Walking in a Graveyard

I’ve written previously about why I walk – for exercise, for exploration, for contemplation, for escape. One of my favourite walks in Toronto is through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where all of those reasons find a place.

I wandered through recently with a more specific purpose in mind. My friend Paul passed away 6 years ago on Thanksgiving Day, and so in mid-October I wanted to pay a visit and lift a toast to his spirit.

It’s beautiful there any time of the year, but I have to admit that autumn is my favourite time. The trees were just starting to turn, and there was enough of a chill in the air, despite the sunshine, that you could feel the change in seasons.

It felt like the autumn scene would soon resemble winter.

But as I walked I thought about the history of Toronto as it’s reflected in the graves and monuments around me. The older parts of the cemetery date to the 1870’s and 1880’s, and the great and good of Toronto at that time have Anglo-Scottish names that testify to the dominant waves of immigration that arrived then – names like Gage, Eaton, Massey, and Strachan are prominent as are the mausoleums they built for themselves.

The waves of immigrants from the British Isles are also reflected in monuments like the one erected by the St. Andrew Society to commemorate the many Scottish families that came to Canada.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery is also a place of history, holding the graves and monuments to many of the men who fought for Canada during World Wars 1 and 2. Some of these monuments are grand, like that for George Barker.

Others are quieter and in some ways more powerful. There is a section of the cemetery dedicated to veterans who passed away at the nearby Sunnybrook Hospital, which was built during World War 2 to help heal the many casualties of that war. Each grave is marked by a simple headstone that lists a name and branch of the service. It’s in a quiet wooded section of the cemetery, and the peacefulness is welcome when you think of what those men must have experienced.

In other sections of the cemetery, new waves of immigration are reflected in their names – the Anglo-Scottish are joined by the Italian, the Greek, the German, the Ukrainian, the Chinese, the Japanese, and many others. It’s the melting pot of Toronto illustrated in stone.

And then there is the personal history, the history of friends and family we knew. The history of a city and of grand families may be familiar to us in a general sense, but the history of a person we knew is much deeper and closer. Touching that history to recall laughter and rich conversation – that’s the essence of a cemetery.

Mount Pleasant has the Forest of Remembrance where ashes can be scattered in a wooded grove. When I’m walking through the Cemetery I usually pass through and pause at the stone that bears a plaque with Paul’s name. I say hello, and let him know how Fiona and the kids are doing. This visit I also raised a flask of Irish whisky and drank a toast. Sláinte.

The other functions of a cemetery – as history, as places of exercise, as places of beauty – all reinforce that main purpose, of remembrance. I walk in graveyards because I need the walk as exercise, because I’m interested in the history they relate, because I crave the quiet atmosphere and the beauty of the setting, and most of all because they connect me to the past as well as to the future we all come to.

As I was leaving the cemetery and walking up the busy Mount Pleasant Road, the image of the fence around the cemetery stuck in my mind. Is the fence to keep people out, or is it to keep the memories in? I think it’s a boundary, separating the memories we want to hold close from the outside world that rushes by because there are things to do and living to get on with. We know that, we know the world has to carry on, but we want to remember. That’s what cemeteries are for.

Crossing Toronto Stage 3 – Up the Don

After my long trek to the Rouge the day before, I was pleasantly surprised to wake up feeling pretty good for Stage 3 of my journey. My feet had been tired at the end of the day, but apart from stiffness in my knees, a good night’s sleep had set me up for the final leg of Crossing Toronto. I would hike from the southern boundary of the City at the lake northwards following the Don River as much as I could all the way the northern boundary at Steeles Avenue.

Since the Don forks in mid-Toronto, I had to choose which branch to follow and I’d decided on both – the way the river flows meant that I could climb the West Don for part of the way (since I could go through several parks that way) and then cut across city suburbs to pick up the East Don and follow that up to Steeles.

After the climbs and challenges of stage 2 between the Don and the Rouge, I reckoned that this final stage would be both easier and harder. Easier because it was a bit shorter than the 2nd stage and because much of it I’d walked before, and harder because after 2 long days of walking I was beginning to feel some of the stresses in my feet and knees.

The good thing about my route was that, like Stage 2, I could take the subway to King and walk past St. Lawrence Market, stopping to have breakfast at Paddington’s Pump once again. I had the same eggs, the same server, and the same warm happy glow of a full tummy when I set off at 8:30.

Since I was doing this final stage on a Saturday, there were many more people about at the Market. That’s their busiest day of the week, and I was tempted to hang about to sample the food, but of course I knew I had to get going. Just like the day before, I followed the Esplanade east through the Distillery District and crossed through Corktown Commons to pick up the Lower Don Trail.

Turning north, I was on a familiar path. I’ve walked this in both directions a number of times in various seasons, but on this day it had been several months since I’d followed the river north. The first thing I noticed was how much the shrubs, bushes, and trees along the trail had filled in and now sheltered the trail. It made for a welcome green tunnel of shade on a sunny summer morning.

Early on a Saturday morning, the trail is used more by cyclists than walkers or runners. You have to be on your toes, listening for bikes coming up behind you while watching for bikes coming towards you, since the trail is only about 2 meters wide. The bikes presume they have right of way since they’re faster, even though the trail etiquette is supposed to be that the pedestrians have priority. Why do cyclists think that if they ring their bell, you’ll just jump out of the way?

