walks won’t be easy, especially since I’m already over 55 years old as I start trying them – a senior citizen by some definitions. I reckon I’m in decent shape for my age, but still, my knees and hips and back are often pretty creaky. My feet hurt most days, and I’ve got a wonky shoulder I separated years ago, and scar tissue from a torn calf muscle that still bothers me. And let’s not forget the heart scare I had a few years ago ….. At any rate, you get the picture. I’m not getting any younger or healthier.

But those things are the challenge of a Big Walk. It’s not just doing it, it’s preparing and planning and pushing yourself to do it. If it was easy, a proverbial walk in the park, then I wouldn’t be interested. Now that I’m semi-retired I have some time, and our son is soon heading off to university. My wife is semi-retired too, and we’re in a comfortable place financially. And deep down, I’m also thinking about my friend Paul who passed away far too young, and about the cancer scare my wife went through a few years ago, and just it boils down to carpe diem – seize the day. They call it a bucket list for a reason. Time to start crossing some things off that list.

Bucket List Walks

An ever-changing list of walks I’d like to do.

  1. John O’Groats to Land’s End, Scotland to Cornwall
  2. Camino de Santiago, France-Spain
  3. Bruce Trail, Ontario
  4. Manhattan Shore Walk (circumference)
  5. Hadrian’s Wall path, England
  6. Blue Stack Way, Donegal Ireland
  7. Lord Simcoe’s Ride (Fort York in Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake)
  8. The Toronto Cross (west to east and south to north across Toronto)
  9. Yonge Street (from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe)
  10. Toronto Waterfront Trail (Humber River to Rouge River)