TOStreets – Walking the City

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to keep my walking boots busy over the winter while at the same time avoiding the same-old, same-old paths I’ve walked many times already. It came to me, as I was out for a walk (of course), that the thing to do was walk the streets of Toronto.

That sounds perhaps a bit of a cliche, walking the mean streets of the Big Smoke, but that’s not what I had in mind. As I thought about, my mind revolved around the idea of some of the major streets in Toronto, and doing it in a way that could fit into some sort of pattern. Instead of random walking here and there, I wanted to find a way to organize my walks, and I realized that Toronto’s east/west grid system lends itself perfectly to my plan.

As it happens, I live pretty close the middle of Toronto. The intersection of Eglinton Avenue and Yonge Street, is only about a km from home, so I can use that as a starting point to anchor my walks while I explore the major streets of Toronto.

So, that’s my cunning plan to make my winter walking more interesting. I can walk Yonge Street, from the Lake to Steeles, and Eglinton from mid-town to its east and west end points. And I can use Yonge & Eg as a transit jump-off, and head to other streets like Dundas, or Finch, or Bathurst, or Lakeshore. By following these, I’ll criss-cross Toronto and wander through the many neighbourhoods that make up the city, and along the way get exposure to the diversity of cultures in our mosaic.

I reckon winter and spring are good times to do this, since it would be baking hot in July. I’ll pick decent weather days and chunks of the city that will keep me occupied all day. I have about 3 months till April, and then we’ll see what the weather looks like for trail hikes outside Toronto.

I’m going to call this project my TOStreets plan, and as I complete each section I’ll update a map to show where I’ve been.

Hey Toronto, here I come.

Walking in the Heart of the City

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about walking in the suburbs. Lately I’ve been doing the opposite of that and walking in the city.

I’ve been working downtown of late, in the King and Spadina area – the Entertainment district as the city calls it.

Weather permitting, I’ve been getting off the subway at King Station and walking west on King to my client, just west of Spadina. Most days if the weather is good, I try to get out a lunch time and go for a 10-20 minute walk round the neighbhourhood – along King to Portland, up to Adelaide or Richmond or Queen, then back east to Spadina and down to King again.

It’s a really interesting walk. The vibe, compared to north-west Toronto around Steeles & Weston Road in Emeryville, is totally different. Downtown it’s walk and bike friendly. King Street has been designated as a streetcar zone so car traffic is limited. There are lots of pedestrians around and lots of bikes, scooters, and skateboards.

Uptown in Emeryville, it’s car-city – walking is an afterthought and you never see bikes or scooters. Public transit is limited to buses and those are used by the people who work in the light industries that dot the area.

Downtown, the street traffic is either young and professional (software industry, design industry, or hip retail for the most part) or else young and destitute (pan-handlers or barrista wannabes). The tattoo-to-skin ratio is way higher down here compared to uptown in Emeryville. I feel out of place walking around without nose ring.

There are funky food options everywhere downtown, as well as retail options for everything from clothes to bongs to adult toys. Emeryville has no retail other than fast food and Tim Hortons.

I like it downtown – there’s an energy that makes you feel like you belong, and you want to shop and eat locally. It reminds me of why I wanted to move from a small town to the big city in the first place, 35 years ago. It buzzes and it accepts – I can wear shorts and a tee shirt to work and no one cares. I can walk to a restaurant that has something tasty to eat (hello porchetta), and I can relax my car alert spidy-sense in a pedestrian-friendly zone where the humans rule the streets instead of cars. I love it.

Whenever I’ve travelled to other cities, I’ve tried to walk the downtown core and savour the experience. Working and walking downtown in Toronto has reminded me why I gravitate to the heart of the cities I’ve visited. There’s energy and informality and diversity, and there are real people going about real lives and real jobs. That urban tapestry is much thinner and paler in the burbs compared to the Technicolour downtown – I can get sushi or burritos or pizza or ramen or burgers or sandwiches or babimbop all within 5 minutes of the office.

This is urban, and it’s why I love cities.

Walk Sounds – the Birds

I suffer from hearing loss and tinnitus, the result of a misspent youth listening to loud music and working around machinery without ear protection. This is why I don’t often listen to music when walking – to hear the music I have to turn up the volume while wearing ear buds so that when I take them off my tinnitus is worsened for a few hours.

On the plus side, by not listening to music while walking I can hear the sounds around me, especially birds. I was out on the weekend for a walk through the neighbourhood, and I heard the distinct call of a cardinal.

Male Northern Cardinal - Manhasset, NY 04.jpg
By Chris HachmannOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

That sound was early for the time of year (yeah spring!), and it got me thinking about the sounds of walking and the birds I’ve heard over the past year on my treks about the city. Though by no means a bird-watcher, I am a list maker, and I wondered how many I could check off.

With the help of a great site called All About Birds and another one called Toronto Wildlife, I was able to listen to recordings of birds and put my finger on what I had heard. Here are some of the birds I hear most often when walking about Toronto.

  1. Northern Cardinal
  2. Blue Jay
  3. Black-Capped Chickadee
  4. Canada Goose
  5. Mallard Duck
  6. Red-Winged Blackbird
  7. Red-Tailed Hawk
  8. Mourning Dove
  9. Song Sparrow
  10. American Robin
  11. Herring Gull
  12. American Crow
  13. Rock Pigeon
  14. Hairy Woodpecker
  15. Baltimore Oriole
  16. Pileated Woodpecker
  17. Winter Wren
  18. European Starling
  19. House Finch

There are of course many more species that reside at least part of the year in the City, and were I a birdwatcher I’m sure I’d try to add them all to my collection of noted spottings. But I’m not and I don’t.

