South Shore Walks

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had a chance to revisit some old haunts in Nova Scotia such as Mahone Bay and Lunenburg. That’s reminded me of walks past in different places along the South Shore. Since I’m writing this on a rainy autumn day, it’s as good a time as any describe some of our favourite places for a walk.

Mahone Bay

We first visited Mahone Bay nearly 30 years ago. Back then, it wasn’t quite as touristy as it is now. There were a few nice little B&Bs, and a few shops. The draw was the view, both of the harbour and the bay, and also of the iconic row of 3 churches that sit side by side along the south shore at the top of the inlet.

Since then, we’ve visited the town many times, and twice have stayed in vacation properties there. Those visits have given us many opportunities to stroll about the town, taking in more than just the waterfront. On one of those visits, we were out for a stroll after dinner along the quiet back streets of the town, and nearly jumped out of our skins when we came upon a deer which was contentedly munching flowers in someone’s garden.

It’s that kind of town. If you visit on a sunny summer Sunday in mid-afternoon, you’ll think the place is busy all the time and crowded with tourists. But wait a bit past dinner time, or visit mid-week, and you’ll find that once the city tourists are gone, the little town’s charms are all the more evident and available as you stroll about and poke into the shops and restaurants. A leisurely 30 minutes will pretty much cover the town, and it will be a relaxing way to get to know the place.

Lunenburg

Lunenburg is most famous as the home of the Bluenose, the iconic schooner that graces a Canadian dime. Today, the Bluenose II is often in port, and you can tour the boat and even book a sailing cruise on her.

More than that, however, is the year-round town – the shops and services that the surrounding area depend on outside the tourist season. Because of that, we’ve visited many times. We love to wander up and down the steep streets that rise behind the harbour. You can spend an hour or so doing that and getting in a workout, and there’s also a lovely little walking trail that circles the town. That walking trail, by the way, also offers a way to walk Mahone Bay (about 10km), if you’re up for a longer hike.

Hirtles Beach and the Gaff Point Trail

Another favourite that we discovered more than 10 years ago is the Gaff Point Trail. It’s a short drive out of Lunenburg, south west towards Kingsburg. The Trail starts at the parking lot for Hirtles Beach, another favourite spot for splashing in the waves, and follows the Beach towards Gaff Point itself.

There, it loops around the tip of the point through forest and along the rocky shore, and provides fabulous views up and down the shore along with many spots where you can sit and just watch the waves and seabirds. We usually take a picnic when we go, and spend some time chilling. It’s about a 7.5km walk there and back so give yourself 2 hours, and if the weather is nice it’s great to kick off your shoes and splash along the water’s edge as you finish the hike.

Peggy’s Cove

While we’ve been to Nova Scotia many times over the years, we had always skipped Peggy’s Cove. My parent’s had dragged me there as a reluctant 8 year old back in the early 70’s, and ever since I had written it off as overly-touristed and out of date. That changed on our most recent trip. It was just my wife and I, and without a teenager in tow, and at an off-season time of the year, it seemed like a good time to visit and see what the fuss was about.

I have to confess I didn’t know what to expect, but choosing a sunny October day was wise, because it’s lovely to sit on the rocks near the famous lighthouse and listen to the sea and bask in the sun. The little town itself is quaint, if conscious of its touristy charms, and even though you’ve probably taken a million selfies it’s still fun to grab one here.

Chester

Over the years, we’ve been to Chester a few times and I have to admit that I could never quite warm to it. It’s a bit of an anomaly for the South Shore – it’s a touristy place but also a place with a lot of wealth. The annual Chester Regatta is a famous tradition, and it’s attracted sailors for generations. Many of them have the money needed to go with large yachts, and many of the homes in Chester reflect that. It feels a little like Cape Cod in the summer.

This year, visiting on a misty damp October day, it felt quite different. There’s a bit of a melancholy air to a resort town out of season. Many of the houses are closed up for the winter, and the town’s year-round residents can get together in peace. Walking up and down it’s quiet streets, we realized that it’s actually a lovely little place. The trick, it would seem, is to come off-season.

There are some little parks and shops downtown, and the harbour area is atmospheric as well. We brought a picnic and ate it in the wet, and that made it that much more savoury, staring over the water and listening to the gulls. I have to take back what I said about Chester in the past – it’s not the snooty place I thought it was.

Walkabout Halifax

Now that we’ve been out in Halifax awhile and are a week out of quarantine, we’ve been able to explore the city a bit.

So far, I like a lot of what I’ve seen.

Outside Seaport Market

We booked a rental home that’s in downtown Halifax, only a few blocks from Lower Water Street, and from the shops along Spring Garden Road.

My wife’s homemade apple pie for Thanksgiving dinner!

That’s allowed us to shop and explore in multiple directions – south through the residential neighbourhoods towards Pleasant Point Park, north up into the Hydrostone neighbourhood, east and along the waterfront, and a bit west towards the universities (our son is at Dalhousie).

It’s been a fun few days of wandering about. I’ve been to Halifax before – each time we came out to the east coast on vacation, we’d stay down along the South Shore at Mahone Bay or Lunenburg, and we’d always make a day trip into the city. Still, those excursions were short and confined to the touristy bits along the waterfront like the Maritime Museum or the Seaport Market or the Citadel.

Halifax Public Gardens

Now that we’re living here for a bit, we have a chance to settle into the life of the city. It’s been interesting for a few reasons. One thing we noticed right away is how courteous Halifax drivers and pedestrians are compared to Toronto. People wait for the pedestrian crossing signals! Cyclists actually stop at stop signs! Drivers politely wave pedestrians across the road at crosswalks! Who knew that somewhere actual courtesy and common sense existed outside the Big Smoke?

