Walk Journal – January 1, 2020

The pond at Earl Bales Park

Where: West Don Valley through Earl Bales Park

Distance: about 7 km, 1.5 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk Journal – Labour Day Weekend

Where: Sunday Sep 1, north Toronto exploring the West Don River valley. On Monday Sep. 2, south Toronto along the lake while watching part of the CNE Air Show.

Duration: Sunday Sep 1 – about 4 hours covering around 18 km; on Monday Sep 2, about 2 hours covering about 8 km.

Weather: Grey and rainy on Sunday, mostly sunny on Monday – around 18-22 C

This past weekend was the unofficial end of summer, marked by Labour Day weekend. Toronto always has an end of season feel to it the first weekend in September, even if the calendar says the official end of summer is still a few weeks off. With most kids going back to school the Tuesday after Labour Day, it means the summer holidays are over so everyone wants to cram in one last weekend of activity before buckling down.

It’s also true that the weather usually starts to change a bit in late August – we usually get a bit of a cooler spell after the heat of July and early August, and the humidity levels drop. That’s what we had this year as well, along with some rain.

All that added up to an excuse to do some walking over the long weekend. I decided to break it up into 2 days. On the Sunday, I did a long walk on my own, and on the Monday, my wife and I did a shorter one by the lake. Each was interesting in its own way, and showed off some of the things I like best about Toronto, as well as some of the things that are annoying.

For my Sunday walk, I set off up Avenue Road, all the way to Armour Heights just north of the 401. From here, I followed Westgate Blvd down down into the West Don River valley to enter Earl Bales Park and from there followed the trails along the river to the Hinder Property on the north side of Sheppard Avenue. At that point, I had to leave the parks to cross Bathurst St. and cut through the Bathurst Manor neighbourhood to reach the Forest Valley Outdoor Education Centre and then the West Don Parkland trails to continue north and west through to Finch Avenue. Finally, I crossed into G. Ross Lord Park to reach the Finch Hydro Corridor Park and followed that back east to Yonge Street, where I took the subway back home.

I’ve done this walk before, but in reverse from the north to south, when I walked the East and West Don River over a two day span in May 2018. That time, I started at Finch subway and walked west through the Hydro Corridor to G. Ross Lord Park and then worked my way south. On this day, going north from the Earl Bales Park, in late summer, made for a very different feel. For one thing, there were just a few hints of the cooler autumn weather to come, with a few trees just starting to turn colour, the rustle of dried leaves, and the skitter of squirrels gathering winter food.

Hints of autumn colours on September 1 in Earl Bales Park

There was also a reminder in Earl Bales Park – the ski lifts. This is one of the only places within the city where you can learn to ski and snowboard. Walking past them on a late summer day, you can’t help but think that within about 10 weeks, these could be in use.

It was a quiet day for walking. There were a few people out on the trails, but for the most part the city was chilling out – even the ever-present background traffic hum was dimmer than usual. I had to cross out of the parks and walk through some neighbourhood streets between the Hinder Property and the West Don Parklands, and there was little activity to be seen. The air was heavy and there were a few drops of rain sneaking about, and other than a bit of yard work going on, there was a sense of restfulness combined with anticipation – chill now, school soon.

I was also surprised by the changes in the trail. When I walked it from the north in the spring of 2018, there was an actual trail to follow from Finch down through the West Don Parkland. At that time, I had eventually come out of the trail near the Prosserman Community Centre on the west side of Bathurst, where I’d climbed out of the valley to the west and cut through side streets to cross Bathurst and enter the Hinder Property. But on this day, standing at the bottom of the same river valley, opposite the Community Centre, I couldn’t find the northward trail at all.

Where’s the trail? Google Maps says it’s somewhere under those power lines.

There was a dense growth of wild flowers and tall grasses, and while Google Maps insisted that there was a trail somewhere amidst the growth, I couldn’t find it. After chasing dragonflies and swatting mosquitoes for a few minutes squelching through the marshy ground, I gave up. I had to climb back out of the valley and cut through side streets before I could descend again towards the river, at the Toronto District School Board’s Forest Valley Outdoor Education centre, and even there I had to jump a fence to pick up the trail again. I assume that since there is a lot of construction going on around the Prosserman Community Centre, there’s no way to get out of the valley past it to cross Bathurst and get to the Hinder Property, plus I don’t think this is official City of Toronto Parks property, hence there’s no trail maintenance. I’ll have to see if I can walk this again in winter, when the trail may be more obvious.