As I walked, my curiosity was piqued in noticing the difference between walkers and cyclists when travelling in pairs. A pair of walkers, especially couples, will often walk side by side even on a busy trail. A pair of cyclists, even if a couple, will usually ride in tandem. Why is that? The trail rang with bike bells as the cyclists wove amongst the walkers.

Continuing north, I found myself walking in “the zone”, spaced out and unaware of time passing. I knew the trail well so I didn’t pay much attention to the landmarks. Still, I was pleased to pop out of my walker’s trance when I came to the Prince Edward Viaduct, carrying the Bloor Street roadway as well as Line 2 of the subway over the Don Valley, in less than an hour after leaving St. Lawrence Market.

Past this, as you head north towards Pottery Road, there’s a little sculpture installation by artist Duane Linklater featuring some pieces meant to evoke old castles and crumbled monuments. I always tell myself I should stop and explore, and yet again this day my focus on walking meant that I paused just long enough to snap a picture, and then kept on walking.

Continuing past the sculptures, you soon come to Pottery Road. There’s a crossing island here and there was a queue of bikes in both directions waiting to cross. I had to fight to protect my pedestrian rights amongst them, as they surged forward in a break in the traffic.

From this point, about 5 km from Corktown, there’s a stretch of several km along the river that takes you to the forks of the Don near the Taylor Creek confluence. It’s a bipolar bit of trail – on the one hand the shimmering rapids, green shuffles of leaves, and meadows of nodding flowers, and on the other hand the steady intrusive hum and mumble of traffic on the Don Valley Expressway just to the east of the trail. It looks rustic but it sounds urban. The constant stream of cyclists didn’t help.

Another thing that I kept noticing was that stinging nettles were overgrowing onto the edge of the trail, so that you wanted to walk in the centre, but the bikes kept pushing you back to the edge where you risked brushing up against the nettles. Having grown up in the country and been stung by nettles in the past, I was in no mood for that, so I had to listen for approaching bikes whenever I skirted the nettles, making for an uncomfortable walk.

Watch out for nettles!

Eventually, however, I came to the forks of the Don. This is where the Lower Don Trail connects with both the Taylor Creek Trail (which initially follows the East Don River) and the West Don Trail. You hard to see the actual confluence of the two branches of the river, at least in summer with full greenery about, but again I was kind of head-down and focused and not paying too much attention. I just followed familiar trails and started heading west, crossing under Don Mills Road to enter E.T. Seton Park.

I took a break here, refilling my water bottles – I had 2 because I knew there were no water refills on the trail north of Lawrence – and sitting for a bit in some shade. There were still lots of cyclists and they often roved in packs of 3-5 riders. I made the assumption that they were all weekend warriors, and smugly sniggered at their Tour de Something wannabe jerseys and fancy kit.

As you continue north through E.T. Seaton Park you pass through one of Toronto’s only disk golf courses. The “holes” are on both sides of the trail and there were a few disk golfers out enjoying the sun.

Fore!

On weekends in good weather, E.T. Seaton Park fills up with families enjoying communal picnics and cookouts. The air is scented with tantalizing aromas, and the many cultures living in nearby Thorncliffe Park (one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the country) gather to take advantage of the green space. I was a bit early for that, plowing through there well before noon, so I missed having my appetite stirred early. I resolved to keep walking in order to try to get north of Sheppard before stopping for lunch.

The Trail keeps going through E.T. Seton, and eventually you pass under Eglinton Avenue and into Serena Gundy Park. There is a lot of construction going on in this section, part of the Eglinton Crosstown rail project, and it’s muddy and busy with trucks. There are also lots of cars on a weekend, because the car parks are the base for the cyclists. It made me want to walk through as fast as I could so I continued through the east end of Serena Gundy Park to arrive at Wilket Creek and the entrance to the trail along that watercourse that would take me through Wilket Creek Park and on to Edwards Gardens.

Wilket Creek Park on a summer’s day – imagine this decked in full autumn colours

I kept chugging, with a clock in my head that wanted to get to Edwards Gardens well before noon. The trail through Wilket Creek is quite lovely, and having been through here previously in late September, I know it’s even prettier in autumn. I wasn’t thinking about that, however, I just wanted to get to Edwards Gardens for a rest break and a water refill.

I made it there before 11:30, 3 hours and around 13km out from St. Lawrence Market, and was a bit surprised to see that there was a sculpture market in full swing, with pieces set throughout the gardens. It was tempting, but how would I carry a $5000 piece of marble out on my back?

After a short break, I crossed out of the Gardens to the east side of Leslie Street, where there is the entrance to the Don Mills Trail. This follows a rail line north between Lawrence and York Mills. I set off up the trail with my inner clock still ticking, aiming to get to the East Don Trail at Sheppard by 12:30 so that I could find a quiet spot to rest.

