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.
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.
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.
Duration: About 23 hours of walking over Days 4, 5, and 6 of the TONotL journey
Length: About 95 km in total
Climb: According to my fitness tracker, I climbed the equivalent of about 140 flights of stairs over the 3 days, so about 500 meters worth. That’s most of the height of the CN Tower.
Weather: After some early rain on Day 4, the rest of that day and Day 5 were gorgeous – low 20’s, blue skies, and fresh breezes. Day 6, however, was cloudy, muggy, and high teen’s to start turning to 2 hours of rain to finish the walk.
Route: About 32 km on the Day 4, walking down off the escarpment from my Day 3 Bruce Trail exit point, through the town of Grimsby and following Mountain Road north to the lake, then turning west and following the Waterfront Trail all the way around the corner of Lake Ontario across Hamilton Harbour to Spencer Smith Park in Burlington. On Day 5, another 36 km following the Waterfront Trail, along Lakeshore Road or on Trail sections going through various parks, to finish in Port Credit. Finally on Day 6, about 27 km from Port Credit along the Waterfront Trail, initially along Lakeshore Road, and then onto the Martin Goodman Trail in Toronto. I left the Trail at Coronation Park and walked up to Fort York, and then through the downtown core to finish at Nathan Philips Square in front of Toronto City Hall.
Be warned: This post has blisters in it. And kissing.
On Day 4, waking up in the B&B outside Grimsby I could hear the drops of water as the wind shook the night’s rain from the trees. Everything was damp though at least the rain had stopped. It was chilly and cloudy still, but the day promised to improve and by afternoon it was going to be sunny.
I was looking forward to the change in walking conditions, going from the often rugged footing of the Bruce Trail to the benign pavements and sidewalks of the Waterfront Trail. I could make better time and cover a longer distance more quickly, and I could take rest breaks in parks instead of sitting on damp logs.
The downside, however, is that the Waterfront Trail, of necessity, has to follow long stretches of road because much of the actual waterfront along Lake Ontario is privately owned. There are some public parks, and especially when I got Mississauga and Toronto there were public trails that form part of the Waterfront Trail system, but most of the remaining 95 km back to Toronto would be along roads, and roads meant traffic.
So I exchanged the Bruce Trail soundscape of air cannons and birds for one of trucks, motorcycles, and cars. Day 4 of the journey, between Grimsby and Burlington, was the worst for this. The whole day was dominated by the roar of traffic along the busy Queen Elizabeth Way (and by the way, we do the dear lady a disservice naming that road after her – the Roaring Road would be much more appropriate). Even in the Hamilton Beach neighbourhood where you walk next to the lake, I could hardly hear the lap of waves or calls of birds. I cannot imagine living there, though I guess you’d eventually condition yourself to ignore it. It’s probably like my tinnitus – it’s always there but you are only conscious of it when you choose to be.
At any rate, walking down Ridge Road outside Grimsby, I passed where I would have re-entered the Bruce Trail and then where I would have exited it again, if I had finished the last 2.5 km of the Niagara Section. It looked wet and slippery. My feet were giving my issues, with the blister on one toe threatening to become multiple blisters. I had rubbed them thoroughly with anti-chaffing cream that morning and had bandaged and taped as needed, but I knew there’d be new blisters by the time I reached Burlington.
To get to the official Waterfront Trail from the town of Grimsby, you have to cross over the QEW, and walk through a residential area. I went as far north as I could to get near the lake, and walking west along Lakeside Drive I came to a little park, where there was a great view over the lake. The skyline of Toronto was clear under the clouds, and that skyline would be the beacon for me as it drew closer hour by hour for the next 3 days.
Once you’re on the Waterfront Trail, you just follow the signs as you hug the lake as much as is practical. For much of its length between Grimsby and Hamilton, the Trail follows the North Service Road, and in many places this is just meters from the QEW itself. Some stretches are separated by a concrete sound abatement barrier, about 3 meters high, and others by nothing more than a chain link fence. There was no way to fool myself into thinking this was pleasant. I just walked as fast as I could to get through it.
Eventually, painfully, I came to Confederation Beach Park in Hamilton, on the east side of the harbour, and there I could join the Waterfront Trail proper. From here the Trail as a separate walking path is continuous all the way to Spencer Smith Park in Burlington, so the 2nd half of my day would be removed from the QEW, yet never so far as to be removed from the drenching sound of traffic.
