Lately, I find I’m a bit restless. I’ve written previously about my bucket list of Big Walks. It seems that since I crossed a couple of these off my list, I’ve been bitten by the Big Walk bug, and now I can’t wait to try another one.
People talk about mid-life crises. I don’t think it’s a crisis so much as a turning of the page. My professional life is slowing down, our son is soon off to university, and I’m ready for new challenges in my life. I’m relatively healthy, we can afford it, and I have time.
So now what? Winter has arrived, so big walks in Ontario in this weather are much tougher, especially if you’re carrying a pack over snowy/icy unpaved trails, and I’m not enough of a glutton for punishment to take these on right now, so that rules out things the Bruce Trail and the Great Trail until spring. Heading somewhere warmer would be a possibility except that we’ve already used up our travel budget for the year, what with trips to Bermuda, Ireland, and India, plus my Niagara to Toronto walk.
There are some shorter, paved-trail walks I can do as day trips to avoid carrying a pack and running up hotel bills – things like the Waterfront Trail from the Rouge River to Ajax – and that will help keep me fit over the winter.
Other than that, however, it seems that as much as I’d like to just take off on a long multi-day walk right now, I’ll have to do that in armchair fashion for the next few months. That’s ok, there’s something cozy sitting by the fire on a winter’s evening catching up on travel books about walking, diving into maps, and sketching out plans.
So that’s my mid-life crisis. Instead of a Porsche, I’ve invested in packs,
boots instead of a Bentley.
My fashion sense comes from Mountain Equipment Co-op – nothing says sexy like a good pair of GoreTex gaiters.
It’s an obsession, I admit. At least it’s cheaper than a sports car, and it’s better for the environment to boot.
In early October, we had a stretch of those blue-sky, warm-for-the-season, autumn days that demand that you use them. So I did – I headed out for a walk through a favourite park, Tommy Thompson, to take advantage of just-warm-enough-for-shorts-and-a-T-shirt temps and perfect sunshine, enough to keep you warm but not enough to make you overheat.
What I also wanted to do was fill in a gap – in looking at the map of the Great Trail, I could see that a big chunk of it within Toronto consists of the Waterfront Trail, and I’ve walked nearly all of that except for a short stretch through the port lands and along Cherry Beach. To get to Tommy Thompson Park, I could complete my missing bit of the Waterfront Trail and cross that off my list of completed sections of the Great Trail. (And by the way, when did I get to be a cross-off-the-list guy?)
I decided to start at the Distillery District and walk south along Cherry Street along the Martin Goodman Trail. This takes you over the Cherry Street bridge to cross the Don River channel. The view west is of the harbour.
The view east is of the Don River, lined with the construction sites that are slowly turning the port lands into parks and urban areas.
At the bottom of Cherry Street, you come to an unexpected little treasure – Cherry Street Beach park. The view across the water to the south is of Tommy Thompson park and looking west you get a view out past the Toronto Islands to the lake.
As I stood there looking out over the beach, a song from the soundtrack of my university days came into my head – the Pukka Orchestra’s 1984 hit called Cherry Beach Express. It’s a catchy tune though the lyrics are pretty dark – it’s about a practice that was alleged against the Toronto Police back in the 1970’s and ’80’s, of taking suspects out to Cherry Beach in the middle of the night and roughing them up. Standing there in the sun, it was hard to believe that 30-40 years ago Cherry Beach was not a place you’d visit voluntarily. The city has done a lot of growing up since then, both in terms of parks and its relationship with the lake, and more importantly in terms of social progress. I can’t believe that in today’s Toronto, such a practice would be tolerated (if it actually happened then). Still, like I said, it’s a catchy tune – look up Pukka Orchestra and check out their back catalog. Toronto produced a lot of great groups back then.
