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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently, we were in Montreal for a few days. While it doesn’t seem like 17+ years have gone by, our son is entering his final year of high school, and since he wanted to check out McGill University, we arranged a short visit to the city so we could do a campus tour and get away for a short break.
We arrived on a Thursday afternoon. We’d booked an apart-hotel on Rue St. Urbain, just a few blocks east of the University, and centrally located for exploring the city as well. Our plan was to do the campus tour on Friday morning, go for a walk and visit some of the nearby neighbourhoods, and then explore some more on Saturday before driving home Sunday.
Because we arrived in late afternoon, we had time for a short walk to pick up a few groceries before we headed out to Old Montreal for dinner. Our flat was near the area known as the Quartier des Spectacles, and there are some interesting sculpture gardens to explore, which made the stroll to the shops more than just a routine walk. I love that about Montreal.
For dinner that first night, we’d booked a place in the Vieux Portes area, and on a late summer evening it was packed with tourists and locals alike, sitting outside and enjoying a perfect evening.
It was within an easy walk of our flat, and we were famished by the time we sat down at Bevo, a great pizza bar on Rue St. Vincent. It was worth the walk – the appetizers, pizzas, salads, and wines were excellent. “Good choice Dad!” – high praise from a teenager.
The next day, we strolled over to McGill, only about 15 minutes away along Rue Sherbrooke. It was another gorgeous day, and we passed a couple of the university residences where families were making piles of trunks and suitcases as they dropped off their kids – it looked like the Hogwarts departure scene at Kings Cross Station minus the owls and chocolate frogs. My wife and I glanced at each other and thought – just one short year from now, that will be us.
McGill is in the heart of the city, nestled on the south side of Mount Royal. It’s one of the oldest universities in Canada, coming up on 200 years, and is one of the top-ranked schools in the world. As parents, our impressions were of course different from our son’s. We saw a compact campus compared to some other downtown schools such as University of Toronto, with clean, well maintained facilities and gorgeous stone buildings. He saw dorms and libraries and lecture halls and kept quiet as the reality of university sunk in.
What struck all of us was the sense of the campus as a world unto itself, even though you’re just steps to the downtown core. The school is impressive – modern yet respective of its history, with a welcoming and confident atmosphere.
After the tour, we decided to walk east to Rue St. Laurent and then north to Schwartz’s Deli, a Montreal landmark for 90+ years and famous for its smoked meat sandwiches.
At 11:30 in the morning, there was a queue already for lunch, and once packed into one of it’s “cozy” tables, we devoured a mound of artery-hardening goodness along with classic coleslaw and the perfect pickle to cut through the richness of the brisket. If you’ve never had Montreal-style smoked meat, you’re missing a treat, and while many local places feature it on their menus, Schwartz’s has been making it on premises for decades and they have the old-school deli thing down pat. When we came out, the queue to get in stretched most of the way down the block – glad we got there early.
After that lunch, we needed a walk so we continued north up St. Laurent. This area, the Plateau, has seen waves of immigration over the past 100 years and the blend of cultures greets your nose as you pass Portuguese restaurants, Jewish delis, Italian coffee bars, and Indian roti houses. St. Laurent reminds me a bit of Queen Street in Toronto – it’s changing and gentrifying, and the hipsters have their haunts, but the old school places are still there too.
Since we were in an apart-hotel with a kitchen and a barbeque, we had invited our nephew, who lives in Montreal, to come by for dinner that Friday night. Exploring the Plateau after lunch, we found a great fish place and picked up giant prawns and smoked salmon for starters, then stumbled upon a fromagerie for bread and cheese. Our main course came from a local grocery that did whole Portuguese-style chickens ready to grill. Dessert was local Quebec strawberries and raspberries picked up at a little greengrocer. By the time we wandered back to our flat we’d hunted and gathered everything we needed (and then some), all within a few blocks along St. Laurent.
We had a merry dinner, and enjoyed some entertaining stories of our nephew’s recent trip to Ireland, which meant that we all wanted a lazy Saturday morning. It took us a decent amount of coffee before we decided to head off, this time to towards the downtown area.
One of the main shopping streets in Montreal is Ste. Catherine’s, so we headed west along that from St. Urbain. It’s changed a lot in the 25+ years since I worked in Montreal back in the early 90’s. Unfortunately, it was still changing when we were there, with most of the length of the street torn up to replace water and sewer lines. That was a little disappointing, but we found some shops that looked fun and kept walking east until before we knew it, we were all the way over to Rue Guy.
At this point, I had the thought of wandering south and west to Griffintown, a gentrifying hip area full of renovated old warehouses and coffee houses, so we started off in that direction. It proved to be farther than we wanted to walk (that is, my wife’s commanding royal “we”), so we turned around and walked back east along St. Jacques all the way to old Montreal.
There, on the north end of the Place des Armes, is the HQ of the Bank of Montreal, where my father in law had worked when they lived in Montreal (my wife is a native Montrealer). She and I met when we both worked for BMO in Toronto, so we had to snap a picture of the rather imposing building for old time’s sake.