I found a nice bench in the sun and had a bite and a rest. I knew I had been motoring and found that I was a bit more than half way through my planned route for the day. Compared to my pace on the Bruce Trail, this was flying.
The Trail turns north here as you start to curl around the western end of Lake Ontario. North of Confederation Beach Park, you pass through the Hamilton Beaches residential area. This feels distinct from the rest of the city, and I guess it’s always been a bit of a getaway-from-it neighbourhood compared to areas closer to the downtown core. You’re quite close to the water and many of the house have fantastic views over the Lake, and yet there’s that constant traffic roar. As well, Hamilton has a long history of heavy industry, and while the pollution from the steel industry is a fraction of what it once was, there’s still a distinct tang in the air. It doesn’t help that a long line of electrical transmission towers march north right at the water’s edge.
As you go north, eventually you come to what’s known as the Burlington Canal, which cuts through the isthmus that encloses Hamilton Harbour. This is crossed by a lift bridge, and the Trail uses that bridge to hop over the water, so you have to climb up to it.
From the bridge as you cross, you get a great view of the harbour looking under the higher Burlington Skyway that carries the QEW over the canal. The steel works that made Hamilton an industrial powerhouse for a 100 years line the harbour.
Looking the other way, you can see along the Lake Ontario shoreline towards Toronto.
Once you climb down off the bridge and rejoin the Trail, you’re only about 3 km from downtown Burlington and Spencer Smith Park. I covered it quickly, because I wanted to get to my hotel and chill out for a bit. My parents were passing through Burlington returning from a vacation of their own, and we had arranged to meet for dinner that night. I did pause for the view from Spencer Smith Park, where I could see across the lake where the dark line of the Escarpment was clear. It was hard to believe I’d covered that distance in just 4 days.
That night, over dinner I recounted some of my adventures on the Bruce Trail to my parents. They were quite proud of how I was doing – thanks Mom and Dad.
I had treated the blister on the little toe of my right foot the night before, and I could see that I had another one developing on the big toe of the same foot. As well, the tops of both feet were irritated and red, and both heels were looking bruised. There was nothing for it but to lather both feet in anti-chaffing cream, tape up my raw baby toe, and put on my shoes and socks. At least the road would be flat for the most part and crossed through several parks, so I planned for breaks where I could take off my shoes to air my feet.
I had to pause within the first hundred meters that morning, because the early sky was a lovely salmon-peach, and the old saying came to mind – “red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor take warning”. I knew from the forecast that Day 6 promised rain, and the view over the lake was telling me the same.
It’s pleasant enough walking along Lakeshore, as there’s much less traffic compared to the highways, the road is lined with trees, and it’s mostly a quiet residential area. It’s also kind of boring. From Burlington to the Mississauga city limit, you basically pass through 20 km of upper-end housing with a few parks and the shopping areas at Bronte Harbour and downtown Oakville. Any given random stretch looks more or less like this:
That said, walking through Bronte Harbour I was able to stop to pick up some fruit, and in Oakville I had lunch in Lakeside Park. At every stop, a glance north-east up the lake showed the Toronto Skyline getting closer.
After 20+ km, as you leave Oakville and enter Mississauga at Winston Churchill Drive, Lakeshore Road turns north for a bit and becomes Southdown Road, before turning back east and reverting to Lakeshore Road again. This jog takes you around some large factories and chemical plants, though there’s also some park land in there too.
It’s noisy, dusty, and there’s a chemical odour in the air. I was tired and my destination in Port Credit lay on the other side of these factories, so once more it was head down and chugging to motor on through.
On the other side of the plant, the Waterfront Trail deviates from Lakeshore Road and takes you through some quieter streets in the Glen Leven neighbourhood, before eventually leading you to Jack Darling Park. This made for a good final rest stop for the day, and once recharged, I set out to cover the last few km into Port Credit.