It’s also a lot quieter than Toronto. You don’t realize what the constant background hum of traffic is like until it’s not there. Come 6 pm, the streets are silent and sleeping with the windows open in the middle of the city is actually refreshing and calm. The only mildly loud thing once in awhile is the flight of helicopters overhead as they land across the harbour at the Shearwater RCAF base.

It’s also been interesting to see the way that people are dealing with COVID-19. In large part because of the mandatory quarantine for anyone arriving into Maritime Canada from anywhere else, the case count here is vanishingly small. Weeks go by with no new cases reported at all. Despite the lack of community spread, people are still wearing masks indoors as they shop, and often on the streets too, and there’s more or less no bellyaching about it. In fact, people are proud of their resilience and how they’ve handled COVID-19 so far, and they don’t want to undo all the sacrifices they’ve made by letting in any cases now. In the words of their Premier, Scott McNeil, if you have COVID-19 or even suspect you might, then “Stay the blazes home!”.

I’ve also been quite taken by the quiet charms of the east coast. People just seem more relaxed here, friendlier and less harassed than they do in the daily rat race of Toronto. Wandering a neighbourhood, you see people out for a walk but not in a hurry.

Plus, thank the stars, there is a wonderful lack of leafblowers and weed trimmers. I’ve explored various residential areas, including some relatively high income ones, and have barely heard those annoying noisemakers. There are trees here and the side streets are leafy and lovely, and yet they manage to live their lives without making a racket. Imagine that.

If I had to name a favourite walk so far, I’d say it was exploring the North End and Hydrostone.

We walked up their on a lovely sunny mid-October day. We found a great little pizza place that served excellent pies and a decent glass of wine. We circled Fort Needham park and explored the memorials to the Halifax Explosion victims. We nosed into shops and picked up some little treats. It reminds me a little bit of Leslieville in Toronto – lots of young families, some hipsterish little spots, and leafy quiet streets just off of busy roads. It’s just quieter, and you can get a house for well under a $1m, unlike anywhere in Toronto.

The grave of Alexander Keith with a tin of his eponymous ale

Canada’s east cost offers so much as a getaway destination, and Halifax as a gateway to it is a great place to start or end a holiday. Come out and explore, and you’ll love it too.

Gear – Swiss Army Knife

Over the past couple of years of walking I’ve gone through a fair amount of gear, so I thought I would share some feedback for stuff that’s tried and trusted. Hope it helps.

What is it?: Swiss Army Knife. The closest equivalent that I can see is the Tourist Model which has the same blades as mine and also includes a toothpick and tweezers.

How much?: Bought years ago – probably around $20 back then. The current price for the Tourist model is is $40 CAD

Where, when, how do I use it?: My recollection is that I bought this before we were married – so 33+ years anyway. I think I picked it up for my first trip abroad in 1987, and I know I had it for our honeymoon which we spent backpacking around the Greek islands.

Since then it’s been many places – Italy, France, Ireland, Scotland, England, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Madagascar, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, and Canada, and possibly a few others. It travels with me everywhere. In the old days it could come in my carry-on bag, and these days it travels with the checked luggage.

It’s been used many times on picnics, which is probably my favourite use. Somewhere we have a picture of a picnic lunch in France, where the knife is sitting next to some pate, a baguette, and some tomatoes from the market – that’s how I visualize this knife. I’ve also used it countless times to open a bottle of wine, to trim a stray thread off my clothes before a business meeting, to cut open a package, and I think even once or twice to open a can.

It used to live in my briefcase, then it lived in my business suitcase, and now it’s in my everyday daypack. It’s been a small, often hidden, but handy part of my travels and it’s probably as much a good luck charm as it is a tool.

For me, any traveller needs something like this. It’s lightweight, versatile, simple, compact, and effective. It embodies a style and form aesthetic that I love – it does exactly what you would think it would do with simple efficiency and elegant ergonomics. I can’t imagine taking a trip without it, and even if I never travelled I would want one.

Would I buy it again?: Lord, I hope I never lose it. If I did, I’d buy something similar.


Disclaimer: This is not a “review”. I don’t go around sampling things, instead this is a summary of my own experience with a product I have used a lot. All opinions contained in this post are my own. I offer no warranties or assurances for your experiences with the same product. I bought the gear with my own money and have not received any form of compensation from the manufacturer. Take my feedback as given – caveat emptor.

TO Streets – Eglinton

Part of a series, walking the main streets of Toronto

Back in the 80’s, Yonge and Eglinton was known derisively as Young and Eligible, and I was then young, somewhat eligible, and lived in the neighbourhood. I also worked a couple of km ways east along Eglinton, just off of Laird Drive, so I travelled back and forth along it every day. It all means that I have a somewhat nostalgic attachment to Eg, so it was natural that I’d include this one in my tour of TO streets. And in case you’re wondering, many Torontonians know it as “Eg” more than “Eglinton”.

There is also the fact (and I didn’t know this until I looked it up) that Eg is the only major street in today’s City of Toronto that takes you through all 6 of the former boroughs of Metro Toronto – Scarborough, East York, Toronto, North York, York, and Etobicoke. By walking it, I’d get a chance to explore Toronto’s history as well as its present, and that’s the whole point of this TO Streets exercise.

So all that said, I decided to do the walk in 2 halves, travelling out to the east and west ends of Eg and walking back towards mid-town. That way I’d be travelling against the commuter rush in the morning and walking towards home.

I decided to start on the eastern end, and that is at the intersection of Kingston Road and Eglinton, well out into Scarborough.

Since the Eglinton Go Train station is near that intersection, I travelled out to it to start off, but to avoid retracing my steps along Eg, I left the station heading a bit south and east, so that I walked through what is the old heart of Scarborough village and up along Kingston Road to get to the start of my walk. There isn’t, to be honest, very much to look at as you stare west along Eg from Kingston Road.

Still, it was a nice sunny day, so the walk was pleasant. Heading west, I kept thinking of the punch lines to a running joke – you know you are in Scarborough when …. there are more Chevies than Bentley’s; there are more Tim’s than Starbucks; there are more payday loan shops than bank branches; there are more “ethnic” restaurants than “Canadian” ones; and on and on.