We kept wandering through the crowded-with-tourists-all-snapping-selfies cobblestone streets, and since we were famished, when we stumbled onto an inventive little place called Invitation V we piled in. We didn’t notice till we’d sat down and looked at the menu that it was a vegan restaurant, and were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves enjoying our plant-based “burgers”. Delicious food, and the interior is nicely decorated too, taking full advantage of the exposed brick and beams of an old office building.
Wandering around in the old part of the city, I was happy to see so many tourists enjoying the weather and the sights – Montreal has done a great job investing in this area to make attractive while retaining its charm. At the same time, you can only walk down so many cobbled streets past yet another shop selling tourist tat, before it gets old. Our enthusiasm waned and we turned our steps north back to the flat – it was time to chill out with a cup of tea.
That evening we capped off our visit to Montreal by walking a bit west and south, to the area around Concordia University. There, on Rue Mackay south of Ste. Catherines, we had dinner at the Beirut Garage, a modestly decorated but full-flavoured Lebanese restaurant. It’s small, packed, welcoming, and worth the journey – the food was fantastic. A proper Lebanese coffee after our meal meant that I needed the stroll home along Sherbrooke to burn off the caffeine, and on warm late summer evening there was no hurry – we could window shop, people watch, and meander.
The next day, we had to pile back into the car for the drive home to Toronto, but before we did we needed to make one last stop. North along Park Avenue on the north side of the mountain, the Mile End neighbourhood has been home to Montreal’s Jewish community for decades.
Near the Mordecai Richler library, we joined the out-the-door queue at the St. Viateur bakery for what are reckoned to be the best Montreal-style bagels in the city. We bought some to snack on during the drive home.
When I think of Montreal, I think partly of the food, partly of the history, and partly of the many visits we’ve made over the years. It’s a cultural melting pot, like most cities in Canada, and it’s also a gateway to Canada for tourists from around the world, who want to experience its old-world charms and blend of French and Anglo-Scottish history. It’s a 4-season city, though residents will tell you that spring and autumn are a lovely 2-week breaks between freezing and friggin’ hot. Late August is a great time to go, and September is even better. Whenever you go, walk around – it’s a city that lends itself to nosing through neighbourhoods. And when you go, bring your appetite.
Where: Sunday Sep 1, north Toronto exploring the West Don River valley. On Monday Sep. 2, south Toronto along the lake while watching part of the CNE Air Show.
Duration: Sunday Sep 1 – about 4 hours covering around 18 km; on Monday Sep 2, about 2 hours covering about 8 km.
Weather: Grey and rainy on Sunday, mostly sunny on Monday – around 18-22 C
This past weekend was the unofficial end of summer, marked by Labour Day weekend. Toronto always has an end of season feel to it the first weekend in September, even if the calendar says the official end of summer is still a few weeks off. With most kids going back to school the Tuesday after Labour Day, it means the summer holidays are over so everyone wants to cram in one last weekend of activity before buckling down.
It’s also true that the weather usually starts to change a bit in late August – we usually get a bit of a cooler spell after the heat of July and early August, and the humidity levels drop. That’s what we had this year as well, along with some rain.
All that added up to an excuse to do some walking over the long weekend. I decided to break it up into 2 days. On the Sunday, I did a long walk on my own, and on the Monday, my wife and I did a shorter one by the lake. Each was interesting in its own way, and showed off some of the things I like best about Toronto, as well as some of the things that are annoying.
For my Sunday walk, I set off up Avenue Road, all the way to Armour Heights just north of the 401. From here, I followed Westgate Blvd down down into the West Don River valley to enter Earl Bales Park and from there followed the trails along the river to the Hinder Property on the north side of Sheppard Avenue. At that point, I had to leave the parks to cross Bathurst St. and cut through the Bathurst Manor neighbourhood to reach the Forest Valley Outdoor Education Centre and then the West Don Parkland trails to continue north and west through to Finch Avenue. Finally, I crossed into G. Ross Lord Park to reach the Finch Hydro Corridor Park and followed that back east to Yonge Street, where I took the subway back home.
I’ve done this walk before, but in reverse from the north to south, when I walked the East and West Don River over a two day span in May 2018. That time, I started at Finch subway and walked west through the Hydro Corridor to G. Ross Lord Park and then worked my way south. On this day, going north from the Earl Bales Park, in late summer, made for a very different feel. For one thing, there were just a few hints of the cooler autumn weather to come, with a few trees just starting to turn colour, the rustle of dried leaves, and the skitter of squirrels gathering winter food.
There was also a reminder in Earl Bales Park – the ski lifts. This is one of the only places within the city where you can learn to ski and snowboard. Walking past them on a late summer day, you can’t help but think that within about 10 weeks, these could be in use.