The Waterfront Trail returns you from the park to Lakeshore Road, and marching along it here is much more cityish compared the stretches in Burlington and Oakville – the traffic here is heavier, the road is wider, and the speed limit is higher, so you get a good dose of traffic noise and dust because the Trail runs adjacent to the street. I could see my hotel getting closer, and also saw a grocery store where I could pick up some dinner and some lunch for the next day. I was pretty tired when I finally got there, and the hot shower was welcome. Still, I was a bit nervous looking at my feet because the blister on my big toe was getting worse, to join the mess on my little toe. One more day.
It rained overnight but it had stopped by the time I set out. Once again I put blister bandages on the toes on my right foot, slathered on the anti-chaffing cream, and laced up my shoes for one last day.
In my day job, I manage software projects. Often, as you get closer to a deadline, the team will get what I call completionitis – that drive to the finish that can mean cutting corners and making mistakes in the haste to cross the finish line.
I could feel it in myself, completionitis, but being conscious of it meant that even though I wanted to get home as fast as I could, I didn’t want to cut corners. While it was shorter and more direct to simply follow Lakeshore Road all the way into Toronto to Fort York, I told myself that I’d follow the Waterfront Trail signs even if that took me through parks and neighbourhood back streets and made the journey longer.
I also decided that to end my journey appropriately, I would keep going past my original end point at Fort York and instead continue on to finish at Nathan Philips Square by city hall. I wanted to make sure I got a selfie in front of the Toronto sign there, so I texted my wife to ask her to meet me there, stopped for a coffee to fuel up, and set off.
At first the weather gods were with me. The sun came out, I put on my sunglasses, and delighted in the breeze. I even got a shadow selfie.
It’s only a bit more than an hour’s walk from Port Credit to the Toronto city limits, and I couldn’t help myself – I had to leave the Waterfront Trail for a bit so that I could take a picture of the Welcome to Toronto sign at the city limit at Etobicoke Creek.
After that, I rejoined the Waterfront Trail. The sun by now had disappeared and ominous clouds were building. Knowing rain was inevitable, I wanted to make time and kept walking as quickly as I could, passing up spots for a break and only pausing long enough to put the rain cover on my pack.
This was familiar ground because I had walked this part of the Waterfront Trail just a few weeks ago on my Toronto Crossing trek, so I wasn’t interested in exploring. I made pretty good time, and in fact was ahead of schedule when I crossed the Humber River over the white arched bridge.
Just past this, in Sunnyside Park, I found a covered picnic area where I could finally stop for a break, almost 4 hours after I had left Port Credit. I was impatient to finish by this point, but I forced myself to relax, took my shoes off, ate slowly, and rehydrated. When I was done, I put on my rain jacket against the growing chill, and was glad I had done so because just as I started out again, the heavens opened. I walked for 30 minutes in a steady rain, which finally slowed to a misty drizzle as I got to about Ontario Place.
Just east of Ontario Place, you come to Coronation Park, and there I finally said goodbye to the Waterfront Trail, turning north up Strachan Avenue to reach Fort York. The rain picked up again as I approached, but I paused to take some pics.
By now I’d put in my ear buds and cranked up some energy music (an eclectic playlist of pop and country that I’ve shared on Apple Music). I was in full slog mode, like when I did a marathon a couple of years before, and I needed the push and distraction of the music to keep me going.
From Fort York, it was a short climb up Bathurst Street to King, and then a zig-zag through the Entertainment District to reach Queen and University. The rain was coming down harder, and completionitis was driving me past the pains in my feet. I was so into it that I was ahead of schedule, and arrived at Nathan Philips Square at least 10 minutes earlier than what I’d said to my wife and my son, who’d also come down to meet me at the finish.
I knew they’d want to see me march in, so I took off my pack and waited on a park bench to cool down, though at least in that time the rain finally stopped. When I reckoned they should have arrived, I put my pack back on and walked out into the Square. The first thought I had when I saw them was that either I had shrunk under the weight of my pack or my son had grown another few centimetres in the past week.
My wife came up and I gave her a hug and a kiss, though she wrinkled her nose as she stepped back. Later when I got into the car and the waft of my wet-dog aroma hit my nose, I understood why. Sorry Hon.
After that, it was time for the obligatory selfie.
A few days after I got back, I was chatting with a fellow parent at our sons’ volleyball game, and I mentioned the walk I’d just completed. “What made you take that on?”, she asked. “Was it to raise money for a charity?” Others have asked me that as well – why? Why walk for 6 days?