With that thought fading, I turned east to follow the Waterfront Trail and soon came to the hulk of the defunct Hearn generating station. This coal-fired electrical generation plant has been shut down for years but there seems to be no plan yet for it’s long term use, though the interior has served as a backdrop for several films and TV shows. The chimney dominates the view, looming over the trees along the trail as you near it.
From the Hearn, the trail takes you further east, to the corner of Commissioner’s Road and Leslie Street where a new entrance is being constructed for Tommy Thompson Park (what was once known as the Leslie Street Spit). It was such a gorgeous day, I wanted to do the full trail through the park out to the lighthouse at the tip.
There was a stongish breeze off the lake and a bit of chop so the soundscape was composed of waves slapping the shore, rustling reeds, and the shushhh of leaves in trees. While I was only a km from the downtown core, apart from the occasional aircraft overhead my footsteps were the only man-made sound.
If you stick to the lake-side of the park, the trail takes you through some new growth bush, and on this early autumn day it was just starting to turn colour in a few places. The sunshine made it warm enough for grasshoppers, crickets, and cicadas to serenade me as I walked, and I was joined by a couple of wee grass snakes sunning themselves.
As I walked, I passed only a couple of people out for a bike ride. On a mid-week visit, I mostly had the place to myself, something that helped me to tune out the world and just get into the zen of a hike on a beautiful day. My strides were on auto-pilot and I could enjoy the scenery, the sun, and the breeze. I kept to the left at the fork halfway down the trail so that I could take the loop around the ponds in the middle of the park, and then at the next trail intersection, I turned west to head out to the tip.
There, a small hill serves at the base for the lighthouse. It’s been much decorated with graffiti over the years.
Below the lighthouse, there isn’t a beach as such – instead the reclaimed nature of the park is on display. The whole of the park is based on excavated soil and construction debris that came from the gradual development of the buildings that now form the Toronto skyline. Over the years this landfill has supported the growth of plants that have transformed the old Leslie Street Spit into the new Tommy Thompson park. The underlying concrete and bricks on display at the lake-facing side of the tip have been used by artists to create sculptures that cover the area.
But when you turn back towards the city, the skyline view across the harbour is stunning, all the more so when you think that many of those buildings exist because their foundations required excavating soil that had to go somewhere, and that somewhere is where you are standing. One of these days, I’m going to come out here late in the evening to get a sunset view.
After taking a break to soak up the view and have a sandwich, I turned to head back. By taking the harbour-side trail I could complete the loop around the park, while passing the more mature wooded parts of the park, the oldest bits that have had the longest to generate plant cover. There are more of the improvised sculptures here, wherever old construction debris is exposed.
The trail is really a road along the harbour-side of the park, built for the trucks that until recently had been delivering more fill to extend the spit. Now that the park is closed to further dumping, this road has become a test track for bikes. I was passed and repassed frequently by cyclists doing time trials up and down the trail. They were in their zone and I was in mine, as I trudged back to the park entrance.
As you come out of the park, you pass a trail through what has recently been designated as Villiers Island. This part of the port lands is going to become part of the redeveloped mouth of the Don River. The idea is to carve a new channel for the Don that will allow the river to pass through a more natural wetland area instead of the shipping channel that it’s forced through today. By doing this, the original habitat will be partially restored and the wetlands will provide flood control as well as park space.
It’s great to see that, out of the growth of downtown Toronto and the many towers that make up its skyline, Tommy Thompson park has emerged and will be joined by even more green space. Come back in 20 years and you might not even realize that it’s all man-made.
As a society, we’ve often prioritized economic growth at the expense of making a mess, so I’m happy to see that now we’re getting good at cleaning up those messes and turning them into something that our kids and grandkids will appreciate.
Duration: About 23 hours of walking over Days 4, 5, and 6 of the TONotL journey
Length: About 95 km in total
Climb: According to my fitness tracker, I climbed the equivalent of about 140 flights of stairs over the 3 days, so about 500 meters worth. That’s most of the height of the CN Tower.