You get the point. It’s a place of newcomers and of working class people building a life. Downtown Torontonians tend to look down on the suburbs, and Scarborough is that writ large. It’s easy to turn up your nose at the endless strip malls, but you have to admit that these suburbs are where the majority of Toronto’s population actually lives.

One thing that is absolutely apparent is that it’s a car’s world. The street is wide because cars are how people get around. At the eastern and western ends of Eglinton, the only public transit is by bus. For long stretches, until I was within 2 km of Yonge from the east and about 3 km of Yonge from the west, I was the only pedestrian. This isn’t a place where people walk around, or bike for that matter. It’s mostly open and unshaded, the wind whips and bites (or the sun bakes in summer), and if it had been raining it would have been very unpleasant. As it was, the dust and grit off the road as the traffic flowed steadily, not to mention the mess from the Eglinton Crosstown construction, clogged my sinuses and left me with a brutal headache when I got home. What idiot walks 40km across Eglinton?

After a steady hour plus of walking, I came to the east end of the giant construction project that is the current state of the Eglinton Crosstown. It will provide almost 20km of light rail transit, from Mount Dennis in the west to Kennedy Road in the east, and after living through the first 3 years of the project, I’ll be very glad to see it finish (fingers crossed) in 2021.

It’s necessary of course, it will be great when it’s done, and there’s no way to build something on this scale without mess and disruption. Still, everyone who lives near Eg is getting tired of it.

It also made my walk from the east problematic between Victoria Park and Brentcliffe. In this section, pedestrians are even more of an afterthought than elsewhere – sidewalks on one side or other of the road were closed, and for one 500 meter stretch just west of Don Mills Road, there wasn’t any sidewalk or foot path at all.

I trudged through thick mud along the lane used by the construction equipment in order to keep going, attracting stares from the workers and preparing to jump out of the way if a lorry came by.

Still, there is culture along Eglinton. At Wynford Drive, on the north side of the road, there is the Aga Khan Park surrounding the Aga Khan Museum with its asymmetrical and distinctive glass pyramid roof.

OK, the construction meant that I couldn’t easily detour to get there, and even if there hadn’t been construction there is no easy walking path to it off of Eglinton (all hail the car!), but it is a wonderful place and well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

One other cultural feature of both east and west Eglinton, and one that reinforces the downtown hipster stereotypes about the suburbs – the only 2 bowling alleys I can think of in Toronto were the two I passed along Eg in Scarborough and in Etobicoke. Surrounded by parking lots and fast food joints, they are exactly what hipsters find so amusing about these areas.

I finished my walk from the east coming through the Yonge & Eg mid town intersection. With the sun pouring down on a January day, it was quite pleasant in a noisy, messy way. It’s like when your child destroys the house when they are playing – you know it’s healthy for them to play, you love it when they laugh, so you put up with the mess and join in rolling on the floor.

A couple of days after walking Eglinton East, it was time to do Eglinton West. At this end of the city, my starting point was Centennial Park at the City boundary at Etobicoke Creek. While this is the official western edge of Toronto, Eglinton keeps going west from here deep into Mississauga.

My wife was kind and drove me out to the park, saving me an hour on the bus, but it was a grey day for a long walk. There had been a little dusting of snow overnight, and walking through the park was quite pretty, with just a few squirrels skittering through dried leaves.

I came out of the park onto Eglinton at Etobicoke Creek. Looking south, over the creek and the park, you’d never guess you were next to Canada’s busiest airport and busiest roads.

But looking back east, toward Yonge, was a bit daunting – the road rises out of the creek valley, and just keeps going and going.

As I set off, I was startled to see that I was at about 5500 Eglinton West. Since Eg East ends at 3500 and that had taken me 3+ hours to walk, I realized that I had a long way to go from this end. And for the first 2 hours, that’s what it seemed like. There is a bike path along Eg at this end, but there was very little foot or bike traffic – just me and the cars.

Years ago, in the early 90’s, we had lived near Runnymede and Annette in the Bloor West neighbourhood. I had a consulting gig then which took me to Montreal a lot, and the quickest drive to the airport was up Scarlett Road and then west along Eglinton. I thought of that as I was walking, because Centennial Park is actually a bit west of the airport, and I always think of the airport as being west outside the city, yet here I was still in Toronto. It reinforced the fact that Toronto covers a lot of area – 800+ square km.

I was also struck by how much this area had changed. 30 years ago, Eg West took you through open fields and meadows. Now, it’s lined with townhouses and condo towers. The old Plant City nursery near Jane is now closed, soon to become more condo’s I assume.

And meanwhile Eg goes on and on. There isn’t a lot of scenery out here – it was just houses, condos, apartments, and the occasional strip mall.

There was a little scenic break when I crossed the Humber River near Scarlett Road, and that reminded me that this is where I had stopped when I walked up the river in the autumn. I need to come back to this spot and keep going north, sometime this spring.

East of the river, as you climb towards the Mount Dennis neighbourhood, you come to the construction site at the west end of the Eg Crosstown.

There are some hills to climb here – and by the way, walking the length of Eg across the city means you traverse the valleys of the Don, the Humber, and Black Creek, so you are climbing a lot. According to my fitness tracker, I did the equivalent of 160+ flights of stairs over the 2 days.

The climb up the hill to Mount Dennis is also the exit from the residential stretch of Eglinton West – from there to Yonge, the street becomes narrower and more densely packed, with with actual shops rather than strip malls and stretches of houses amongst the condos and apartments.

I kept trudging through here, because soon I passed the Allen Expressway exit, and was into the home stretch through the Upper Village. This is my ‘hood, and I know the area well. Eg is busy here, both with the everyday commerce of any big city as well as with the ongoing construction, so that the walk back to Yonge and Eg requires a back and forth shuttle from one side of the street to the other given closed footpaths.