I’ve written previously about why I walk. Sometimes walking is a form of contemplation, of immersing oneself in the walk. Sometimes it’s exercise. Sometimes it’s exploration. This walk was about all of those things, and as well, sometimes walks are like with this one – they’re about the goal. I set a goal, made a plan, and took pleasure in executing it. Along the way of course I got some exercise (though damnably, I finished at about the same weight I’d started at), I saw many new things, and I had time to think.
Thinking time was a big part of the appeal for me, and in fact at one point I found myself thinking about what I had been thinking about over the past few days as I walked. I realized that a strangely diverse range of topics had drifted through my head:
what percentage of vehicles on Lakeshore Road were Porche Cayennes versus Range Rovers versus landscaper pick-ups
baseball players who’d had their careers cut short by concussions
weird bits of roadside trash (who throws out a bunch of VCR cassettes? Who still even owns a VCR?)
which was more annoying, the sound of leaf-blowers or the roar of highway traffic
All that said, if I have to answer that “why?” question honestly, I did this walk because I knew it would be a challenge and I wanted to see if I could do it. Long distance walks are hard. When it’s hot and you’re exhausted, when it’s raining and you’re cold, when your feet hurt, when blisters pop, when your shoulders ache under the pack – all these things accumulate and at some point on a long walk it’s inevitable that the thought of stopping, temporarily or completely, goes through your head. But you don’t, because you’re stubborn – deep down you keep going because you want to.
And let’s face it, I wasn’t exactly crossing a desert carrying my life’s possessions in flight from danger – my life wasn’t at stake by any means. If I’d really hurt myself, help was just a cell phone away. Still, it was hard for me, there was a lot of effort to it, and if a younger, fitter person could have done it more easily, that’s not the point. In a world of convenience, where everything can be ordered in, deliberately doing something that’s hard, because it’s hard, can be liberating. I met no one’s goals but my own, because I’ve reached that point in my life where measuring myself by someone else’s yardstick is soooo yesterday.
That achievement was part of the satisfaction. Another part was the pleasure I’ve always taken from the execution of a plan. Even as a kid, I was a planner. I’d map out adventures in my head – what if I was the only survivor of a plane crash in the northern woods? – and I’d make lists of the things I might need to survive and how I could use them. I read Robinson Crusoe and Lost in the Barrens and told myself I could do at least as well as the characters in those books. My bucket list walks are me 50 years later still making lists and plans.
There’s a saying that there’s a little boy in every man. Scrambling over rocks along the Bruce Trail, there was a little boy in my head that delighted in how my list making and planning had come together – my walking poles, my shoes, my pack, my first aid kit with the blister kit, and so on.
Of course there’s an adult in the room too, and the mature me drew satisfaction from the fact that I’m healthy enough to do it, financially secure enough to afford it, and prepared enough to plan it. It’s like a puzzle, where the pieces come together to reveal the whole picture.
My mom had asked me if I got lonely walking by myself. The short answer is no, I’ve always liked to have time to myself. The longer answer is that walking by myself is a journey with my thoughts, with the people I meet, and the scenes I absorb to savour in my mind’s eye. It’s the sounds, the smells, and the sweat. It’s the accumulation of stages towards the end goal. And it’s also a shared journey. I’m lucky enough to be married to my best friend who’s always with me wherever I am. Thanks Love.
Length – about 98 km total, including about 93 km on the trail itself and another 5 km or so getting to/from the trail when I left it each day and rejoined it the next.
Height – according to my fitness tracker, I climbed the equivalent of about 550 flights of stairs over the 3 days – that’s probably around 2000 m of climbing so hey guess what, I did over 20% of Mount Everest!
Weather – first full week of autumn, cloudy with rain on Day 1, then sunny and breezy on Days 2-3; warm temps for early autumn – mid-20’s mostly
Route: About 35k on Day 1, from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Queenston Heights via the Niagara River Recreational Trail. Then along the Niagara Section of the Bruce Trail, starting from the famous cairn marking the start of the trail at Queenston Heights, and continuing along it to Glendale Avenue in Thorold to complete Day 1. About 33k on Day 2, rejoining the trail at Glendale and following it through Short Hills Provincial Park, Rockaway Conservation Area, and Louth Conservation Area to exit the trail on Glen Road near Jordan. Finally, about 24.5k on Day 3, rejoining the trail and following it through Balls Falls Conservation Area, Cave Springs Conservation Area, Mountainview Conservation Area, and 30 Mile Creek Conservation Area to exit the trail at Ridge Road near Grimsby.