Since it was raining lightly at this point, I kept going into G. Ross Lord Park, and crossed the dam over the West Don River to reach the Finch Hydro Corridor.

The reservoir was low, and with the grasses and bushes looking dry, it had a melancholy feel, as if it had been abandoned. The river is tamed here, not that it needs another barrier on top of the concrete channels and golf courses that already bind its flow. The line of pylons carrying electrical transmission wires stretched off to the east and the west, spreading out from the valley and taking your eyes with them away from the trees below and towards the ever-marching forest of apartment and condo towers.

I had intended to keep going north and west, following the river north past Steeles and then heading home along Black Creek, but that sense of the city hemming me in, and the threatening skies, made me turn back east and head towards Yonge.

As I walked, it started to rain, properly now, so that I had to get out my rain gear, and that lowered my mood even more. But as I walked, I started to hear music. It took a few minutes to realize that it was coming from a festival at Esther Shiner Stadium. As I got closer, I could make out words, though not in English. I didn’t recognize the language, but I did pick up some tantalizing aromas coming from food tents, and I quickened my steps. But when I got the stadium, alas, the festival was ending – I must have been hearing the closing ceremonies, because there was a mass of people leaving as I came up. It was great to see a community event, but don’t tempt me with food and then close up when I get there!

So, trudging on in the rain I eventually came to Hendon Park, where there are several baseball diamonds. There were a couple of young guys throwing a ball around but otherwise it was deserted, as I sat down for a breather. Just then my son texted me from the Blue Jays game he was at, to tell me that the opposing pitcher, Justin Verlander, was in the midst of throwing a no-hitter – great, I thought, why am I sitting here in an empty baseball park in the rain when something historic like that is going on? And on that note, I lumbered off to the subway and home.

The next day, the weather had cleared and it was a lovely 22 C blue-sky morning. My wife and I decided to drive down towards High Park and walk down to the lakeshore to watch some of the air show.

We arrived just as Canada’s RCAF Snowbirds aerial display team has started their performance. Walking down a side street towards King, jets were roaring overhead and we kept catching glimpses through the trees, and them coming out into the open at King, the whole squadron came into view, doing a loop over the lake.

We stood with many others, all craning their necks as they watched the sky, and when the Snowbirds had finished with a roar and a flypast, we crossed the train tracks and the highway to get to Sunnyside Park, near the Palais Royale ballroom. We found a little open space by the water and sat on some rocks to watch a bit more of the show. I’ve always been a plane geek, and it was tremendous fun to spot the planes and identify them. This year there was a fly past of a Mig-15 Korean War-era fighter jet, and I’d never seen one before. It took me back 25 years, to when my friend Paul and I would play a flight simulator game flying against each other, taking turns with the Mig-15 against the F-86 Sabre.

After that break, we meandered west along the Sunnyside boardwalk, stopping to get a hot dog along the way. It was crowded with families, couples, kids, dogs, prams, and scooters. There were volleyball games going on, and kids splashing in the water. The planes kept zooming overhead – “hey look, that’s a Yak-50” “that’s nice” – and the sun was gentling baking with a lovely cool breeze to keep things bearable. It was a perfect way to end the summer.

I love Toronto on days like that – people from all over, diverse, mingling, and happy, taking advantage of the parks and the waterfront, and enjoying a long-standing summer-end tradition with the airshow. It was everything that makes Toronto my home. And I got to hold hands with my darling on the boardwalk. Take that winter!

Walks Past – Don River Trails, May 2018

In the spring of 2018, I was settling into semi-retirement – actually more retirement than semi. I spent my time walking, doing the shopping, cooking, and catching up on my reading. I was also mapping out some longer walks to explore Toronto, and decided to take 2 days and hike the trails along the East and West Don Rivers.