Weather: After some early rain on Day 4, the rest of that day and Day 5 were gorgeous – low 20’s, blue skies, and fresh breezes. Day 6, however, was cloudy, muggy, and high teen’s to start turning to 2 hours of rain to finish the walk.
Route: About 32 km on the Day 4, walking down off the escarpment from my Day 3 Bruce Trail exit point, through the town of Grimsby and following Mountain Road north to the lake, then turning west and following the Waterfront Trail all the way around the corner of Lake Ontario across Hamilton Harbour to Spencer Smith Park in Burlington. On Day 5, another 36 km following the Waterfront Trail, along Lakeshore Road or on Trail sections going through various parks, to finish in Port Credit. Finally on Day 6, about 27 km from Port Credit along the Waterfront Trail, initially along Lakeshore Road, and then onto the Martin Goodman Trail in Toronto. I left the Trail at Coronation Park and walked up to Fort York, and then through the downtown core to finish at Nathan Philips Square in front of Toronto City Hall.
Be warned: This post has blisters in it. And kissing.
On Day 4, waking up in the B&B outside Grimsby I could hear the drops of water as the wind shook the night’s rain from the trees. Everything was damp though at least the rain had stopped. It was chilly and cloudy still, but the day promised to improve and by afternoon it was going to be sunny.
I was looking forward to the change in walking conditions, going from the often rugged footing of the Bruce Trail to the benign pavements and sidewalks of the Waterfront Trail. I could make better time and cover a longer distance more quickly, and I could take rest breaks in parks instead of sitting on damp logs.
The downside, however, is that the Waterfront Trail, of necessity, has to follow long stretches of road because much of the actual waterfront along Lake Ontario is privately owned. There are some public parks, and especially when I got Mississauga and Toronto there were public trails that form part of the Waterfront Trail system, but most of the remaining 95 km back to Toronto would be along roads, and roads meant traffic.
So I exchanged the Bruce Trail soundscape of air cannons and birds for one of trucks, motorcycles, and cars. Day 4 of the journey, between Grimsby and Burlington, was the worst for this. The whole day was dominated by the roar of traffic along the busy Queen Elizabeth Way (and by the way, we do the dear lady a disservice naming that road after her – the Roaring Road would be much more appropriate). Even in the Hamilton Beach neighbourhood where you walk next to the lake, I could hardly hear the lap of waves or calls of birds. I cannot imagine living there, though I guess you’d eventually condition yourself to ignore it. It’s probably like my tinnitus – it’s always there but you are only conscious of it when you choose to be.
At any rate, walking down Ridge Road outside Grimsby, I passed where I would have re-entered the Bruce Trail and then where I would have exited it again, if I had finished the last 2.5 km of the Niagara Section. It looked wet and slippery. My feet were giving my issues, with the blister on one toe threatening to become multiple blisters. I had rubbed them thoroughly with anti-chaffing cream that morning and had bandaged and taped as needed, but I knew there’d be new blisters by the time I reached Burlington.
To get to the official Waterfront Trail from the town of Grimsby, you have to cross over the QEW, and walk through a residential area. I went as far north as I could to get near the lake, and walking west along Lakeside Drive I came to a little park, where there was a great view over the lake. The skyline of Toronto was clear under the clouds, and that skyline would be the beacon for me as it drew closer hour by hour for the next 3 days.
Once you’re on the Waterfront Trail, you just follow the signs as you hug the lake as much as is practical. For much of its length between Grimsby and Hamilton, the Trail follows the North Service Road, and in many places this is just meters from the QEW itself. Some stretches are separated by a concrete sound abatement barrier, about 3 meters high, and others by nothing more than a chain link fence. There was no way to fool myself into thinking this was pleasant. I just walked as fast as I could to get through it.
Eventually, painfully, I came to Confederation Beach Park in Hamilton, on the east side of the harbour, and there I could join the Waterfront Trail proper. From here the Trail as a separate walking path is continuous all the way to Spencer Smith Park in Burlington, so the 2nd half of my day would be removed from the QEW, yet never so far as to be removed from the drenching sound of traffic.