In earlier posts, I’ve talked about my bucket list of walks, which includes the walk between Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. I wanted to do this because I reckoned it was a good intro to long distance walking – it’s in my own backyard, I could cover part of the Bruce Trail, and I could learn from it to decide how to approach other bucket list walks, such as the Camino de Santiago.
I didn’t know what to expect, or even if I could finish it. I knew it would be hard, at least for me, as a somewhat overweight, moderately in-shape, mid-50’s guy. I wasn’t going to push myself to the breaking point, but I did want to see how far I could go.
But to find out I had to do it, and that meant starting with the Bruce Trail. My wife and I drove down to Niagara-on-the-Lake on a Sunday, the last official day of summer. We had a lovely evening, enjoying a great meal with some very good local wines, and a gentle stroll about town.
Leaving on Monday morning, I wanted to start at Fort George, because then I could finish in Toronto at Fort York and that appealed to the history buff in me. Besides, my family, the Bradt’s, emigrated from Europe in the 1640’s to then New Amsterdam / now upper New York state, and from there moved to the Niagara region as United Empire Loyalists in the 1790’s, where distant relatives served in the Canadian Militia units attached to the British Army (Butler’s Rangers) during the War of 1812 when Forts George and York played important roles. Basically, from way, way back I have roots in the area.
There was some rain that morning, but I had been keyed up to start, so I was ready to leave as soon as I woke up. I put the rain cover on my pack, clicked together my walking poles, and headed off down the Niagara River Recreational Trail.
The Niagara River Rec Trail is a great little walk in its own right. It follows the river quite closely so you get great views over the gorge, and it’s lined by wineries, orchards, and fruit stands. My wife and I have walked part of it a few times when we’ve been in Niagara-on-the-Lake and having stopped at various wineries to sample and buy, we return later with the car to pick up our trophies.
On this day, of course, my focus was ahead of me. I kept looking down the road where the Niagara Escarpment loomed larger and higher as I got closer. I knew that it’s about 100m high in most places, but it seemed higher because it just jumps up from flat ground.
As I walked, I was constantly jolted by something that seemed appropriate given my start at Fort George – the constant banging and thumping of air cannons. It was harvest time in the fruit basket of Ontario, and every orchard, vineyard, and field seemed to have at least one of these cannons firing away to scare off birds. The almost military cannonade called to mind the sound track from films of World War 1, and the rumble of the guns would accompany me all the way to Grimsby after I’d left the Bruce.
Coming into Queenston, the Recreational Trail takes you up into the Queenston Heights park. It also takes you past the Sir Isaac Brock Monument – a reminder of the historical importance of the area to what eventually became Canada.
After a quick look at the monument, I turned and saw that over the river, a number of turkey vultures and hawks were circling in the breeze, just a few meters from the roadway – I stood there mesmerized for several minutes, though they moved so fast it was hard to get a good photo.
From there, it was time to climb some more and find the cairn that marks the official start of the Bruce Trail.
Looking opposite the cairn, I could see a line of trees marching across the park, each marked with the white painted blaze that I would follow for the next 3 days.
After a quick break to fill water bottles and have a bite, I set off on the Trail. It was a weird feeling. I had been anticipating a rugged trail and yet as you cross Queenston Heights Park following the markers, you’re walking on mowed grass with very little that looks like a trail. Gradually you get closer to a line of trees with no apparent opening, though one eventually appears. The Trail looks easy here, but I would learn that it’s a deceptive entry.
Not long after I joined the Trail, the looming grey skies opened up and the rain stayed with me for another hour or so. Soon I was skidding on mud and blessing my walking poles as I descended the escarpment, in some places very steeply, and then climbed back up again; dipping down gullies and scrambling back out; up and down, up and down, all on muddy ground and broken rock.