I finished up at back at Avenue Road, with a little bit of snow just starting to fall. The day was starting to wind down, having taken 4+ hours to walk Eglinton West, and I was glad to get home and reflect on the walk.

One strong impression was that it’s a long way across Toronto, 40 km or so. It’s also a long way across the history of Toronto. Eglinton East in Scarborough calls the 1950s and ’60s to mind, the worship of the car, the development of strip malls and the Golden Mile, and low density housing spread out over wide areas. A big old 1962 Caddie with tail fins still wouldn’t look out of place here.

Eg West is a bit newer – the condos are only 10-20 years old, so it’s more of a ’90’s and ’00s kind of place that calls a Humvee to mind. It’s still about cars with its multiple lanes of traffic, and there’s a feeling of begrudgement in conceding some small sliver of space for pedestrians – “oh I guess we have to build a side walk but hey who’s going be dumb enough to walk out here!”

What’s more subtle and yet for me stronger, is the sense of Eglinton as a cross cultural slice of Toronto’s diversity. All those apartment blocks and condo towers are full of 1st and 2nd generation Canadians. They want their tastes of home and so there’s Jamaican, and Bengali, and Mandarin, and Persian, and Afghan, and Syrian, and lots of other “ethnic” restaurants (and by the way, what’s an “ethnic” restaurant anymore? Is that even an appropriate term? Maybe I’m dating myself with that term, perhaps a culturally-specific restaurant is what I mean.)

And then there are thrift shops and money transfer outlets, used car lots, bus shelters, Tim Hortons, and community centres. There’s energy and multi-generational families and playgrounds along with gas stations. There’s new development, renewal, and regeneration. There’s investment and the sense that these were in the 1960’s and 70’s and now are again “up and coming” neighbourhoods. You can’t help but feel that they represent what Toronto is, as much or even more so than the glass towers downtown.

The neighbourhoods strung along Eg – Mount Dennis, Fairbank, Oakwood, the Upper Village, Leaside, Don Mills, the Golden Mile, and Scarborough Village – are for me some of the jewels in Toronto’s necklace. They represent what I’m most proud of in my country – the opportunity we provide to start a new and better life.

Yes, Eglinton also illustrates some of the things that I am not proud of – the traffic and pollution and over-consumption, the racism, the poverty – but I keep seeing the gleam under the grit, the hope in the toil, and the future emerging from our past.

I like Eg. It’s Toronto. And that makes it fun, even if my sinuses are clogged with the dust of this walk.

TO Streets – Yonge

Part of a series, walking the main streets of Toronto

If I am going to write a series of posts about walking the main streets of Toronto, of course I have to start with Yonge Street. My centre point for these walks is the intersection of Yonge & Eglinton, and there’s a certain anchoring that Yonge provides to Torontonians – you’re either an East-of-Yonge or a West-of-Yonge person. And then again, there’s a personal attachment to the street, having lived in a condo with a Yonge Street address, worked at an office on Yonge, and walked parts of it many, many times over the past 40 years.

Back in 1970, a film called Goin’ Down the Road was released, and it’s become an iconic statement of, in part, how the rest of the country sees Toronto. Back in the early 1980’s, SCTV did a spoof of the film (“We’re going to Yonge Street!”), and it’s still funny today – wow do John Candy & Joe Flaherty look young! – and I couldn’t help but recall it as I started out on my walk.

The street starts at Queens Quay at Toronto Harbour, and on a cold January day there was ice to remind me that there’d be a wind-chill as I walked north. It was grey overhead, and hardly more inviting as I stared north towards the underpass below the Gardiner Expressway.

Walking north along Yonge from the lake isn’t really a pleasant walk, given the traffic, the gloomy underpasses, the noise, and on this day the mud and slush. It’s uphill of course, as the city rises away from the lake. In fact over the length of my walk, I climbed from about 76m above Mean Sea Level at Yonge and Queens Quay to almost 200m MSL at Yonge and Steeles.

That led me to think that for Torontonians, “downtown” literally means “down” town. If you ask the average person, they’ll probably say that Downtown is between Front and Bloor. MidTown is roughly around St. Clair up to Eglinton. Uptown is more variable – to me anything north of Sheppard is above the tree line, but if you live up at Cummer then Sheppard is probably like your downtown. And all of this is measured, for the most part, based on where you are along Yonge. You can be on King Street, for example, but if you’re more than about 500 m east or west of Yonge, then you’re not “Downtown” – you’re in the Entertainment District maybe or Corktown, but that distance from Yonge is the key.

One of the things you notice as you walk north is that, downtown, the subway stations are only about 5-6 minutes walk apart (King to Queen, Queen to Dundas), but as you go north they get farther and farther apart, so that by the time you are at Lawrence, you’re a good 30 minutes walk to get to York Mills. That compression of distance is, I suppose, appropriate – it’s more densely packed and there’s that big-city-downtown feel you get.

I couldn’t help but notice how much is changing along Yonge. We have a thing in Toronto for faux preservation, where new buildings retain a portion of an old one as a facade, to give the illusion of preservation. At Yonge and Alexander there’s a good example, where the venerable clock tower of an 1870’s fire station will be incorporated into a new condo.

I noticed, as I continued along, that one of the things that contributed to that gloomy feel, besides the grey skies and slushy streets, was the fact that most people seemed to be walking with their eyes cast downwards. For every person looking straight ahead and catching your eye with a twinkle, there would be several either looking at their feet or looking at their phones. In any big city, people scurry about lost in their thoughts, but when the sun is out and there’s a warmth in the air, people seem to look up more. They’re more engaged in their surroundings then. On this day, the gloomy skies equalled gloomy expressions. Oh, for spring to arrive.