I found a nice bench in the sun and had a bite and a rest. I knew I had been motoring and found that I was a bit more than half way through my planned route for the day. Compared to my pace on the Bruce Trail, this was flying.
The Trail turns north here as you start to curl around the western end of Lake Ontario. North of Confederation Beach Park, you pass through the Hamilton Beaches residential area. This feels distinct from the rest of the city, and I guess it’s always been a bit of a getaway-from-it neighbourhood compared to areas closer to the downtown core. You’re quite close to the water and many of the house have fantastic views over the Lake, and yet there’s that constant traffic roar. As well, Hamilton has a long history of heavy industry, and while the pollution from the steel industry is a fraction of what it once was, there’s still a distinct tang in the air. It doesn’t help that a long line of electrical transmission towers march north right at the water’s edge.
As you go north, eventually you come to what’s known as the Burlington Canal, which cuts through the isthmus that encloses Hamilton Harbour. This is crossed by a lift bridge, and the Trail uses that bridge to hop over the water, so you have to climb up to it.
From the bridge as you cross, you get a great view of the harbour looking under the higher Burlington Skyway that carries the QEW over the canal. The steel works that made Hamilton an industrial powerhouse for a 100 years line the harbour.
Looking the other way, you can see along the Lake Ontario shoreline towards Toronto.
Once you climb down off the bridge and rejoin the Trail, you’re only about 3 km from downtown Burlington and Spencer Smith Park. I covered it quickly, because I wanted to get to my hotel and chill out for a bit. My parents were passing through Burlington returning from a vacation of their own, and we had arranged to meet for dinner that night. I did pause for the view from Spencer Smith Park, where I could see across the lake where the dark line of the Escarpment was clear. It was hard to believe I’d covered that distance in just 4 days.
That night, over dinner I recounted some of my adventures on the Bruce Trail to my parents. They were quite proud of how I was doing – thanks Mom and Dad.
I had treated the blister on the little toe of my right foot the night before, and I could see that I had another one developing on the big toe of the same foot. As well, the tops of both feet were irritated and red, and both heels were looking bruised. There was nothing for it but to lather both feet in anti-chaffing cream, tape up my raw baby toe, and put on my shoes and socks. At least the road would be flat for the most part and crossed through several parks, so I planned for breaks where I could take off my shoes to air my feet.
I had to pause within the first hundred meters that morning, because the early sky was a lovely salmon-peach, and the old saying came to mind – “red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor take warning”. I knew from the forecast that Day 6 promised rain, and the view over the lake was telling me the same.
It’s pleasant enough walking along Lakeshore, as there’s much less traffic compared to the highways, the road is lined with trees, and it’s mostly a quiet residential area. It’s also kind of boring. From Burlington to the Mississauga city limit, you basically pass through 20 km of upper-end housing with a few parks and the shopping areas at Bronte Harbour and downtown Oakville. Any given random stretch looks more or less like this:
That said, walking through Bronte Harbour I was able to stop to pick up some fruit, and in Oakville I had lunch in Lakeside Park. At every stop, a glance north-east up the lake showed the Toronto Skyline getting closer.
After 20+ km, as you leave Oakville and enter Mississauga at Winston Churchill Drive, Lakeshore Road turns north for a bit and becomes Southdown Road, before turning back east and reverting to Lakeshore Road again. This jog takes you around some large factories and chemical plants, though there’s also some park land in there too.
It’s noisy, dusty, and there’s a chemical odour in the air. I was tired and my destination in Port Credit lay on the other side of these factories, so once more it was head down and chugging to motor on through.
On the other side of the plant, the Waterfront Trail deviates from Lakeshore Road and takes you through some quieter streets in the Glen Leven neighbourhood, before eventually leading you to Jack Darling Park. This made for a good final rest stop for the day, and once recharged, I set out to cover the last few km into Port Credit.