I kept looking for a place to take a break, but another lesson of the Trail is that there are few places to stretch your legs unless you want to get wet. I eventually found a downed tree that served the purpose, at the cost of a soaked seat to my shorts.
The first 20 km of Trail takes some interesting twists. At one point, coming out of the Woodend Conservation Area, I followed the Trail across the Royal Niagara Golf Course where I ran into a guy searching for his ball and we shared a hello. In another section, I crossed a meadow along a narrow grassy path that was littered with snails – I tried to avoid stepping on them but couldn’t help crunching my way for several hundred meters, feeling guilty for my clumsy human feet.
Later, the trail follows the 3rd Welland Canal, the one from the 1880’s – the sun had come out again by then, and I stopped several times to admire the view of the old locks cut into the escarpment.
It was a grind to finish the Trail that day. I was tired and running short of water, so it was with great relief that I came off the Trail at Glendale Avenue, in the Merriton neighbourhood of St. Catherines. I was below the escarpment at this point, and I knew that the next day I would have to climb it once more. With that thought, I checked into my hotel and enjoyed a hot shower and a welcome glass of wine. Day 1 done.
In the morning, I thought that I’d feel stiff as a board, but to my relief it wasn’t too hard to get going. After walking back to where I’d left the Trail the day before, I followed it along Glendale Avenue and then climbed the escarpment up Tremont Drive. Here you’re walking through a residential neighbourhood, but very soon you step into forests again as you reach the top – in fact you’ve entered the grounds of Brock University. The walking is easy here – the forest is old with open ground under the trees and it’s easy to follow the markings.
Winding through the campus, I popped out passing by the Brock University athletic facilities, where I took a quick pic for my wife, a Brock Alumnus.
As you leave the campus, the trail takes you into the Short Hills Provincial Park. It’s mixed ground here, with some open meadows skirting fields, as well as laneways through the forest. The ever-present air cannonade still dominated the soundscape, but the open spaces teemed with the buzz and chirp of crickets, grasshoppers, and cicadas.
It was a gorgeous day, welcome after the rain the day before, and I made what I thought was pretty good time. When I took a break, however, and checked my fitness tracker and then the map, I was shocked to discover that after several hours of walking, I still had 15 km to go. I was doing a lot of walking but a lot of it was up and down, not forward towards my goal, so while the fitness tracker clocked kms I wasn’t advancing on the map. My strategy became short breaks and motoring on.
Here the Trail continues through several more conservation areas, and you keep climbing and descending, up and down gullies and sometimes up and down the whole escarpment. The terrain gets harder too – by the time I got to Rockaway Conservation Area, I ran into several km of broken rock underfoot. Each step took concentration to avoid a slip or worse, and several times I lost the trail and had to back track – in looking down at your feet you lose track of the markers. Even when it wasn’t rocky underfoot, it was narrow and twisty. Despite my best efforts I knew I was only covering about 3 km per hour, well under my planned pace.
Eventually, the Trail emerges from trees to follow a couple of country roads, and looking down one of them I had a perfect view of Toronto on the horizon. It was probably 50 km across the lake, and I knew there were at least 100 km to reach it.
There were more twists and climbs yet on the Trail that day. Near the end of the day, I came across a photographer set up in a gully, with a camera on a tripod aimed at single tree. He said he’d been photographing it for the past year, and was waiting for the perfect shaft of autumn sunlight to light up the leaves. While we chatted, just such a gleam appeared, and he happily fired off several exposures.
Leaving him behind, I followed what seemed like a hundred km of broken rock trail, and I was tired, sweaty, thirsty, and sore by the time I reached my Trail exit near Jordan. I reckoned I earned my beverage of choice that day.
On Day 3, I awoke still feeling pretty good – a bit stiff but otherwise ready for the day ahead. On paper, it looked easier – this was was going to be my shortest planned day, only around 25 km, and I thought I could knock it off in 7 hours or so.
I soon changed my mind when I rejoined the trail outside Jordan and entered the Balls Falls Conservation Area. You descend here, and along the bottom of the escarpment you follow the Twenty Mile Creek upriver. There’s a lovely little rock pool and with the sun shining, the water burbling, and the breeze tickling the leaves I couldn’t help but smile.
And then I came to the Stairs.