Another thing I noticed is the street numbers. I started at #1 Yonge Street, and walking north, the climbing numbers mounted with my steps. In fact, if you pay attention moving about the city, over time you’ll get to know roughly how far north along Yonge an address is based on the numbers. Anything below 1000 is south of Bloor. St. Clair is at about 1600 Yonge, Eglinton is at about 2400, Sheppard is around 4000, and all the way up at Steeles you’re at about 6400. The numbers keep climbing north of Toronto, and go up into the 12,000’s by the time you get up to Richmond Hill. As you’re walking up Yonge, if a cold north wind is in your face then it feels like the numbers equal the icy heights you’re ascending.

Walking north, while you are mostly climbing the whole way, there are some dips as well. Between St. Clair and Eglinton, then Eglinton and Lawrence, and finally between Yonge Boulevard and Sheppard, you cross the ravines of Mud Creek, Burke’s Brook, and the West Don River. The latter is especially steep,

descending almost a 100m into Hoggs Hollow as you cross the Don,

and then climbing fairly steeply towards Sheppard.

I’ve walked lower Yonge before, between the lake and Eglinton, and living in mid town means I’ve ranged up as far as York Mills. I’ve never done the upper part of Yonge however, north of York Mills, so it was new to me to walk through here. I was surprised to find, at about Cummer, that there is a small cemetery on the east side of Yonge, that dates back to the mid 1800’s.

When I looked it up after my walk, I learned that this was established by the Cummer family, who settled in this area in the 1820’s. It was a reminder of how this area was the market garden that fed Toronto, right up into the 1940’s, back when it was known as Willowdale.

Today, however, it’s about as far from a pastoral setting as can be – it’s just a wide canyon of condo towers, designed for cars and packed with fast food restaurants.

That said, it’s interesting to see Toronto’s melting pot expressed in those fast food restaurants. I passed Italian, French, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Turkish, Lebanese, Syrian, Persian, Indian, American, and of course the uber-Canadian Tim Horton’s along the way. As you go north, the residents change from multiple-generations-in-Canada near Rosedale to just-arrived-and-sinking-roots above Sheppard.

When you do get to Steeles, there’s a bit of an anticlimactic feeling, because it doesn’t look any different on the north side of Steeles, in Markham, as it does on the south side, still in Toronto.

It’s a car’s world up here. There are some people walking around, but mainly this is laid out for cars. How it will evolve over the next 20-30 years will be interesting. I’d love to see the sidewalks widened, bike lanes expanded, street furniture and trees installed, and an actual pedestrian feel introduced. Whether we get there soon or not is up in the air. This area is, like it or not, more representative of Toronto than, say, Dundas Square. Turning the downtown into a walker-centric space is one thing, but I’m not holding my breath that areas like Yonge & Steeles will look like that any time soon.

Still, breathing in scents of auto exhaust mingled with BBQ duck, flavoured vape, and frying onions; reading shop signs written in Korean, Mandarin, Persian, and Hindi; overhearing snatches of conversation in a dozen languages; feeling the energy – it’s what makes Toronto dynamic. We are a melting pot, and people still want to go down the road to Yonge Street. We look different today than in the 1970’s, let alone the 1870’s, and in 50 years time the 2070’s will probably still see the energy of Toronto expressed along Yonge.

TOStreets – Walking the City

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to keep my walking boots busy over the winter while at the same time avoiding the same-old, same-old paths I’ve walked many times already. It came to me, as I was out for a walk (of course), that the thing to do was walk the streets of Toronto.

That sounds perhaps a bit of a cliche, walking the mean streets of the Big Smoke, but that’s not what I had in mind. As I thought about, my mind revolved around the idea of some of the major streets in Toronto, and doing it in a way that could fit into some sort of pattern. Instead of random walking here and there, I wanted to find a way to organize my walks, and I realized that Toronto’s east/west grid system lends itself perfectly to my plan.

As it happens, I live pretty close the middle of Toronto. The intersection of Eglinton Avenue and Yonge Street, is only about a km from home, so I can use that as a starting point to anchor my walks while I explore the major streets of Toronto.

So, that’s my cunning plan to make my winter walking more interesting. I can walk Yonge Street, from the Lake to Steeles, and Eglinton from mid-town to its east and west end points. And I can use Yonge & Eg as a transit jump-off, and head to other streets like Dundas, or Finch, or Bathurst, or Lakeshore. By following these, I’ll criss-cross Toronto and wander through the many neighbourhoods that make up the city, and along the way get exposure to the diversity of cultures in our mosaic.

I reckon winter and spring are good times to do this, since it would be baking hot in July. I’ll pick decent weather days and chunks of the city that will keep me occupied all day. I have about 3 months till April, and then we’ll see what the weather looks like for trail hikes outside Toronto.

I’m going to call this project my TOStreets plan, and as I complete each section I’ll update a map to show where I’ve been.

Hey Toronto, here I come.

Walk Journal – January 1, 2020

The pond at Earl Bales Park

Where: West Don Valley through Earl Bales Park

Distance: about 7 km, 1.5 hours

Weather: about 0 with a chilly wind, cloudy at first and then some sun

Most years, we try to get out for a walk on New Year’s Day, and this year was no different. I wanted to take Ann somewhere she’d never been, so we drove a short way north up Avenue Road, to the top of the road just north of the 401. Here, Avenue ends in the Armour Heights neighbourhood, and by following Bombay Avenue west a few blocks and then going north up Armour Blvd to West Gate, we parked at the entrance to the West Don Valley trail system.

There had been a bit of snow on New Year’s Eve so there was some ice about but otherwise it was a nice walk. I’ve been through here in summer, so it was interesting for me to see it in winter. As you come down the hill on the trail going east and north, there’s a pond down in the valley at the south end of Earl Bales Park, opposite the Don Valley golf course, and it was frozen over today. The bits of snow, the ice, the grey skies – their dreariness was contrasted by red bursts of colour from the sumac buds, and the deep purple of berries on shrubs.