The Waterfront Trail returns you from the park to Lakeshore Road, and marching along it here is much more cityish compared the stretches in Burlington and Oakville – the traffic here is heavier, the road is wider, and the speed limit is higher, so you get a good dose of traffic noise and dust because the Trail runs adjacent to the street. I could see my hotel getting closer, and also saw a grocery store where I could pick up some dinner and some lunch for the next day. I was pretty tired when I finally got there, and the hot shower was welcome. Still, I was a bit nervous looking at my feet because the blister on my big toe was getting worse, to join the mess on my little toe. One more day.
It rained overnight but it had stopped by the time I set out. Once again I put blister bandages on the toes on my right foot, slathered on the anti-chaffing cream, and laced up my shoes for one last day.
In my day job, I manage software projects. Often, as you get closer to a deadline, the team will get what I call completionitis – that drive to the finish that can mean cutting corners and making mistakes in the haste to cross the finish line.
I could feel it in myself, completionitis, but being conscious of it meant that even though I wanted to get home as fast as I could, I didn’t want to cut corners. While it was shorter and more direct to simply follow Lakeshore Road all the way into Toronto to Fort York, I told myself that I’d follow the Waterfront Trail signs even if that took me through parks and neighbourhood back streets and made the journey longer.
I also decided that to end my journey appropriately, I would keep going past my original end point at Fort York and instead continue on to finish at Nathan Philips Square by city hall. I wanted to make sure I got a selfie in front of the Toronto sign there, so I texted my wife to ask her to meet me there, stopped for a coffee to fuel up, and set off.
At first the weather gods were with me. The sun came out, I put on my sunglasses, and delighted in the breeze. I even got a shadow selfie.
It’s only a bit more than an hour’s walk from Port Credit to the Toronto city limits, and I couldn’t help myself – I had to leave the Waterfront Trail for a bit so that I could take a picture of the Welcome to Toronto sign at the city limit at Etobicoke Creek.
After that, I rejoined the Waterfront Trail. The sun by now had disappeared and ominous clouds were building. Knowing rain was inevitable, I wanted to make time and kept walking as quickly as I could, passing up spots for a break and only pausing long enough to put the rain cover on my pack.
This was familiar ground because I had walked this part of the Waterfront Trail just a few weeks ago on my Toronto Crossing trek, so I wasn’t interested in exploring. I made pretty good time, and in fact was ahead of schedule when I crossed the Humber River over the white arched bridge.
Just past this, in Sunnyside Park, I found a covered picnic area where I could finally stop for a break, almost 4 hours after I had left Port Credit. I was impatient to finish by this point, but I forced myself to relax, took my shoes off, ate slowly, and rehydrated. When I was done, I put on my rain jacket against the growing chill, and was glad I had done so because just as I started out again, the heavens opened. I walked for 30 minutes in a steady rain, which finally slowed to a misty drizzle as I got to about Ontario Place.
Just east of Ontario Place, you come to Coronation Park, and there I finally said goodbye to the Waterfront Trail, turning north up Strachan Avenue to reach Fort York. The rain picked up again as I approached, but I paused to take some pics.
By now I’d put in my ear buds and cranked up some energy music (an eclectic playlist of pop and country that I’ve shared on Apple Music). I was in full slog mode, like when I did a marathon a couple of years before, and I needed the push and distraction of the music to keep me going.
From Fort York, it was a short climb up Bathurst Street to King, and then a zig-zag through the Entertainment District to reach Queen and University. The rain was coming down harder, and completionitis was driving me past the pains in my feet. I was so into it that I was ahead of schedule, and arrived at Nathan Philips Square at least 10 minutes earlier than what I’d said to my wife and my son, who’d also come down to meet me at the finish.