In the past I’d walked south along the East and West Don and the Lower Don, from Sunnybrook Park down to the lake. I had never, however, gone up the East or West Don north from Sunnybrook Park. Looking at a map, the first challenge was picking routes – there are no trails along both branches of the river for several inaccessible stretches due to private ownership of land. That meant I had to plan how to get around these while walking as much as I could through the public parks that surround the river, especially north of Sheppard Avenue. The East and West Don rivers actually extend north of the city proper, but this walk was about trails in the City so I wasn’t going north of Steeles.

As a result, I decided to go north up the East Don jumping off from the Betty Sutherland Trail south of Sheppard and hiking on up past Finch Avenue to the Finch Hydro Corridor park, which runs east-west for 20+ km across the top of Toronto between Finch and Steeles Ave. From the East Don at the Hydro Corridor park, I would go west over to Yonge Street and then subway home. That way, the next day I could subway back to Finch and pick up where I’d left off to go west on the Hydro Corridor to connect with the West Don River at G. Ross Lord Park and walk down that back to the residential area around Armour Heights (Wilson Avenue and Avenue Road). By splitting it up, it meant I’d walk around 20-23 km each day and around 45 km in total.

Once I had decided on the route, I just had to wait for a couple of nice days, and I found them May 23-24. Preparation was simple – a lunch, some water, and a light jacket each day. My walk took me through a series of Toronto parks:

Part of the fun of this walk was that it covered a gorgeous pair of spring days – sunny skies and low 20’s, perfect for walking. We had a bit of a late spring that year, so the early flowers and spring wildlife were still in full form – walking through marshy areas and listening to the chirping frogs and calling birds was a highlight.

It was also a chance to explore parks that I had never visited, especially to the west of Yonge. G. Ross Lord and Earl Bales parks, in particular, are huge and varied in terrain – meadows, forests, hills, flats, lakes, ponds, marshes, and rivers. They are great examples of the City of Toronto’s Parks Department boast, that we live in a “city within a park”. G. Ross Lord is worth a day all by itself – if you like cricket, it has several pitches plus training facilities that let you play or watch to learn more about the game.

The other side of the coin for a walk like this was the sense of frustration that fabulous resources like the Don river valleys are inaccessible in many places because of private development, especially golf courses – the Rosedale Golf Club, Don Valley Golf Course, Flemingdon Park Golf Club, and Donalda Golf Club all block the opportunity for continuous trails along the East and West Don rivers.

These golf courses date back prior to WW2, when the lands north of Lawrence Avenue were being developed residentially and there were still many areas of farmland up to Steeles Avenue. Wealthy golf clubs could buy land in the river valleys that wasn’t suitable for houses, and yet be conveniently located within city limits.

These clubs today sit on highly valuable land, and even though golf seems to be declining in popularity it would be naive to think that the City of Toronto could easily afford to buy them for public use, with so many competing demands on the tax payer’s purse. Still, since one of those golf courses is actually owned by the City (the Don Valley Golf Course), it would be great if the West Don Trail could be extended through it to connect Earl Bales Park with Jolly Miller Park at Hoggs Hollow.

After that, it’s a stretch I know, but perhaps the private golf clubs could be persuaded to open trail access through their properties to complete the chain of trails through the many public parks along the East and West Don. I’m all for respecting property rights, and I’m not saying they’d have to sell the land – just provide a right of way for a trail along the river through their property. Surely course designers can figure out how to allow play while providing mixed use trails.

Despite the frustration, walking the Don in all its forms is one of the highlights of trail walking in Toronto. For many years, the Don was either ignored and industrialized, or segregated and cut-off from public use. It’s only in the past couple of decades that Toronto has woken up to the fact that we have a tremendous resource available to us, and that combined with the Humber river system to the west and the Rouge River to the east, we have a chance to see what the land looked like before the city took shape. Walking Toronto along these trails really means you’re not walking in the “city” so much as walking through the forests that are the lungs of the city.

Turtle day!

If you have chance, walk at least part of the Don. It’s as much a part of the City’s history as any of the perhaps more famous parts like Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Casa Lima, or the Brickworks, and we take it far too much for granted. Hike it, bike it, walk it, stroll it, or run it but one way or the other use it.