They stretch more or less straight up the escarpment, 120 steps in all, with another few meters of trail climb at the top. I was gassed by the time I got there, dripping with sweat and huffing and puffing. A kind soul has put a log in place so you can sit and catch your breath, and I took full advantage of it to recover.
From here you walk through the upper part of the Balls Falls area, and it’s gorgeous. The trail is friendly here, wide and level, with lots of open spaces to view the gorge of the Twenty Creek.
A couple of wild turkeys trotted along in front of me for a bit, and other than them and a few dog walkers, I had the trail to myself.
Those few km after the Stairs lulled me into a false sense of security, thinking that this was going to be an easy walk. That changed as I left the Balls Falls Conservation Area. The trail follows the escarpment quite closely, and I descended it to spend several km scrambling along the bottom over broken rock. I tripped here and fell, the only time I did so on the Trail, and then at the Cave Spring Conservation Area I climbed again back to the top of the escarpment. It was a slog on an increasingly hot day, but the view from the top was worth it.
I wasn’t the only one enjoying the view. I came across a through-hiker who had the foresight to carry a small camp chair and a portable set of watercolours. He was sitting, focused, a palette attached to one hand and a small canvas on his knee. I didn’t want to disturb him, and after a quick sneak peak at what looked like a pretty good landscape, I left him to his labours and continued along.
Past Cave Springs, there’s a small park with welcome benches where I could sit, take off my shoes, and have a bite. I had developed a blister on one toe, the first of the journey, and it a few minutes to treat that. After what ended up as a longer break than I wanted, I was shocked to check the Trail map and realize I still had 10+ km to go, and it was already around 2:00 pm – that meant 3 hours of walking so time to start chugging.
The Trail takes you through the Mountainview Conservation Area, and then the Thirty Mile Creek woods, with a lot of broken rock, gullies, muddy sloughs, and few breaks of open forest. There are a couple of stretches following roads where you can catch your breath, but otherwise it just keeps leading you up and down the slope of the escarpment. I could feel my pulse pounding and the blister on my toe was starting to bug me too. I was exhausted but relieved to pop out onto a road a couple of km from Grimsby to find the B&B I’d booked for the night right there in front of me. I was so tired that I abandoned thoughts of finishing the last 2.5 km of trail that would complete the Niagara section, instead checking in for the night. Day 3 was done, I was done, and also done, as it turned out, was my journey along the Niagara section of the Bruce Trail.
It rained overnight, and the next morning it was still damp and grey with a bit of misty rain in the air. I thought of polishing off the remaining bit of Trail, but I knew that it would be wet and muddy, and the map showed a steep descent and then a climb over that remaining couple of km, which I knew would be tough. Reluctantly, I decided to skip this last short section of the Trail. Officially I did all but 2.5 km of the Niagara section of the Bruce trail, but I’ll pick it up from there one day when I do the next section of the Bruce.
So what did I learn? Firstly, that I could actually do it even though it was tough going in many places. Ironically, I was travelling through fabulously scenic countryside and yet I didn’t actually see that much. I spent most of my time looking down for roots and rocks. At most I’d glance up every 5-10 seconds to catch the next blaze, and otherwise I kept my head down. Even so I must have tripped or slipped a few dozen times a day despite my best concentration – the Trail is not for the wandering mind.
I was also sobered to think that if the Niagara section is one of the easier stretches of the Bruce, then the toughest parts would take a lot more planning and prep. For this journey I had planned to do around 30 km a day but knowing what I know now, I think 20-25 km is more realistic.
As well, I carried a relatively light pack since I was staying at hotels along the way. Even so, that 11 kg felt pretty heavy near the end of each day so in future I’ll have to build in more training walks carrying at least that much weight, so I’m better acclimated.
I also learned that there are few areas on the Bruce for just sitting, and very few places to refill with potable water from a tap. On the more remote sections, I’ll need to plan to filter and treat water along the trail from streams and springs.
Finally, as beautiful as it is, and as famous as it is in the hiking community, I thought the Bruce was surprisingly lightly travelled. I only met 2 other through-hikers and just a handful of day walkers over 3 days on one of the busiest sections of the Trail. Granted it was a bit late in the season, but the weather was generally good. I was conditioned by my walks along Toronto trails to expect to meet people at least a few times an hour.