I knew they’d want to see me march in, so I took off my pack and waited on a park bench to cool down, though at least in that time the rain finally stopped. When I reckoned they should have arrived, I put my pack back on and walked out into the Square. The first thought I had when I saw them was that either I had shrunk under the weight of my pack or my son had grown another few centimetres in the past week.
My wife came up and I gave her a hug and a kiss, though she wrinkled her nose as she stepped back. Later when I got into the car and the waft of my wet-dog aroma hit my nose, I understood why. Sorry Hon.
After that, it was time for the obligatory selfie.
A few days after I got back, I was chatting with a fellow parent at our sons’ volleyball game, and I mentioned the walk I’d just completed. “What made you take that on?”, she asked. “Was it to raise money for a charity?” Others have asked me that as well – why? Why walk for 6 days?
I’ve written previously about why I walk. Sometimes walking is a form of contemplation, of immersing oneself in the walk. Sometimes it’s exercise. Sometimes it’s exploration. This walk was about all of those things, and as well, sometimes walks are like with this one – they’re about the goal. I set a goal, made a plan, and took pleasure in executing it. Along the way of course I got some exercise (though damnably, I finished at about the same weight I’d started at), I saw many new things, and I had time to think.
Thinking time was a big part of the appeal for me, and in fact at one point I found myself thinking about what I had been thinking about over the past few days as I walked. I realized that a strangely diverse range of topics had drifted through my head:
what percentage of vehicles on Lakeshore Road were Porche Cayennes versus Range Rovers versus landscaper pick-ups
baseball players who’d had their careers cut short by concussions
weird bits of roadside trash (who throws out a bunch of VCR cassettes? Who still even owns a VCR?)
which was more annoying, the sound of leaf-blowers or the roar of highway traffic
All that said, if I have to answer that “why?” question honestly, I did this walk because I knew it would be a challenge and I wanted to see if I could do it. Long distance walks are hard. When it’s hot and you’re exhausted, when it’s raining and you’re cold, when your feet hurt, when blisters pop, when your shoulders ache under the pack – all these things accumulate and at some point on a long walk it’s inevitable that the thought of stopping, temporarily or completely, goes through your head. But you don’t, because you’re stubborn – deep down you keep going because you want to.
And let’s face it, I wasn’t exactly crossing a desert carrying my life’s possessions in flight from danger – my life wasn’t at stake by any means. If I’d really hurt myself, help was just a cell phone away. Still, it was hard for me, there was a lot of effort to it, and if a younger, fitter person could have done it more easily, that’s not the point. In a world of convenience, where everything can be ordered in, deliberately doing something that’s hard, because it’s hard, can be liberating. I met no one’s goals but my own, because I’ve reached that point in my life where measuring myself by someone else’s yardstick is soooo yesterday.
That achievement was part of the satisfaction. Another part was the pleasure I’ve always taken from the execution of a plan. Even as a kid, I was a planner. I’d map out adventures in my head – what if I was the only survivor of a plane crash in the northern woods? – and I’d make lists of the things I might need to survive and how I could use them. I read Robinson Crusoe and Lost in the Barrens and told myself I could do at least as well as the characters in those books. My bucket list walks are me 50 years later still making lists and plans.
There’s a saying that there’s a little boy in every man. Scrambling over rocks along the Bruce Trail, there was a little boy in my head that delighted in how my list making and planning had come together – my walking poles, my shoes, my pack, my first aid kit with the blister kit, and so on.
Of course there’s an adult in the room too, and the mature me drew satisfaction from the fact that I’m healthy enough to do it, financially secure enough to afford it, and prepared enough to plan it. It’s like a puzzle, where the pieces come together to reveal the whole picture.
My mom had asked me if I got lonely walking by myself. The short answer is no, I’ve always liked to have time to myself. The longer answer is that walking by myself is a journey with my thoughts, with the people I meet, and the scenes I absorb to savour in my mind’s eye. It’s the sounds, the smells, and the sweat. It’s the accumulation of stages towards the end goal. And it’s also a shared journey. I’m lucky enough to be married to my best friend who’s always with me wherever I am. Thanks Love.