There were a fair number of walkers about, and we meandered north along the trail deeper into Earl Bales Park. Walking past the ski lifts, I was a bit surprised that no one was skiing, but then again there wasn’t very much snow – a bare couple of cm at best and mostly grass in other places. Still, it always pleases me to see that you can ski right in the middle of the city. Parks like Earl Bales are the reason that Toronto is so livable.

Continuing north, we passed the inevitable dog barks and owners’ shouts near the off leash dog area – I guess on New Year’s Day, all parties need some time out. Continuing north, under Sheppard Avenue along Don River Boulevard, we crossed the West Don River and walked into a little collection of houses in the valley that feels like its own world. I’m sure that 50 or 75 years ago, this was the edge of the countryside, and it felt like that today.

There were planes flying overhead, and some apartment high rise buildings on the skyline, but otherwise you could be miles out of the city.

After a few hundred meters, the road ends and there are trails that keep going north into the Hinder Property. We weren’t feeling that ambitious, so we turned east and climbed up out of the valley on a side trail to Burnett Park, and from there followed the local streets east and south back towards Sheppard Avenue.

At Addington Avenue, we crossed a bridge over a ravine and stopped to read the plaque. It was built in 1966, when the area north of Sheppard Avenue was still outside of the city of Toronto – this was then known as North Toronto Township. It was a reminder of how much the city has grown in just a couple of generations – soon after this bridge was built, the area became the City of North York which was itself part of Metropolitan Toronto, and then in the 1990’s became part of the redefined and expanded City of Toronto.

From there, coming south back to Sheppard, we headed west back over the West Don River to Bathurst Street, and then turned south to walk a couple of blocks back to the upper part of Earl Bales Park, by the community centre. One of Toronto’s oldest remaining homes, the original Bales farmhouse, is located here, built in 1824. Today it houses the Russia Society of Toronto and we were amused to see on the notice board that salsa lessons were coming up soon.

Earl Bales is a big park, and much of it was a farm owned by the Bales family back when this area was well north of the town that was then known as York. Later, when the city extended north to Eglinton, the area of today’s park became a golf course, and in 1975 the city took it over to create the park. Many of the houses in the area date from the 1960’s and 1970’s, really only 50-60 years or so, but there is still a bit of a rural feel in the park and the West Don River valley.

As we walked, I couldn’t help thinking about the rapid growth that Toronto has experienced in the past 75 years, and is still undergoing. People move here from all around the globe (on a different recent walk, we passed through Italy, Portugal, Mexico, and Jamaica in the span of a few blocks of St. Clair West). Those immigrants fuel the relentless push of its boundaries north, east, and west, and it would probably go south too if not for the lake. Despite that push, and the need for housing that goes with it, the City has done a great job holding onto relatively unspoiled ravines, wood lots, meadows, parks, and green space. We need that space, to moderate the concrete and give wildlife some breathing room.

By then, the afternoon was winding down and we were feeling a bit chilled, so we wandered back to where we’d parked. Overall, it was a shorter outing compared to some years, though still interesting in a melancholy way. Can we keep growing, keep building, keep paving, keep thrusting up, and yet keep our green soul? The turning of a new year, a new decade this time, should be a time for optimism, but I couldn’t help thinking about change and the evidence for it that we’d walked through – almost 200 years of history, captured in Earl Bales Park and its surroundings. What would the next 200 years bring?

And yet, despite that thought, the day ended with a fantastic sunset, hopefully a good omen for the city and the coming decade, and also for me personally, for the hiking and trekking plans I’ve got for the coming year.

Here’s to a new decade, new journeys, and long walks. Slainte.

Little Walks – The Beaches Boardwalk

On a chilly, rainy, grey, November day that felt more like December, I was trying to cheer myself up with recollections of warmer days. Strolling in the Beaches came to mind. The neighbourhood is perfect for Little Walks on a summer’s day (and any time of the year for that matter).

I do like walking the Boardwalk. Starting at Ashbridge’s Bay Park, it follows the lake past Kew Gardens and Kew Beach, Woodbine Beach, and ends at Balmy Beach Park.

On mid-week summer’s day, there are parents and little kids, camp groups, seniors, tourists, ice-cream eaters, sunbathers, paddlers, cyclists, roller-bladers, and more. There’s usually a breeze off the lake, even on the hottest days, and there are lots of shaded benches, not to mention the lake itself for cooling your toes. The city has put lots of Adirondack-style chairs along the route, perfect for people watching.

There’s a hot dog stand and a pizza outlet. There are sometimes food trucks, and often ice-cream vendors. Nearby Queen Street has many restaurants, grills, pubs, bars, and food shops. Your options are many and tempting.

Come on a weekend and it’s busier, and there are different events going on in the parks – concerts, ball games, markets, and more.

Come in other seasons and it’s much the same but with autumn’s blazing colours or winter’s natural ice sculptures or spring’s new growth. You can walk over and over, and still smile at something amusing each time.

It’s one my favourite Little Walks. When my wife and I returned to Canada in 1999, after living in London for a few years, the first place we came was to the Beaches on July 1, Canada Day. That stroll along the boardwalk was our welcome home. A few years later, we walked it again, this time a few days past my wife’s due date awaiting our son’s arrival, in hopes that the stroll and slice of spicy pizza would spur things along. And then recently we’ve made a semi-habit of walking it each New Year’s Day, for a blast of chilly fresh air.

If someone said to me, what should I do as a tourist in Toronto, strolling the boardwalk would be at the top of my list. You learn a lot about a place in observing how the locals relax and this is Toronto with its hair down wearing its weekend clothes. Come see.

Tommy Thompson Park

In early October, we had a stretch of those blue-sky, warm-for-the-season, autumn days that demand that you use them. So I did – I headed out for a walk through a favourite park, Tommy Thompson, to take advantage of just-warm-enough-for-shorts-and-a-T-shirt temps and perfect sunshine, enough to keep you warm but not enough to make you overheat.

