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?

Walk Journal – Jan. 6, 2019

Location: Cedarvale Ravine/Nordheimer Ravine and Yonge Street

Duration: about 2.5 hours, 12k

Weather: Partly sunny, 0C and a chill north wind

The route started from home at Avenue Rd/Eglinton, and proceeded west along Roselawn to the Allen, then south across Eglinton down Everden into Cedarvale Ravine. I kept going south through the ravine to St. Clair, crossed that and then went down through Nordheimer Ravine to Boulton Drive, then south to Boulton Parkette, across Poplar Plains Road and back north to Cottingham, and then east along that to Yonge. From there I went north up Yonge to Manor Road, and then back west through the Chaplin Estates neighbourhood to Avenue Road, and north to get home.

I like walking through Cedarvale and Nordheimer, in any season. Today was a bit tough as there was a lot of ice on the paths, so the footing was tricky. Nevertheless, it always feels like an escape from the city into the countryside, as you walk through the trees and beside marshland. In spring and summer it’s alive with red-wing blackbirds, and in the fall the autumn colours are fantastic. In winter, there’s an outdoor ice rink in the park, and when there is snow there’s sledding on the hills. Whenever I walk through these parks, I can’t help but think that but for the persistence of many people, Toronto would have lost them back in the 1960s.

Torontonians today may not have heard of the Spadina Expressway, but they will have heard of the Allen Expressway and may have wondered why this road ends after just a few kilometres at Eglinton Avenue. The answer is that the Spadina Expressway was planned to continue the Allen Expressway south, through what is today the park system of Cedarvale and Nordheimer Ravines, and onwards south along Spadina Avenue all the way to the Gardiner Expressway down by the lake. That would have created a ring road around downtown Toronto, along with the Gardner to the south, the Don Valley Expressway to the east, and the 401 to the north.

While this plan seems terrible when looking back from today, I am sure that at the time to those who planned these roads, it made a lot of sense. Cars were symbols of freedom in the 1950s and 1960s, representing the ability to go where you wanted, when you wanted to. Cities around the world were building ring roads around city centres, and doing so in Toronto would have seemed like a modern approach in keeping with contemporary urban planning. Nevertheless, by the 1960s people were beginning to realize that cars, and the roads they required, came with costs. Toronto had seen many of its heritage buildings pulled down and replaced in the 1940-1970 period, and the thought of losing vibrant downtown neighbourhoods along Spadina along with the parklands and natural environments of the parks galvanized a response led by a new generation of urban thinkers such as Jane Jacobs.

I am grateful that these advocates were so passionate and vocal, and were able to carry public opinion. The trails and parks that we have today are amongst the jewels of Toronto, and are literally the lungs of the city. Walk through them and enjoy them, and never take them for granted.

5 things I like about walking in Toronto

There are many things I like about walking in Toronto. Of course since I live here you could say I have no choice, but even if I didn’t live here I’d find these things fascinating were I to visit and wander. Here’s just a few of the many things that make walking Toronto so much fun.

1.¬†Sidewalk dates. Within the city, it’s been the practice for many years to stamp the concrete used for the sidewalks with the year they were laid. Thus you get a time capsule view of the age of the neighbourhood you’re wandering through. Also, when sidewalks are repaired the new stretches have new dates, so you can see a history of renovation in the neighbourhood by comparing the dates almost house by house – sidewalks are often pulled up to put in new drains or driveways when homes are renovated – so without knowing anything else you can see the evolution of the houses. When I walk, I like to look out for the oldest sidewalk dates I can find, and especially look for those older than I am. I was born in 1963, and the oldest I’ve seen thus far is from 1958 (Avenue Road and Hillcrest), in the Lytton Park neighbourhood. Considering our winters and the amount of salt tossed about, that’s pretty impressive.

2. Ravines. Toronto’s park system is one of the city’s crown jewels, and some of my favourite city walks have made extensive use of the trails through the ravines that cross the city. The Moore Park ravine, the Cedarvale Ravine, the Don Valley, the Humber Valley, and Taylor Creek are just some of the trail systems I’ve explored. Use them, enjoy them, respect them, and protect them.

3. Neighbourhoods. Toronto, like any city, has a diverse set of communities, but what sets Toronto apart is that these are formed by the many people who have come to Toronto from around the world. The city is one of the most diverse in the world, and that diversity is a massive strength and a source of endless inspiration. A random 10k walk across just about any part of the city will take you through a dozen “countries” where you can sample foods, hear languages, and people watch with endless fascination.

4. Seasons. Ok, all places are subject to seasonality. Still, Toronto’s latitude means that we get the full effects of 4 distinct seasons. Wags will point out there are only two seasons on the roads (construction and winter) and only two seasons recreationally (summer and hockey). Ignore them and focus on what you see when you walk. Spring takes you from cold rains in March through April showers and May flowers. Summer sees parks in full bloom starting in June and into the heat and humidity of July and then the dryer heat of August. Autumn starts warm in September and leads to the rich colours of October and the grey skies in November. Winter’s greyer days and short nights in December lead to cold clear days in January and February. Every month is distinct in its weather and that is played out in everything you see on your walks – the trees, the rivers and creeks, the parks, the people. You can walk the same path 12 times over the year and get 12 very different experiences just because of the seasons. Don’t get me wrong, when it’s -20C or +30C the walk can be a slog, but it’s never boring.

5. Dogs. I have to confess that while I like dogs (and children), that goes more for my dog (and child) than than yours. My dog (and child) is perfectly behaved, it goes without saying. Yours, on the other hand – let’s just say that while you may not be able to judge a book by its cover, I suggest that you can judge a person by the behaviour and appearance of their dog. Nevertheless, watching dogs and even more so watching dog owners is an endless source of fun. Why do people put dogs in clothes? Why do they put them in strollers!?! Why do people have multiple dogs? Why do people with big cars have small dogs and vice-versa? Who puts blingy jewelled collars on dogs? What self-respecting dog lets them? Why does the dog-to-people ratio increase with the value of the houses in a given neighbourhood, and what does it say about that neighbourhood? Has anyone ever measured the relationship between the number of Starbucks in a neighbourhood and the number of dogs? So many questions ….