The Don Mills Trail is fairly new, yet it’s matured quickly. There were lots of trees shading the trail, and there weren’t too many fellow walkers or bikers this day, so it was relatively peaceful. Nevertheless, it was also relatively boring – there’s no river, just the trail plowing strait and narrow through suburban backyards. I walked at a steady pace and chewed up the kms, to find myself at the north end. Unfortunately, the peacefulness of the Trail is undone by its finish under a road overpass. You have to climb up onto York Mills Road, and follow it east for a few hundred meters. At Lesmill Drive, you turn north again and follow the streets along the Valleybrook and Lesmill Bike Path.

Eventually, you come to Duncan Mills Road, where you can then connect with the Betty Sutherland Trail and rejoin the East Don River as you head north. This trail continues for about 3 km, and while it’s a lovely bit of woods, it’s hard to love the trail itself. I could hear the roar of traffic along the 12 lanes of the 401 expressway when I joined the trail and it just kept getting louder and louder as I approached. The trail actually goes under the 401, and it’s an unsettling experience to pass through a space where the slanted light reminded me of the columns of a cathedral and yet the traffic noise blocked any thoughts of tranquility.

When you come out the other side of the roadway, you find the trail continuing north for another half a km or so, soon depositing you at the exit of the trail upon Sheppard Avenue. There you have to cross from the south-east corner of Leslie & Sheppard to the north-west corner where you can drop down onto the East Don Trail.

By the time I reached this, just after 12:30, I was feeling quite hungry and ready for a rest, so I quickly rambled off looking for a nice quiet spot to have lunch. Unfortunately, while the trail is in the ravine of the river, it’s still just meters from Leslie Street and there seemed to be a stream of fire trucks and ambulances shrieking past. I had to walk for 5 minutes to get far enough along the trail to find a little clearing with a bench in the sun that was the perfect spot for lunch.

I had been prudent enough to use my breakfast stop at St. Lawrence Market to also visit Churrasco St. Lawrence and pick up one of their classic chicken sandwiches. It’s made with Portuguese-style rotisserie chicken on a soft bun, with piri piri sauce, mayo, lettuce, and tomato, and it’s been a favourite of mine since Churrasco St. Lawrence opened in the late 1980’s. Sitting in the sun, resting tired feet, savouring a sandwich, and listening to the birds was a perfect way to relax.

By this point, I’d covered about 18 km, and looking at the map I realized that I probably only needed about another hour to finish my journey. I had been so focused on my inner clock, passing through familiar trails, that I had lost track of time and distance. I was a bit disappointed, coming to that realization.

The point of my Crossing Toronto journey was to discover more about the city, and yet I’d managed to climb most of the way through the city and hadn’t really noticed anything. Upon reflection, it occurred to me that my Big Walks were going to be quite different in character from my regular walks, because the rhythm of steady day-in, day-out walking imposes a different kind of observation. On a more conventional 1 or 2 hour walk, I might zone out a for a bit, but for the most part I would notice my surroundings. On a Big Walk after a couple of days already spent “observing”, I was starting to feel both jaded in my attention-span and locked into the routine of walking. Big Walks take on a life of their own, and are about the quest, it seems, as much as they are about the journey.

On that somewhat depressing note, I resigned myself to “notice” something, and yet while the scenery on this part of the trail is perfectly fine, I had a hard time loving it. There’s only so much green-lined trail next to a burbling river that you can walk along.

The only observation of note that I could come up with was the predictable fact that as I had climbed north from the lake, the river had narrowed and diminished. It was interesting, however, to see that as the river’s flow grew smaller, the landscape dried out so that the upper reaches of the river now featured more meadow areas, and dryer ground trees like cedars and ash. The birds shifted from marsh species to meadow species, including a chorus of kill-deers that squawked noisily as I passed.

Those kill-deers did make me realize that the traffic noise had finally faded a bit, though even here traffic sounds were still noticeable. The soundscape of the Don Valley, unfortunately, is dominated by cars, trucks, motorcycles, and noise. You can mostly tune it out as you walk but it’s only when it diminishes to a background hum that you realize how loud it has been.

Soon I came to the Finch Hydro Corridor, a public space that traces the path of the high voltage electricity transmission lines across the top of the city. In the past, I’ve done part of this and it’s actually a great walk in its own right – one of these days I’ll see how far I can go across the top of the city following this path.

Finch Hydro Corridor Trail looking west from the East Don Trail

North of the Finch Hydro Corridor, the river forks again, somewhat confusingly, into a western arm and an eastern arm. The western arm is actually the East Don River and the eastern arm is German Mills Creek, but the western arm flows through private property so that you can’t actually follow it to Steeles. Instead I was forced to follow the eastern arm where a trail brings you to the south side of Steeles and the northern boundary of the City of Toronto.

By now, I wasn’t that interested in the niceties of hydrology and names, I just wanted to finish my journey. The river/creek was narrowing, and there weren’t many people about. I kept climbing, following the trail north-east towards Leslie. It continued to be green and lovely and boring, so it was anticlimactic to cross Leslie just south of Steeles and reach my finishing point, a pedestrian bridge crossing the creek adjacent to Steeles. I had climbed the Don (more or less) from the lake to leave the city, and yet it didn’t feel particularly memorable.