What I also wanted to do was fill in a gap – in looking at the map of the Great Trail, I could see that a big chunk of it within Toronto consists of the Waterfront Trail, and I’ve walked nearly all of that except for a short stretch through the port lands and along Cherry Beach. To get to Tommy Thompson Park, I could complete my missing bit of the Waterfront Trail and cross that off my list of completed sections of the Great Trail. (And by the way, when did I get to be a cross-off-the-list guy?)

I decided to start at the Distillery District and walk south along Cherry Street along the Martin Goodman Trail. This takes you over the Cherry Street bridge to cross the Don River channel. The view west is of the harbour.

The view east is of the Don River, lined with the construction sites that are slowly turning the port lands into parks and urban areas.

At the bottom of Cherry Street, you come to an unexpected little treasure – Cherry Street Beach park. The view across the water to the south is of Tommy Thompson park and looking west you get a view out past the Toronto Islands to the lake.

As I stood there looking out over the beach, a song from the soundtrack of my university days came into my head – the Pukka Orchestra’s 1984 hit called Cherry Beach Express. It’s a catchy tune though the lyrics are pretty dark – it’s about a practice that was alleged against the Toronto Police back in the 1970’s and ’80’s, of taking suspects out to Cherry Beach in the middle of the night and roughing them up. Standing there in the sun, it was hard to believe that 30-40 years ago Cherry Beach was not a place you’d visit voluntarily. The city has done a lot of growing up since then, both in terms of parks and its relationship with the lake, and more importantly in terms of social progress. I can’t believe that in today’s Toronto, such a practice would be tolerated (if it actually happened then). Still, like I said, it’s a catchy tune – look up Pukka Orchestra and check out their back catalog. Toronto produced a lot of great groups back then.

With that thought fading, I turned east to follow the Waterfront Trail and soon came to the hulk of the defunct Hearn generating station. This coal-fired electrical generation plant has been shut down for years but there seems to be no plan yet for it’s long term use, though the interior has served as a backdrop for several films and TV shows. The chimney dominates the view, looming over the trees along the trail as you near it.

From the Hearn, the trail takes you further east, to the corner of Commissioner’s Road and Leslie Street where a new entrance is being constructed for Tommy Thompson Park (what was once known as the Leslie Street Spit). It was such a gorgeous day, I wanted to do the full trail through the park out to the lighthouse at the tip.

There was a stongish breeze off the lake and a bit of chop so the soundscape was composed of waves slapping the shore, rustling reeds, and the shushhh of leaves in trees. While I was only a km from the downtown core, apart from the occasional aircraft overhead my footsteps were the only man-made sound.

If you stick to the lake-side of the park, the trail takes you through some new growth bush, and on this early autumn day it was just starting to turn colour in a few places. The sunshine made it warm enough for grasshoppers, crickets, and cicadas to serenade me as I walked, and I was joined by a couple of wee grass snakes sunning themselves.

As I walked, I passed only a couple of people out for a bike ride. On a mid-week visit, I mostly had the place to myself, something that helped me to tune out the world and just get into the zen of a hike on a beautiful day. My strides were on auto-pilot and I could enjoy the scenery, the sun, and the breeze. I kept to the left at the fork halfway down the trail so that I could take the loop around the ponds in the middle of the park, and then at the next trail intersection, I turned west to head out to the tip.

There, a small hill serves at the base for the lighthouse. It’s been much decorated with graffiti over the years.

Below the lighthouse, there isn’t a beach as such – instead the reclaimed nature of the park is on display. The whole of the park is based on excavated soil and construction debris that came from the gradual development of the buildings that now form the Toronto skyline. Over the years this landfill has supported the growth of plants that have transformed the old Leslie Street Spit into the new Tommy Thompson park. The underlying concrete and bricks on display at the lake-facing side of the tip have been used by artists to create sculptures that cover the area.

But when you turn back towards the city, the skyline view across the harbour is stunning, all the more so when you think that many of those buildings exist because their foundations required excavating soil that had to go somewhere, and that somewhere is where you are standing. One of these days, I’m going to come out here late in the evening to get a sunset view.

After taking a break to soak up the view and have a sandwich, I turned to head back. By taking the harbour-side trail I could complete the loop around the park, while passing the more mature wooded parts of the park, the oldest bits that have had the longest to generate plant cover. There are more of the improvised sculptures here, wherever old construction debris is exposed.

The trail is really a road along the harbour-side of the park, built for the trucks that until recently had been delivering more fill to extend the spit. Now that the park is closed to further dumping, this road has become a test track for bikes. I was passed and repassed frequently by cyclists doing time trials up and down the trail. They were in their zone and I was in mine, as I trudged back to the park entrance.

As you come out of the park, you pass a trail through what has recently been designated as Villiers Island. This part of the port lands is going to become part of the redeveloped mouth of the Don River. The idea is to carve a new channel for the Don that will allow the river to pass through a more natural wetland area instead of the shipping channel that it’s forced through today. By doing this, the original habitat will be partially restored and the wetlands will provide flood control as well as park space.

It’s great to see that, out of the growth of downtown Toronto and the many towers that make up its skyline, Tommy Thompson park has emerged and will be joined by even more green space. Come back in 20 years and you might not even realize that it’s all man-made.

As a society, we’ve often prioritized economic growth at the expense of making a mess, so I’m happy to see that now we’re getting good at cleaning up those messes and turning them into something that our kids and grandkids will appreciate.

Walking the Humber

Over the past couple of years, I’ve walked the Don River many times, and recently I walked the lakefront as part of my trek across the city from Etobicoke Creek to the Rouge River. On my list of walks in Toronto, there was one, however, that I had never done – walking the Humber River. Late this past summer, in early September, I decided to scratch that itch.