It was a quiet day for walking. There were a few people out on the trails, but for the most part the city was chilling out – even the ever-present background traffic hum was dimmer than usual. I had to cross out of the parks and walk through some neighbourhood streets between the Hinder Property and the West Don Parklands, and there was little activity to be seen. The air was heavy and there were a few drops of rain sneaking about, and other than a bit of yard work going on, there was a sense of restfulness combined with anticipation – chill now, school soon.
I was also surprised by the changes in the trail. When I walked it from the north in the spring of 2018, there was an actual trail to follow from Finch down through the West Don Parkland. At that time, I had eventually come out of the trail near the Prosserman Community Centre on the west side of Bathurst, where I’d climbed out of the valley to the west and cut through side streets to cross Bathurst and enter the Hinder Property. But on this day, standing at the bottom of the same river valley, opposite the Community Centre, I couldn’t find the northward trail at all.
There was a dense growth of wild flowers and tall grasses, and while Google Maps insisted that there was a trail somewhere amidst the growth, I couldn’t find it. After chasing dragonflies and swatting mosquitoes for a few minutes squelching through the marshy ground, I gave up. I had to climb back out of the valley and cut through side streets before I could descend again towards the river, at the Toronto District School Board’s Forest Valley Outdoor Education centre, and even there I had to jump a fence to pick up the trail again. I assume that since there is a lot of construction going on around the Prosserman Community Centre, there’s no way to get out of the valley past it to cross Bathurst and get to the Hinder Property, plus I don’t think this is official City of Toronto Parks property, hence there’s no trail maintenance. I’ll have to see if I can walk this again in winter, when the trail may be more obvious.
Since it was raining lightly at this point, I kept going into G. Ross Lord Park, and crossed the dam over the West Don River to reach the Finch Hydro Corridor.
The reservoir was low, and with the grasses and bushes looking dry, it had a melancholy feel, as if it had been abandoned. The river is tamed here, not that it needs another barrier on top of the concrete channels and golf courses that already bind its flow. The line of pylons carrying electrical transmission wires stretched off to the east and the west, spreading out from the valley and taking your eyes with them away from the trees below and towards the ever-marching forest of apartment and condo towers.
I had intended to keep going north and west, following the river north past Steeles and then heading home along Black Creek, but that sense of the city hemming me in, and the threatening skies, made me turn back east and head towards Yonge.
As I walked, it started to rain, properly now, so that I had to get out my rain gear, and that lowered my mood even more. But as I walked, I started to hear music. It took a few minutes to realize that it was coming from a festival at Esther Shiner Stadium. As I got closer, I could make out words, though not in English. I didn’t recognize the language, but I did pick up some tantalizing aromas coming from food tents, and I quickened my steps. But when I got the stadium, alas, the festival was ending – I must have been hearing the closing ceremonies, because there was a mass of people leaving as I came up. It was great to see a community event, but don’t tempt me with food and then close up when I get there!
So, trudging on in the rain I eventually came to Hendon Park, where there are several baseball diamonds. There were a couple of young guys throwing a ball around but otherwise it was deserted, as I sat down for a breather. Just then my son texted me from the Blue Jays game he was at, to tell me that the opposing pitcher, Justin Verlander, was in the midst of throwing a no-hitter – great, I thought, why am I sitting here in an empty baseball park in the rain when something historic like that is going on? And on that note, I lumbered off to the subway and home.
The next day, the weather had cleared and it was a lovely 22 C blue-sky morning. My wife and I decided to drive down towards High Park and walk down to the lakeshore to watch some of the air show.
We arrived just as Canada’s RCAF Snowbirds aerial display team has started their performance. Walking down a side street towards King, jets were roaring overhead and we kept catching glimpses through the trees, and them coming out into the open at King, the whole squadron came into view, doing a loop over the lake.
We stood with many others, all craning their necks as they watched the sky, and when the Snowbirds had finished with a roar and a flypast, we crossed the train tracks and the highway to get to Sunnyside Park, near the Palais Royale ballroom. We found a little open space by the water and sat on some rocks to watch a bit more of the show. I’ve always been a plane geek, and it was tremendous fun to spot the planes and identify them. This year there was a fly past of a Mig-15 Korean War-era fighter jet, and I’d never seen one before. It took me back 25 years, to when my friend Paul and I would play a flight simulator game flying against each other, taking turns with the Mig-15 against the F-86 Sabre.
After that break, we meandered west along the Sunnyside boardwalk, stopping to get a hot dog along the way. It was crowded with families, couples, kids, dogs, prams, and scooters. There were volleyball games going on, and kids splashing in the water. The planes kept zooming overhead – “hey look, that’s a Yak-50” “that’s nice” – and the sun was gentling baking with a lovely cool breeze to keep things bearable. It was a perfect way to end the summer.
I love Toronto on days like that – people from all over, diverse, mingling, and happy, taking advantage of the parks and the waterfront, and enjoying a long-standing summer-end tradition with the airshow. It was everything that makes Toronto my home. And I got to hold hands with my darling on the boardwalk. Take that winter!