As you may recall, back in June I was planning to take one of the Big Walks on my bucket list, and travel from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake, something I called my TONotL walk.
Unfortunately, plans had to change when we travelled to Ireland for my wife’s Aunt Norah’s funeral.
Now that summer is ending, it’s time to put that plan back on the front burner. Starting next week, I’ll be setting off on my journey.
My original plan had been to walk from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake, hence TONotL, but I’ve since decided to reverse it. I like the idea of walking towards home, instead of away from it. Plus, this way I get the Niagara section of the Bruce Trail done in the first 3 days of my trek when I am fresher and if that kills my knees then at least I’ll have completed one section of the Bruce. It’s also pretty much flat walking along the Waterfront Trail for the last 3 days following the lake, so hopefully I just have to deal with tired feet at the end.
I have to confess I’m nervous about kicking this off. My recent long hikes have gone ok though my feet have been tired the next day and after 3 days crossing Toronto my knees were feeling the stress, so I’m wondering how I am going to do this 6 days in a row. I’ve done 30+ km in a day many times, but I’ve never done 30+ km 6 days in a row, while carrying a pack. Hmmm.
Also the new boots I bought back in the spring, while sturdy and very supportive, fit so snugly that I can’t get my custom orthotics into them plus they make my feet overheat. Instead I’m debating between using my old broken-in boots versus a pair of walking shoes versus a part of cross-country running shoes.
The walking and running shoes work better with my custom orthotics, but I have to watch for blisters, especially with the new walking pair that fit the best with the insoles. On the other hand the old hiking boots and the cross-country running shoes are pretty comfortable and don’t cause blisters, but one foot gets tired because the orthotic doesn’t quite fit properly into the right one.
After some test walks this past week, I’ve decided on the new walking shoes. About 60% of the walk is on roads and sidewalks suited to running shoes, and the rest is along the Bruce Trail where it could be muddy or rocky, and the Goretex construction and treaded soles should work well there. After getting blisters during an early test walk, I’ve found a combination of socks and anti-chafing cream that seems to control that. I don’t want to afford the weight of taking 2 pairs of footwear, so it’s cross fingers and hope I made the right choice.
The weather looks pretty good, not too much rain forecast and comfortable temps. Even so, I need to think about staying hydrated. Should I carry an extra water bottle? What about water stops along the Bruce? How much water should I carry? I’ve decided on 2 litres, which will add 2 kg to my carrying weight at the start of the day but I’d rather not be caught without water on a back trail somewhere. And what about food? – no Tim Hortons along the Trail so what do I pack? Where are the grocery stores to stock up each morning? I’ll have to have a good breakfast each day and then carry light high-energy foods like dried fruit, energy bars, hard sausages, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
For my accommodation, I’m sorted. I had originally planned to day-hike part of the trek, by using the GO stations at Port Credit and Burlington to come home for 2 of the nights and then return the next morning. That’s changed, I guess because deep down it feels like cheating. It means I’m carrying a full pack of clothes, food, and rain gear each day. I’ve booked hotels or B&Bs for each night, so I have a destination locked in for each day’s walking. It means I’m looking at 7-8 hours per day including rest stops to cover the 30 km or so that I’ll need to cover.
I’ve also spent time pouring over Google Maps in detail, and I’ve downloaded the Bruce Trail app onto my phone. I’ve scouted for likely places to get water, to use the restroom facilities, to grab some lunch, and to take a break.
And of course I’ve gone over my packing list, and checked my gear, and I’ve done a full dress-rehearsal pack for a 3 hour hike, so I’m ready on that front. I’ve got my hiking socks, hiking clothes, rain gear, blister kits, sewing kit, first aid kit, food kit, and walking poles all sorted out. It adds up to just over 10 kg with water and food, so not too bad. My pack is fitted and adjusted. I’ve done just about everything I can to be ready.