The eastern arm of the East Don River (aka German Mills Creek) crossing under Steeles Avenue

Toronto is a huge city in terms of land area. It stretches roughly 50 km east to west, and 20 km north to south – more than 1000 square km. It contains dozens of fascinating neighbourhoods, 100’s of parks, and many kilometres worth of trails. I had hoped that Crossing Toronto would teach me something the city, and it did in many ways.

Yet, more importantly, it taught me something about myself and the nature of a Big Walk. Big Walks are their own reward, they are the meal, and the observations along the way are the spices that make it interesting.

Crossing Toronto Stage 2 – The Don to the Rouge

After a good first stage on my Crossing Toronto Big Walk, I was looking forward to Stage 2, covering the section east of the Don River. This would follow the Waterfront Trail as much as possible, taking me from Corktown Common on the Don River eastwards all the way to the Rouge River.

Since this stage meant that I could take the subway to King Station and walk to Corktown, along the way I knew I would pass by St. Lawrence Market. I didn’t want to repeat my coffeeless start of the day before, so I stopped at an old favourite, Paddington’s Pump, for a right proper diner breakfast.

The mushroom omelette with home fries and toast (and don’t forget the token tomato!) – yummm!

From the Market, it’s about 2 km to Corktown Common, so I added that to my journey. It was a gorgeous summer morning, and walking along the Esplanade, I passed the apartment block that was our first home when my wife and I married. There are basketball courts out front, and gardens, and kids, and joyful play – it was perfect. It put a spring into my steps, and I felt pretty good considering the 20+ km I’d covered the previous day.

Arriving at Corktown from the west, you have to climb a few steps to the crown of a small hill. The warm, wet summer we’ve been having meant that the steps were lined with greenery that burst its bounds and crowded the path like the waving throngs that cheer on a parade. Welcome brave hiker!

On the east side of the park, the path takes you down onto the Lower Don Trail, and turning south you come to a bridge over the Don. On a Friday morning, it was a stream of cyclists heading into the city – I actually had to wait for the traffic to pass. Build a bike infrastructure, and lo and behold, it will be used!

Martin Goodman Trail along Lakeshore Blvd East

Once you cross the Don, the Lower Don Trail turns into the Martin Goodman Trail, which is part of the Waterfront Trail. I followed it eastwards parallel to Lakeshore Blvd East, towards Ashbridge’s Bay Park where I could pick up the Boardwalk.

Toronto is sometimes referred to as Hollywood North, given the number of movies and TV shows that have been produced here. Walking east from the Don, you see that writ large. The Lakeshore and Leslie area is known as Studio City, home to several large production companies, and you pass their sound stage facilities as you go, along with prop rental companies, location scouts, and parking lots full of movie shoot vehicles (including various NYC taxis, police cars, and buses – amazing how often Toronto doubles for New York).

Further east, in the Beaches, you see our own version of Venice Beach North. There is a gorgeous beach of course, and the boardwalk. And there are bodybuilders and joggers, spandexed cyclists and beach yogaists. We have soy lattes and organic cold pressed juice, très cute dogs, and Bugaboo baby carriages. I even passed an aerobics class complete with enthusiastic trainers, energy pop music, and the requisite Lululemon outfits, and I had to repress a smile – “Keep it Going! Count it Down! Seven!, Six!, Five!, Four! …..”.

the Boardwalk @ Woodbine Beach, freshly groomed on a summer morning

Continuing along the Boardwalk beside Woodbine Beach and then Kew Beach, I kept passing little scenes that amused. There was an independent video shoot featuring a young actor who ran fetchingly towards the water and then stopped, to stare pensively off into the distance. There was a charming older couple strolling hand in hand wearing impressively large sun hats. There were sun worshippers stretched out reading books, kids making sand castles, newby paddle boarders trying to stay upright. It was perfect.

But time presses, and eventually I came to the end of the Boardwalk at Balmy Beach. I took a short break there, and then followed the Waterfront Trail signs up to Queen Street East. Near the eastern end of Queen, I passed a citadel-like structure that reminded me of the fortifications of Citadel Hill in Halifax, but this is actually a fortress of sanitation called the RC Harris Water Treatment Plant.

Past that, Queen Street ends and the road turns north to become Fallingbrook Drive. The Waterfront Trail climbs here and takes you north to just south of Kingston Road. When I was planning the walk, I had been afraid that I’d have to walk long stretches along the busy Kingston Road, but the route planners of the Waterfront Trail must have had an equal aversion to traffic, so instead they’ve chosen streets that get you as close to the water as private property allows, and along the actual lakeshore whenever public parks permit.

(I have to apologize here for my alliterative aspirations. I positively promise to pare back this predilection.)

Following the Trail, I realized that I had also forgotten some basic geography. The Beaches Boardwalk is essentially at lake elevation. As you go east from there, however, the land behind the water’s edge rises steeply to become the Scarborough Bluffs, in places 90 meters above the lake. Obviously I had to climb, and climb, and climb, and then descend, descend, descend. I ended up doing the equivalent of 75 flights of stairs as a result – oh my aching quads.