The Humber rises well north of the city, and flows through western Toronto from the city boundary at Steeles Avenue and down to Lake Ontario. Like the Don River, there is a well-laid out trail system and a series of parks that let you walk most of its length, and also like the Don there are also a few private areas like golf courses that force some detours.

I started my journey at the Lake, in Sunnyside Park, which is on the east bank of the river. The boardwalk here leads directly to the Humber Bay Arch Bridge.

On a Sunday in early September, it was crowded with walkers and cyclists. I followed the Humber Trail path which starts on the west bank of the river at the Sheldon Lookout. The river is quite wide here compared to the Don – the Humber is actually a much more substantial river than the Don is in terms of water volume, and at the mouth of the river on this day there were a couple of canoeists out as well as a guy on a jet ski heading out onto the lake.

The path at the mouth of the river heads straight north, and takes you under the Gardiner Expressway and the adjacent Lakeshore Boulevard. You are right beside the river and there are marsh areas full of waterfowl on the eastern bank, but the traffic noise and the dark tunnels under the roadways take away any sense of the natural environment. It’s a relief to clear those and emerge into sunshine, and within a few hundred meters you’re back amongst the trees.

Walking north, I passed a mural painted along a fence by the Humber Water Treatment Plant. It was done as part of the Toronto Street Art project by Anishinaabe artist Philip Cote, and it explores different themes from Anishinaabe culture in a street-art/graffiti kind of style. I was struck by the vivid imagery, and it reminded me that the Humber was part of the transportation network of rivers used by the First Nations peoples who lived here prior to the immigration of Europeans.

The land where the City of Toronto is now was settled by First Nations peoples for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The name of the city itself, Toronto, comes from the Mohawk language. And yet, while we rightly celebrate the cultural diversity of Toronto, we always seem to do it in terms of the global melting pot – we talk about the United Nations of Toronto and we seek out restaurants and foods from dozens of cultures outside of North America. We rarely, however, talk about the other nations that were already here when Europeans first arrived – the Mohawk, the Seneca, the Algonquin, the Ojibwe, and others. There are many clues to this history scattered about the city in place names, street names, historical plaques, and now this mural, and for the rest of my walk that day along the Humber, I mulled over this vital part of our history and asked myself why we take it for granted.

Pre-colonization, and early in the colonization period, in the 1600’s and 1700’s, the Humber River formed part of the canoe route from the Great Lakes into the interior of the province of Ontario, helping to connect Lake Simcoe to Lake Ontario along what has become known as the Carrying Place Trail. One of the first Europeans to travel along the Humber, at least according to a somewhat murky history, was the Frenchman Etienne Brule, and so today there is Etienne Brule park along the river. I had forgotten about that part of the city’s history – as Yogi Berra said, you can see a lot just by observing.

Continuing north from the park, the Humber Trail goes up the east bank of the river in this section. You soon pass the first of several fish ladders that have been added to the river. These small dams help with flood control, and since the river is part of the Lake Ontario salmon run, the fish ladders help them as they head up river to spawn.

I kept going, on the lookout for a quiet spot to sit for lunch, and around Magwood Park I found a nice bench overlooking the river beside another fish ladder, a perfect spot to stop for a bite.

It was a coolish day, but nevertheless I had worked up a sweat on my hike, so when I stopped for lunch I had to put on a jacket. It was a reminder that late summer would soon turn to early autumn.

After that pause, I kept going north. I had had thoughts of going all the way up to Steeles Avenue, but part way along I changed my mind and decided to aim for Eglinton Avenue. The Humber Trail keeps going north and I could have caught a bus and gotten home from Steeles that way. Instead, by turning east at Eglinton I could cut through back streets to pick up the York Beltline trail and walk all the way home.

Between Magwood Park and Eglinton, you cross the river to the west bank, near Dundas Street. As I walked north, I was struck by how much quieter it was along the Humber compared to walking along the Don. I didn’t miss the constant traffic on the Don Valley Expressway. Instead, the wider Humber river flowed between shaded river banks with marsh areas attracting many herons, geese, ducks, and gulls.

I was really enjoying the walk and was disappointed to realize that I’d come to Eglinton after only about 2 hours. I didn’t want to leave the river, but by this time I also realized that the new running shoes I was breaking in had led to a hot spot on the heel of one foot. That confirmed that here was where I’d have to start heading back home. I crossed Eglinton and took one last picture of the Humber as it flows under that busy road.

The walk home from this point was a different kind of adventure altogether. After the peacefulness of burbling water, I was back into traffic and city streets. I didn’t want to walk along the busy Eglinton Avenue, so I skirted north aiming for Tretheway, so that I could cut through the Mount Denison neighbourhood and cross Black Creek Drive and Keele Street.

As I walked up and down the hills in this area, the hot spot on my heel turned into a full blown blister. Stubbornly, I decided to tough it out and kept walking. I told myself if it got really bad, I could just jump on a bus and let the TTC get me home, so I gritted teeth and kept going.

When I reached the York Beltline, near Caledonia Road, I knew I had about 45 minutes of walking to go so after a short break to catch my breath, I set my mind to ignoring the blister to see this through. I was limping by now, but I didn’t want to quit. Each one of those 45 minutes seemed to take about 90 seconds instead of 60, but slowly I got closer to home. It was a relief to finally reach our flat and take off my shoes to survey the damage. There was a raw patch on my heel, and that night I resolved to always carry a blister kit in my pack.

Once home, and out of my shoes, I reflected on the Humber. I think I prefer walking along it compared to the Don River, because of the traffic noise that can overwhelm you along the latter. I definitely would like to keep going and walk the whole length of the river within the city boundaries, and the cool thing is that if you keep going north of Steeles, there are trails along the Humber that continue north for another 10 or 20 km. I need to add that to my bucket list, so that I can say that I’ve walked the length of the Humber.

But that’s a trip for another day.