What’s more important to me is the simple appreciation of the sounds I hear whilst walking. In a post called Walkers vs Runners, I said that walkers are introspective. That’s true, though when I’m too introspective I become conscious of the tinnitus that I’ve learned to tune out most of the time – that constant buzz and ringing sound becomes intrusive and breaks the flow of thoughts. Walking and listening to the natural sounds around me lets me focus on other aural impressions, so even though I’m hard of hearing, the song of a cardinal reaches in to tap my shoulder and say, “spring is near, spring is near”.

Thanks cardinal.

Early Spring Walks

Out for a walk today, it occurred to me that there is a special character to walks in early spring. The thought hit me quite literally, when the raw biting east wind slapped my face and chilled my ears. That’s it – the wind.

March, as the saying goes, comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Here in Toronto it’s usually a pretty cold lion. When you get a snowy winter as we’ve had, that snow has to melt, and melt makes moisture which dampens the air so that what would be a brisk breeze on a sunny day becomes a bone-chiller despite the sun.

I’ve just finished a book called Where the Wild Winds Are, by Nicholas Hunt. He’s a travel writer who set out to follow the path of some of the famous winds of Europe, such as the Mistral. That put the idea of winds and walking in my mind. Despite the kick from the east wind today, we don’t have a famous wind here in Toronto. The prevailing winds are from the west, while east winds signal changes in weather and often storms. North winds come year round as fronts move through, and southerly winds happen often enough as well. We don’t have a Hogtown Hoot, or a Toronto Torrent, or a Blue Blast. We just have relatively tame, boring winds that change direction fairly often and change temperature with the seasons.

Still, that snippy east wind today did remind that it’s March and March means winter’s end and warm climes to come. March means school breaks, and the return of baseball, and thawed out barbecues. And of course, March means spring and flowers and birds and trees in leaf. March is a transitory month – a window and a promise of the season to come, and yet also a reminder and kicker to the season we’re leaving. March means change.

March also means walking is depressing and cheering at the same time. Depressing because the melt-off reveals the crud and garbage that has been hidden in snow banks, and the snow by the roads has become grey-black ice – the result of accumulated car exhaust that makes you realize you’re breathing that in as you walk.

March roadside loveliness – Eglinton West near Avenue Road
Nothing changes – Toronto, about 1856 – must be about March, you can see the puddles and bits of snow on the edge of the road

And yet cheering because when the sun is out, and early season birds are singing, you feel the promise of warmer days to come. Sometimes that chill breeze swings around to the south and becomes a warm breath. Then people are bouncier, cheerier, positively bursting for spring – you get the early shorts-wearers even if the temperature is 0C, and teenagers toss winter clothes aside and head out in T-shirts to show off pale arms.

March is often a tough month for walking, because the ground is melting and muddy, with water and slush everywhere combined with hidden icy patches. Sidewalks are often still narrowed by snow banks, and park trails aren’t cleared yet. The wicked gust that chills your walk also lifts the moisture and dries the ground, slowly but inexorably.

So in March, I try to get out as much as I can, but it’s a chore more than a fun walk. I just tell myself that April is around the corner and then May will bring greens, reds, and yellows to replace the browns and greys of winter and early spring, so I grin and bear it, put my head down, and march past the lion.

Slog Walking

This past couple of weeks have been winter walking at its worst. We’ve had large dumps of snow, rain, freezing rain, sleet, slush, mush, and gusty winds. The streets are sloppy and the sidewalks are worse. Plus I’ve been busy at work and driving to a customer’s office 5 days a week.

It adds up to a bad time for walking, and after 10 days or so of this I was feeling it. My back hurt from sitting too much, and I just needed some air. I wasn’t sleeping well either, so my energy levels were way down. I felt stifled and listless, and it reminded me of what I used to feel like before I started walking back in 2016. I dread getting on the scale for my Sunday weigh-in this week, I’m sure I’ve put on a few pounds just from getting out of my routine.

Winter will do that to you, there are going to be days when the weather doesn’t cooperate. Work will do that too, days when you’re just too busy to get out. Combining the two is the worst.

Today I managed to get out for the best part of 2 hours and it felt good to be stretching my legs. Even so, there’s still a lot of ice about on sidewalks, and the weather today made it tricky – it was below freezing at about -4C but the sun was out so there was a lot of melt-water leaking onto the sidewalk and that froze as soon as the sun shifted and shade covered the area. You had to be careful and pick your way, looking out for dry stretches and penguin-walking through the wet/icy parts.

I know that too much salt is bad all around – it kills grass, ruins the sidewalk, destroys your boots, and fouls the meltwater that runs off to the lake. Still, I was hoping that people would spread it liberally today, and while some people did, others ignored it and hoped for the best. That’s the trouble with winter walking in Toronto – you have to be on your guard all the time because just when you assume that your footing is good, you’ll slip on a patch of ice.

Getting a walk in when the elements conspire against you – that’s slog walking. Baseball pitchers & catchers report for sprint training this coming week, the first sign of spring. Play ball.