Continuing east along the Trail, I passed a familiar landmark – the Toronto Hunt golf course. As it happens, we live in the Hunt’s original 1919 building, now refurbished into condos. When this building was requisitioned by the Canadian government during WW2 and subsequently retained by the Ministry of Defence, the club needed to relocate and so they bought land to the east of the city in Scarborough. That became the Toronto Hunt property, and it was also eventually surrounded as the city expanded eastwards, so the club turned their land into a golf course and it was the familiar club crest that greeted me on the wall outside the golf course. I pondered wandering in claiming membership by proxy, but decided they’d probably throw out a sweaty hiker.

Entrance to the Toronto Hunt golf course

East of the Toronto Hunt, the Trail took me through the Rosetta McClain Gardens. I was stunned at the beauty of the grounds. It’s a gem of a park, and yet having lived 35+ years in Toronto I’d never heard of it. You have to go there – this park deserves to be better known.

Rosetta McClain Gardens

As well as the flowers, the park offers fantastic views over the lake – you’re near the maximum height of the Bluffs at this point, 90 meters above the lake, and on a clear summer’s day it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re staring over oceans and dreaming of fragrant shores.

The views, the views …..

As I left the Gardens, I realized that I was not yet half way on my journey, and despite the big breakfast I was getting hungry. I probably should have stopped in the Gardens, but it had only been about 11:30 or so at that point. I kept following the Trail east for several km, about an hour of walking and winding through the backstreets of the Cliffside and Cliffcrest neighbourhoods, and since there was nowhere to picnic I just kept plowing along.

Eventually I came to the Doris McCarthy Trail which plunges down Gates Gully next to Sylvan Park. The Waterfront Trail signs by the road indicated that I should continue to follow the trail along the Hill Crescent roadway rather than descend, but I decided to go off piste and follow the alternative trail. I trusted that Google Maps, which showed an unnamed trail along the beach, would not leave me stranded and it was a gamble that paid off in spades.

The McCarthy Trail takes you about 70 or 80 meters down a steep gravel path, and after a few minutes of slithering I thought to myself that this better work out because I DO NOT want to climb back up. But after continuing on, when I reached the bottom along the lake shore, I found myself on a waterside trail that stretched east along the base of the bluffs for as far as I could see. And there was no one around – I had the trail to myself.

By this time I was starving so I found a little point where a tree provided shelter overlooking the lake, and stretched out on a rock to eat my lunch. The only sound was the surge of a gentle swell. It was heaven.

After that much needed break, I followed the beach trail east. It’s not private property, but it’s not a city park either. It looks like the City has built the trail in order to construct a breakwater along the base of the bluffs, to prevent erosion. If that’s the case, then it’s public property but I was amazed at seeing no other hikers. I guess since there are no washrooms, no actual beach, and – god forbid – no parking, there’s no attraction for most people. I didn’t care, I was just amazed to be able to walk for several km just listening to the birds and the waves.

Still, after 45 minutes walking, I was starting to wonder when I’d come to a way off the beach. The bluffs were still at least 50-60 meters high at this point so there was no way to climb vertically, and I didn’t want to have to turn back and climb up the gully, but eventually I found a trail up and off the beach. It turned out to be a maintenance road climbing into the Guild Park and that led me (after scrambling over a fence) back to the Waterfront Trail on the Guildwood Parkway.

Despite the best intentions of the Waterfront Trail designers, there’s no option here but to include several km of rather boring road-walk stretches between Guildwood Parkway and the start of the Port Union Waterfront Park, by Beechgrove Drive.

By this time, I was 20+ km in, and wondering how much longer I had to go. I’d drunk most of my water but there no parks at which to refill (though ironically I passed a water treatment plant and wondered if I could just pop in and borrow a cup).

Following the Waterfront Trail signs, I saw that I was in an industrial part of Scarborough – a chemical plant, train lines, and the olfactory delights of the Highland Creek Waste Treatment Plant, where sewage is biologically digested. The prevailing winds from the west meant that the aromas followed me for a km or so.

The Trail here runs, in part, parallel to the Lakeshore east rail line, and with the industries in the area, the soundscape is dominated by trucks, trains, and transport. And yet, along Copperfield Road, the track is lined with marsh grasses, and in quiet stretches the breeze rustling the reeds made me appreciate the difference between the higher-pitched “HISSSSSSS” of wind through grasses compared to the lower-timbred “Shushhhhh” of leaves in trees.

After that road stretch, I was glad to reach the Port Union Waterfront Park where I could descend again down to water level. I was just nicely onto this trail, about 4 km from my destination, when the clouds that had been gathering unloaded and I had to scramble into rain gear. I kept walking through the rain, and soon enough it stopped. I was footsore and thirsty, still looking for a place to fill a water bottle, and was just chugging for the finish by this time.

There are many species of insects along the waterfront, and one of the more annoying ones is a small type of fly that congregates in wavering columns along the open stretches near the water, often at about head-height. When you are walking, you have to keep your mouth closed to avoid digesting them. I was pleased to pass a flock of swallows, and then a swarm of dragonflies, both doing their best to reduce the population.

The Port Union Waterfront Park is exactly that – it offers a well maintained trail that runs along the shore for several km. There are little lookouts with benches, and trees have been planted to anchor the shore against erosion. There were people about here, families on bikes, strolling lovers, a few fishermen, and even 3 guys who were apparently shooting a music video. It was all interesting, but I was tired and just wanted to get to the finish.