Several people have asked me what I do when I’m walking – do I listen to music, do I get bored, do I feel lonely walking by myself. No. The beauty of the Bruce, for me, is the peace and quiet. I loved it.
As you may recall, back in June I was planning to take one of the Big Walks on my bucket list, and travel from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake, something I called my TONotL walk.
Unfortunately, plans had to change when we travelled to Ireland for my wife’s Aunt Norah’s funeral.
Now that summer is ending, it’s time to put that plan back on the front burner. Starting next week, I’ll be setting off on my journey.
My original plan had been to walk from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake, hence TONotL, but I’ve since decided to reverse it. I like the idea of walking towards home, instead of away from it. Plus, this way I get the Niagara section of the Bruce Trail done in the first 3 days of my trek when I am fresher and if that kills my knees then at least I’ll have completed one section of the Bruce. It’s also pretty much flat walking along the Waterfront Trail for the last 3 days following the lake, so hopefully I just have to deal with tired feet at the end.
I have to confess I’m nervous about kicking this off. My recent long hikes have gone ok though my feet have been tired the next day and after 3 days crossing Toronto my knees were feeling the stress, so I’m wondering how I am going to do this 6 days in a row. I’ve done 30+ km in a day many times, but I’ve never done 30+ km 6 days in a row, while carrying a pack. Hmmm.
Also the new boots I bought back in the spring, while sturdy and very supportive, fit so snugly that I can’t get my custom orthotics into them plus they make my feet overheat. Instead I’m debating between using my old broken-in boots versus a pair of walking shoes versus a part of cross-country running shoes.
The walking and running shoes work better with my custom orthotics, but I have to watch for blisters, especially with the new walking pair that fit the best with the insoles. On the other hand the old hiking boots and the cross-country running shoes are pretty comfortable and don’t cause blisters, but one foot gets tired because the orthotic doesn’t quite fit properly into the right one.
After some test walks this past week, I’ve decided on the new walking shoes. About 60% of the walk is on roads and sidewalks suited to running shoes, and the rest is along the Bruce Trail where it could be muddy or rocky, and the Goretex construction and treaded soles should work well there. After getting blisters during an early test walk, I’ve found a combination of socks and anti-chafing cream that seems to control that. I don’t want to afford the weight of taking 2 pairs of footwear, so it’s cross fingers and hope I made the right choice.
The weather looks pretty good, not too much rain forecast and comfortable temps. Even so, I need to think about staying hydrated. Should I carry an extra water bottle? What about water stops along the Bruce? How much water should I carry? I’ve decided on 2 litres, which will add 2 kg to my carrying weight at the start of the day but I’d rather not be caught without water on a back trail somewhere. And what about food? – no Tim Hortons along the Trail so what do I pack? Where are the grocery stores to stock up each morning? I’ll have to have a good breakfast each day and then carry light high-energy foods like dried fruit, energy bars, hard sausages, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
For my accommodation, I’m sorted. I had originally planned to day-hike part of the trek, by using the GO stations at Port Credit and Burlington to come home for 2 of the nights and then return the next morning. That’s changed, I guess because deep down it feels like cheating. It means I’m carrying a full pack of clothes, food, and rain gear each day. I’ve booked hotels or B&Bs for each night, so I have a destination locked in for each day’s walking. It means I’m looking at 7-8 hours per day including rest stops to cover the 30 km or so that I’ll need to cover.
I’ve also spent time pouring over Google Maps in detail, and I’ve downloaded the Bruce Trail app onto my phone. I’ve scouted for likely places to get water, to use the restroom facilities, to grab some lunch, and to take a break.
And of course I’ve gone over my packing list, and checked my gear, and I’ve done a full dress-rehearsal pack for a 3 hour hike, so I’m ready on that front. I’ve got my hiking socks, hiking clothes, rain gear, blister kits, sewing kit, first aid kit, food kit, and walking poles all sorted out. It adds up to just over 10 kg with water and food, so not too bad. My pack is fitted and adjusted. I’ve done just about everything I can to be ready.
Gear – check
Weather – check
Accommodation – check
Checklists – check, check, check
It’s just nerves, this overthinking. Time to get walking and let the rhythm sort it out. Check.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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! …..”.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.