Gear – check
Weather – check
Accommodation – check
Checklists – check, check, check
It’s just nerves, this overthinking. Time to get walking and let the rhythm sort it out. Check.
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.
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!
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! …..”.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As I’ve mentioned, I have a bucket list of Big Walks I would like to do, and this year I’ve set myself the challenge of attempting the first one. I’m calling it my TONotL walk – Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake. I’m giving myself 6 days to do the planned 160km (the map above doesn’t show all the twists and turns of the Bruce Trail), and I’ll be carrying clothes, lunches, water, etc. so my pack will be around 8-10 kg.
Since it’s my first Big Walk, I’ve invested in gear like boots and a good backpack, and part of the prep for this trek is breaking in and getting used to the gear. That’s especially true of the boots and pack. I’ve been using walks to try out combinations of socks and orthotics in the boots that will be comfortable over the journey. I’ve also been getting used to carrying a decent weight over the day while ensuring the pack is comfortable and adjusted to suit my body and style. I’ve also been trying out trekking poles, which I haven’t used before.
My prep walks have mostly taken in the Don Valley and related parks and trails, so that I can get lots of up and down hills and a mixture of trails and paved paths. The weather has finally warmed up and it’s been good to work up a sweat.
The biggest challenge has been with my boots. My custom orthotics don’t quite fit into my boots – they are extra thick with cushioning and my feet are too cramped in the boots if I use them. Instead I’ve been trying different off the shelf orthotics combined with different socks to get the arch support combined with cushioning. My custom orthotics do work with my running shoes and this TONotL walk will have a lot of paved trail to it, so I could just go with the running shoes. It will depend on the portion of the walk that covers the Bruce Trail – that will need good hiking shoes at the least and the boots will be better, so I’m trying to get used to them. Still, what I’m finding is that I have the stamina for 20k plus but my feet are killing me after a couple of hours. I’ll need to work through this.
Other than working out issues with my the boots, the rest of the training has been pretty good. I’ve loaded up my pack with some free weights, books, and other ballast so that I carry 10+ kg, probably more than I’ll have on the walk. The pack fits great, and makes it easy to carry the weight. I’ve done 3 hours + with that, and I’ve also done 25 km with a day pack in around 5 hours, so I figure if I give myself 8 hours or so to cover 30 km with the pack, I’ll have time for rest breaks and should be ok covering the distance with the load. I just need to get in another 2 long walks before I jump off and I should be ready to go.
Otherwise the rest of the planning and prep is going well. I’ve arranged my work schedule so that I have the 1st week of July clear, so now I’m following the weather forecast like an anxious farmer. I don’t expect to get 6 consecutive dry days, but I don’t want to walk for 2-3 days in pouring rain and thunderstorms either, so as long as it’s looking good a couple of days ahead of time then the walk will be on.
I’m aiming to do this in 6 legs, each around 30 km, give or take. The route will take me through Toronto to the Lake and then west along the shore to Port Credit. From there the next day it’s on to Burlington, then Grimsby, Jordan, Thorold, and finally Niagara-on-the-Lake. From Grimsby to Queenston outside Niagara Falls I’ll be doing the 88 km stretch of the Bruce Trail known as the Niagara section, and finally the last 10 km from Queenston to Niagara-on-the-Lake will be along the Niagara River trail. It will give me both interesting city life and quiet countryside, fields, and forests.
I’ve picked this route as a starter because the first 3 days are easy flat ground walking near the lake, so I can work out the kinks before I get to some hills climbing the Niagara Escarpment onto the Bruce Trail, plus I get an easy finish on the last day with a relaxing walk on a flat shaded trail. Even so I know it will be challenging just because it’s my first Big Walk, yet I’m also hoping it’s a small enough challenge that I can enjoy it as a good walk through interesting places.