And then, the rain came back one more time, just a few hundred meters from the Rouge River. It only lasted about 5 minutes and I needed 2 of that to get back into rain gear, so I was wet, sweating, and grumpy when I arrived at the Rouge National Urban Park, to find the washrooms closed due to high water and crowd of kids blocking access to the water fountain. But I’d made it – Corktown to the Rouge.

The Rouge River

The Park is interesting. It represents an understanding that natural marshlands are the best way to absorb rain water, while providing a diverse mix of flora and fauna. We’ve paved over, constrained, and covered the mouth of the Don, which used to look like the Rouge. We’ve tried to rebuild a watershed with landfill and parks at the mouth of the Humber. But the natural state that the Rouge park preserves is the way that nature has evolved to handle rivers and creeks. If we can just get out of the way, we can let the elements rearrange themselves into a sustainable ecosystem.

A family of ducks ignoring the speed bump

Crossing Toronto Stage 1 – Etobicoke to the Don

Storm clouds over the lake

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

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

Etobicoke Creek at Marie Curtis Park

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

MapsDonate Now

Great Lakes Waterfront Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Humber River foot bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing Toronto

Since unforeseen circumstances postponed my first attempt at a Big Walk (the Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake journey), I’ve decided to take advantage of a slowish time at work to cross off a different Bucket List Big Walk.

I call this Big Walk the Toronto Crossing. I’ve had the idea for about a year or so, of walking east-west and north-south to criss-cross Toronto. At first I thought of walking west to east along Eglinton or Lawrence Ave and then south to north up Yonge St, because those roads more or less bisect the city north/south and east/west.

But then I had a better thought – Toronto as a walkable city features some fabulous parks and trails, and many of these exist because of the water features that have shaped our landscape. That includes not just the lakefront, but also the many creeks and rivers that flow north/south.

What better way to criss-cross Toronto than to follow the watercourses that define it? By walking west to east across Toronto following the lake shore, and walking south to north following the Don River, I’ll have a much more interesting journey than following rivers of asphalt.

Looking at a map, it’s pretty clear that I’ll cover more than 50 km west to east, and probably 25 km or so south to north, so that means breaking it up into 3 stages. Since the western boundary of Toronto is formed in part by Etobicoke Creek, and the eastern boundary in part by the Rouge River, I am going to make these the starting point in the west and the ending point in the east. Conveniently for my plan, there are rail stations at Long Branch near Etobicoke Creek, and at Rouge Hill near the Rouge River, so that gives me an easier way to get to/from the starting and ending places.

Also since the Don flows into the lake about halfway between Etobicoke and the Rouge, it makes a good half-way spot to break up the west-east stages. It also runs north past the city boundary at Steeles Avenue so that gives me a south-north corridor. Finally, the mouth of the Don is marked by the Corktown Commons, so this park is a perfect nexus to tie the 3 walks together.

Thus the plan: First stage, from Etobicoke Creek to Corktown Common., about 23 km. Second stage, from Corktown to the Rouge River, about 30 km. Finally, the third stage from Corktown north to Steeles along the Don, again around 23 km.

One complication is that given the split of the Don River into the East and West Don branches in the middle of Toronto, I have to choose one or the other to follow. After some consulting of the map, I’ve decided to follow a combination of the two – I’ll follow the West Don from the forks to Sunnybrook Park, and then the East Don from the Betty Sutherland Trail north to the Steeles Avenue city limit. In between these two legs, I’ll follow Wilket Creek for part of it and go urban cross-country for the rest.

Along the way, this 3 day Big Walk will be a chance to test my stamina for the 6 day TONotL Big Walk. It will also let me explore parts of Toronto that I’ve never explored close-up, like Etobicoke and Rouge Hill. While I’ve been to many of the places along the way, and have hiked sections of this Big Walk, I’ve never tied them together. I’m hoping I’ll learn something about the city and get a chance to lots of exercise and fresh air.

So that’s the plan – criss-cross Toronto, get some good walks in, enjoy the sun and summer, and see what I can see. Here goes.

Little Steps

The other day, we paid a visit to my nephew, where we had a chance to catch up with our grand-nephew. He’s about 18 months old now, lively and curious and fun-seeking, a wonderful little guy with blond hair and a chuckling laugh.

While there, I watched him walking about the flat. He’s a bit unsteady of course, as kids can be, but he’s confident in his home, climbing the furniture and crawling under the tables. We played the walk-ride game where a child stands on your feet and holds your hands while you walk. It always brings a smile to both the rider and the ridden, and it reminded me of playing the same game with our son.

Kids learn to walk at their own pace. For our son, it came at about 11 months. We took him on a visit to France, and we stayed at a country farmhouse in the Gard, outside the market town of Uzès. The house had been lovingly restored and had the original flagstone floors in the kitchen and rustic tiles in the living room. Outside there were large shaded patio areas that were covered in gravel.

He was still crawling when we got there, but the rough surfaces soon had him standing alongside chairs and low tables and taking little shuffling steps. By the time we got home, just before his 1st birthday, he was ready to walk having practiced standing for a few weeks.

