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.

Walking in the Burbs

Steeles West looking back east towards Weston Road

I’ve been working recently in the north of the city, in fact strictly speaking just north out of the city – Steeles Avenue is the city limit so where I work on the the north side of the street, I’m technically outside of Toronto in the City of Vaughan (the City on Top of Toronto, as a cheeky radio advert had it).

It’s not what I would consider to be a great walking neighbourhood such as you’d find in the inner parts of the city – there are no tree-lined streets, parks, light traffic, houses, schools, or gardens. It’s just multilane wide streets full of heavy trucks and buses and cars, laid out in a grid of light industry, office parks, strip malls, gas stations, fast food, and a strangely dense selection of Italian restaurants.

Nevertheless, it’s also quietly interesting in its own way. There’s lots of little things you notice as you walk around. One is the enticing aroma of fresh baked bread, cinnamon, apples, and spices coming from the Ozery Bakery across from the office. They are often baking in the afternoons as I’m leaving and the scent is maddening when you’re hungry.

Another is the odd numbering on the buildings. On the north (Vaughan) side of Steeles, the office address is 3700 Steeles West. On the south (Toronto) side just opposite, the address is something like 4955 Steeles West. Apparently the City of Toronto starts numbering Steeles from Yonge Street, whereas the City of Vaughan starts further west, probably around Keele, so even though you’ve travelled the same distance from Yonge the building numbers are more than a 1000 apart. Who knew.

Who also knew that the City of Vaughan is twinned with the city of Lanciano Italy? I’d often heard that Vaughan and the community of Woodbridge specifically had one of the largest Italian-born populations in Canada, so I guess that explains it.

And that probably also explains the many little Italian restaurants scattered around the neighbourhood, tucked into office towers and strip malls, and down side streets beside auto repair shops. One of them, the Volce Lounge, features homemade pizza and dancing Wed-Sun evenings – again, who knew?

Another feature of the neighbourhood are the geese. The local population of Canada Geese are numerous, voracious in their appetite for grass, and voluminous in their production of goose poo. It’s everywhere, covering the sidewalks in mini green landmines. Geese are pretty territorial, and there’s one pair that nest near the parking lot of my building – several times one or the other has been sat square in the middle of the carpark entrance, refusing to move and hissing at cars that try to squeeze by. I also saw one perched triumphantly on the roof of a car, which positively glared at the owner when he came out to shoo the goose away.

Because it’s so open and treeless, and because Steeles runs broad and open east-west with the prevailing wind from the west, it’s always breezy and it can be chilly going for a walk. When the wind swings to the north in winter, it slices icily through your warmest coat. In summer the sun blazes on all that concrete and asphalt which soak up the heat and radiate it back at you. Parking lots and road surfaces get treated with salt by the ton in winter, and rain sheets everywhere. There’s a constant roar of traffic, planes overhead, and trains in the distance, and often the bakery smells are drowned by diesel fumes and dust. It’s no one’s definition of a cozy neighbourhood.

And yet, out for a walk this week, with a little sun trying to poke through and the smell of fresh bread in the air, it was pleasantly surprising. You could hear the birds in the bushes, at least on the side streets away from the traffic on Steeles. There were a few people out walking and more sitting at picnic tables outside office buildings gathering in the sun.

Life is interesting, anywhere, and walking around I kept reminding myself that the chief joy of walking is in the pace. That provides the opportunity to notice the little things if you just let your senses (and nose) guide you.

Walks in Spring

This past weekend offered two great days for walks in the early spring, and they put in mind a few random thoughts.

  • I was suffering from a spring cold and walking when you can’t breath is like eating when you can’t taste – you lose a vital sensory part of the experience
  • These were great walks to hear the sounds of early spring – the snarling farts of downshifting sports cars out for an early Look At Me (LAM) cruise, the tap-tap-tap of roofers’ shingling hammers, the gentle jazz strum of a busker sitting in the sun, and clink of a baseball on a metal bat
  • I was also serenaded by the Toronto Gardener’s Choir – leaf blowers took the lead accompanied by weed whackers, lawnmowers, and hedge trimmers.
  • Speaking of roofers, I counted 4 houses under renovation along one block in our neighbourhood, a sure sign of spring house fever
  • Despite my cold, I could still detect some of the signature smells of spring – wet wood from the construction sites, dust from unwashed streets, damp earth.
  • It was refreshing to feel the sun on my arms and face, finally warming and not just bright, and bringing out a proper sweat as you walk
  • The colours are faded and tired – poking through the tans, washed-out oranges, drab greens, and dull greys were little wispy promises of warmer weather to come – the whites and yellows and pinks of early flowers climbing up through old leaves
  • People watching reveals those still feeling the cold wearing gloves, hats, and winter coats alongside the its-time-to-get-springy types wearing T-shirts, shorts, and running shoes, not to mention a little boy who popped out of his house in pyjamas and bare feet to run down the drive and then dive in the front door
  • The neighbourhood wildlife scene is dominated by birds – robins and cardinals and little sparrows are impatient and competitive as they hunt for nest material and the early worms of spring

It’s still early April and we’re probably another few weeks yet from steady warm temps, green grass with leaves on trees, and the waft of barbecues in the evening. It was a foretaste and more importantly a spur to get going after a winter when I spent far too many days indoors. Can’t wait to get walking wearing shorts.