Little Walks – The Beaches Boardwalk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk Journal – Dec. 30, 2018

Location: Toronto – Corktown to the Beaches and back

Weather: 1C, grey skies, snow on the ground

Duration: about 2:45 hours, 14.5k

Today my wife and I decided to walk through the Beaches neighbourhood, so to make it longer we drove to Corktown Common and parked there. Then we walked along Eastern Ave to Broadview and then up to Queen and from there walked east through Riverside and Leslieville to the Beaches. After a nice brunch pitstop at the Sunset Grill, we kept going east on Queen to Silver Birch Ave to get down to Balmy Beach. From there, turned back west and walked along the boardwalk and the Waterfront Trail to Ashbridge’s Bay, then back up to Queen to keep going west all the way back to the Lower Don River Trail, and so back to Corktown.

If you know Toronto, you’ll recognize those neighbourhoods. For those out of town, this combined revitalized ex-industrial lands (Corktown Common), gentrified, already-past-hipster-and-on-to-Starbucks blocks (Riverside and Leslieville) and 1-kid-2-dogs ex-hippy Beaches. We’ve been going for walks in the Beaches for years – in fact the day before she went into labour, my wife and I went for a walk there after eating some spicy food in order to get things going.

It’s changed and yet it’s the same – the houses, the vibe, the people. The sound of the day for me was the rattle of sticks and pucks from the outdoor ice rink at Beaches Park, closely followed by the crunch of wet snow underfoot and the churn of small waves on gravelly shores. It was grey but it was lovely, calm, and a reminder of one of the things I love about Toronto, it’s park and trail system.

For a few years in a row when our son was younger, we’d go out to the Beaches and walk the boardwalk on New Year’s Day. This year we went a bit earlier, and now that he’s older he didn’t come with us. But watching the other young parents with kids brought back memories. Walks are often contemplative, and that was today.