Life’s like that – people respond to incentives. Little steps towards a bigger goal come from the nudges that nature or parents place in our way. Little steps, like the little ones laughing and toddling into a parent’s outstretched arms. Or little steps like those cramped first strides in the crowd at the start of a marathon. There’s a goal and there’s a start, and there’s the steps to get there. Little steps.

Walking in Summer

The West Don River at Serena Gundy Park

Toronto is a city of climatic extremes. Winters can dip to -30 C, while summers can soar into the mid 30’s. A 6-month swing of 60 C between January and July leaves just a few weeks of middle temps in late spring and early autumn when walking is at its best. The extremes of summer are a walker’s labour, but you have to get out and get through it.

So yes, it gets hot here, and these past few days it has been officially HOT. The City of Toronto declares a Heat Alert when temps exceed 31 C during the day and stay above 20 C overnight, and we’re in one right now. Forecast highs are in the mid 30s and it will feel like 40+ with the humidity.

All of that heat makes walking hot work. There’s no way round it, if you want to go out you’re going to feel it. Just like extreme cold in winter, when it gets this hot you tend to stay indoors out of the sun. Still, you need to get to work, so for me it means leaving early while it’s still cool, cutting across the park to smell the dewy grass.

Eglinton Park at 7:00 a.m. on the way to the subway

Walking in the heat also means dressing for it – loose, light fabrics that breath, hats to shade your nose and ears, and a water bottle to stay hydrated. I’m lucky, the software shop where I’m working is very casual so I can get away with a tee shirt and shorts, though the irony of AC means that I need an extra layer when in the office.

Walking in heat is also a bit of a dance, cutting back and forth across the street to find shade from buildings or better yet trees. It’s also a slow waltz rather than a fast foxtrot. Take your time to conserve energy, and drift from shade to shade.

Summer walks can feel like a desert journey from oasis to oasis, trudging through sun-baked streets to reach parks that have water fountains and shady cool grass, stringing the parks together to reach a destination. Toronto’s park system helps to make that possible, while generations of urban planning has ensured that many streets are lined with mature trees.

Burkes Brook at Chatsworth Ravine

Downtown, however, it’s a concrete heat sink. The buildings, sidewalks, roads, and rooftops suck up the heat and radiate it back out so that even in the shade you feel it roasting you. Getting from the subway to the office for me is less than a 20 minute walk, but that 20 minutes leaves me drenched. No one wants to crowd on the subway, we’re all feeling sticky, so we spread out and bless the AC.

When walking in summer, there are clues to the heat. The silvery shimmer on the underside of maple leaves turned up by hot breezes. Old tongue-lolling dogs slowly shambling to find shade or cool grass upon which to lie panting. Young, trim athletes in skimpy work out gear running in the heat to sweat-shame the lazy and unfit.

And then there are small moments of relief, like passing an open office door to be hit with a blast of AC. Or a cool breeze off the lake finds a path down an alley onto the sidewalk, or a drifting cloud turns off the heat lamp. These little moments of relief remind you that in just a few weeks we’ll be into the autumn and wondering where the summer went. Our summers are short, really only about 8-10 weeks of hot weather, and despite that we moan when it’s hot just as we moan when it’s cold.

It’s a constant conversation topic, the weather, in Toronto and everywhere. Did humans evolve language specifically to moan about the weather? Perhaps it’s not far-fetched to think that “too hot” may have been mankind’s first words. And with climate change a reality, will “too hot” be our last words as well?

Change of Plans

Aerial view of St Stephen’s Green
By Dronepicr (edited by King of Hearts) Edit corrects CA and sharpens image – File:Dublin Stephen’s Green-44.jpg, CC BY 3.0, Link

This week was supposed to have seen me complete my TONotL hike, and as I wrote last week, those plans had to change when we made an unscheduled trip to Ireland for a funeral. It’s meant that this past week has been a mixed bag of walks.

Sunday – walking the strand at Portnoo in Donegal.

One of the secrets of Ireland is that while it’s a northerly climate, and it’s associated with soft rains and green pastures, there are in fact quite a few fabulous beaches. Portnoo is one of them – several km of sand and shallow waters that are perfect for sunning yourself or swimming, if you don’t mind the chill.

Monday – city walking in Dublin, wandering favourite neighbourhoods near St. Stephens Green and Marion Square, window shopping and sightseeing.

The trip had been a whirlwind, and we’d given ourselves Monday afternoon and evening in Dublin to decompress after the emotional visit to Donegal. The sun was out and it was a lovely day, perfect to find a little out of the way pub with some outdoor tables and a pint of Guinness. Dinner was equally lovely, enjoying seafood and crisp French wine at Sole. The stroll through St. Stephens Green after dinner capped off our trip, enjoying the flowers in bloom and watching the other strolling couples.

Tuesday – airports and taxis and a quick stroll around the shops back home to pick up dinner. Welcome back to Toronto summer heat.

Wednesday – since I was off work for the week anyway and had planned to spend it walking, it was off for a tour of Lawrence Park and Bridle Path neighbourhoods and on through Burkes Brook and Sunnybrook Parks.

15km of wandering up and down hills, through cool shaded forest and sun-drenched playing grounds.

Thursday – more hiking, this time the full length of the Beltline.

First west along Roselawn and Castlefield all the way to Caledonia to pick up the start of the Beltline Trail by the Canada Goose factory, and then back east on the Trail all the way through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, down the Moore Ravine into the Brickworks, and then back north up through David Balfour Park and into the Cemetery again to complete the loop. 20 km on an even hotter day.

Friday – yet more hiking, this time down to the lake through inner city neighbourhoods – Whychwood, Christie Pits, Palmerston, Little Italy, Parkdale – and along the Trillium Trail through Ontario Place, then back home through stifling city streets heavy with humid heat.

I passed through several of parks that make Toronto a fantastic place to live – Christie Pits, Trinity-Bellwoods, Coronation Park, and more. Without those green oases, the city would bake in the summer. While they were lovely to walk through, 25km on a hot muggy day wiped me out.

Saturday – after that long day Friday, it was time to take it easy, strolling in the neighbourhood and shopping for new running shoes after wearing out my old pair. It was a day to unwind and let my legs and feet rest a bit.

Overall, I did more walking this past week than I’ve done in any previous week in at least a year, and yet I only did about half of the 160 km I had planned on my TONotL walk. If I’m honest, it would have been a tough challenge to finish that walk as planned, given 30C heat and my evident fitness level despite my training walks. Clearly I need to put in more work so that when I try this in the autumn when the weather will also be cooler, I will be ready for it.

Still, a change of plans isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When life throws up the unexpected, the best path forward is to learn from the experience.

Big Little Walks

Sometimes there are curves in the path that you can’t see round.

This past Friday I was in Ireland, in Donegal Town. I took the biggest little walk I’ve taken in a while, when as a pallbearer I helped to carry my wife’s dear Aunt Nora out of the house to the waiting hearse, then into the church for the service, and finally up the hill in the cemetery to the grave.

My plan had been that on Sunday June 30, I would start my Big Walk from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake but that’s now been postponed. We won’t get home till mid-week and that doesn’t leave me enough time to do the walk I’d planned before I need to be back at work. I guess that will now wait till the autumn.

But more important than those plans was the walk I took on Friday. It was a lovely day, warm and sunny, and the town turned out as we passed walking slowly behind the hearse. I’m glad we came, and that I was able to help on that short little walk.

Over the years, and especially the past few visits, when we were leaving Donegal Nora would always part with the words “I’ll not say goodbye, only farewell”. There’s an Irish saying that’s apt – may the road rise up to meet you. Farewell Nora.

Walking Gear

I’m not one for gear, at least not ostentatious gear like walking poles or fancy boots. I’ve always liked Walking rather than Hiking or Trekking – you don’t need much more than a comfortable pair of shoes for Walking. Most of the walks I’ve described in this blog have been just that – walks, just with some longer than others.

But there are times when a walker needs proper gear, whether it’s footwear or outerwear or packs or water bottles. I’ve written previously about my bucket list of walks, and starting this year I want to try at least one of the Big Walks I’ve been planning. That means it’s time to invest in some proper gear.

As I plan these Big Walks, I’ve realized that I’m going to need certain things:

  • Footwear
  • Pack
  • Walking poles
  • Clothing
  • Support stuff – hydration, rain gear, etc.

Footwear is obvious and it’s something I’ve focused on up until now. Generally I just looked for a good pair of running shoes, but for these long walks which will include significant amounts of trails and off-road terrain, I need a good pair of boots. I have a few criteria for these: good arch and ankle support; well structured/cushioned footbeds; water resistance; durability; comfort and breathability; and room for the custom orthotics I need to wear.

For the pack, I did some research and some thinking about what I will need to carry. It came down to the types of long walks I’ll do – will these be wilderness walks where I’ll need sleeping and camping gear? I’ve decided against that. My long walks will be based around finding accommodation at B&Bs, inns, and so on, so I just need to carry clothes, water, food, and some support stuff. That means a a pack in the 30L – 40L range should work. I also want features like easy access pockets, waist belt pockets, water bottle storage, loops for poles, water resistance, durability, comfort, and light weight.

Then comes walking poles. I’ve never been one who used poles, but I’ve read enough to know that they really make a difference when carrying weight. I want poles that are lightweight, quick to breakdown and assemble, comfortable to grip, adjustable yet sturdy, and water resistant so they won’t rust.

For clothing I’ve assembled quite a bit over the years. I have a collection of light, sweat-wicking training gear, compression socks, light clothes that fold tightly yet look dressy enough for dinner, fleecies, hats, and so on. I’ve also read about the benefits of using natural fibres, especially light silks and merino wools, which wick away sweat yet rinse out and dry quickly, and are good for the environment because they are made of biodegradable materials.

Finally, the support stuff is also important. Hydration for me is just a couple of water bottles which I already have. I find water bladders that go into your pack to be too fiddly to fill and keep clean. I’ll also need things like a compact first aid kit, a blister kit, sewing kit, and eating utensils. Rain gear is a must, especially when I start walking in the UK. And of course, you can always find a use for a good old Swiss Army knife like the one I’ve had for 30+ years.

All that adds up to a significant investment – I have budgeted about $1000 CAD for my gear. I’m hoping it will be repaid in the walks I’ll be able to do more comfortably, and over the coming months I’ll post about the gear I’ve chosen and how it performs.