Walks in Winter

Today was a day for a winter’s walk, January cold and about 15-20 cm of snow overnight. When you get out early on a day like that, especially on a Sunday when people are up later anyway, you appreciate the city in winter and the clean fresh face it wears this time of the year.

I hadn’t realized how much snow we had gotten overnight until I went out – the sidewalks were still covered in snow in many places and the roads were also covered except where cars had made paths to follow. It made for a more strenuous walk than usual for our neighbourhood but it was quite cold so the exercise was welcome to keep the blood flowing.

I headed north from our place, into the Lytton Park and Chatsworth neighbourhoods. There is a school called Glenview near us, and when our son was younger we would go there to go sledding on days like we had today. Seeing other younger parents brought back memories of his adventures then.

At the bottom of the hill at the school and east out the back of the schoolyard is the Chatsworth Ravine, and that was gorgeous in the sun with a fresh coat of snow.

Chatsworth Ravine park

As I followed the trail through the ravine, I could hear the sounds of digging out – the scrape of snow shovels and the hum of snow blowers. There is also a small creek flowing through the park (Burke’s Brook) and it hadn’t frozen over so there was the ripple and splash of that as well.

Burke’s Brook in Chatsworth Ravine

From the ravine I kept east to Duplex and up the stairs, crossing the road to Chatsworth and then down the hill to Yonge. From there I crossed and went into Alexander Muir Park, and along the trail east through the ravine under the Mount Pleasant bridge and then up Glengowan into the Lawrence Park neighbourhood. This is a lovely part of Toronto, with mature trees heavy with snow, brick and stone homes dating back to the 1920’s and 1930’s, and quiet streets that reward a wanderer with the sounds of birds and squirrels.

By the time I climbed the hill on Glengowan and looped back north up onto Dawlish, I was pretty tired after slogging through the snow, so I went west back to Mount Pleasant and then south to Blythwood, so that I could go west back to Yonge and make my way home.

Today brought many things to mind about walking in Toronto in winter:

  • the smell of wood smoke in the air
  • the excuse-me shuffle as you pass others heading the other way on the narrow shovelled portion of the sidewalk
  • the curse of unshoveled stretches and the blessing of clear patches
  • salt, salt, salt in some places and ice, ice, ice in others
  • the friendly nod and smile as you pass homeowners digging out
  • the glad-it’s-not-me thought when you see a snowed-in car
  • the crunch and squeak of cold dry snow underfoot
  • the uncertain navigation of drivers without winter tires
  • the laughter of children rolling down hills and their excited shrieks on sleds and toboggans
  • the snow hush muffling the streets, as traffic sounds are deadened

You know a city by it’s sounds and smells and people and streets, and in winter all of these change. Toronto in spring, in summer, in autumn are different places, and winter has its own character too. I’m like many people in the city, I like it when the sun is out and when it’s cold I can’t wait for spring.

And still, I have to admit it’s beautiful, in any season. I read an article on the BBC news website today, about words in Japanese that have no direct translation into English. One phrase in particular came to mind as I walked in the snow – “mono no aware”, which the BBC article translates as “the ephemeral nature of beauty – the quietly elated, bittersweet feeling of having been witness to the dazzling circus of life – knowing that none of it can last”.

Snow melts, we all know that, and even before then the wind and sun play upon the surface, sculpting the shapes and casting shadows that change with the movement of trees and boughs. No two moments in a snowy landscape are the same and no amount of photography can capture them all. Standing still, absorbing, you take them in and let them go like breaths, exhaling clouds.

Mono no aware. Snow in the city. Winter calm.

Walk Journal – Jan 20, 2019

Location: Toronto – Forest Hill, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Chaplin Estates

Duration: about 2.5 hours, around 12 km

Weather: Clear and cold, -15 C with a -28 C wind chill

Today’s walk was a chilly one, and a workout. We had some snow last night and today the temperatures were well down into negative numbers, with a brisk north wind to help cool things further. Even so, the sun was out and it was a winter scene that wanted a good walk, so off we went. We started out going west on Roselawn to Latimer and then south across Eglinton onto Russell Hill Road. We took that south, crossing the Beltline as we went.

The Beltline in the snow is always gorgeous

We kept going south on Russell Hill Road, through Forest Hill to Heath Street. Then we turned east and headed to Avenue Road, crossed it, went south on Oriole, and east on St. Clair to Yonge. There we popped into Zelden’s Diner for a proper winter brunch, and then back out into the cold. We headed north up Yonge with the wind in our faces, and at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, I went in and headed east while my wife headed home.

I did the full loop around the cemetery, crossing Mount Pleasant Road and looping around the eastern half over to Bayview and then back west across Mount Pleasant Road again, through the cemetery west to the northwest corner to connect to the Beltline. I took that over Yonge to Oriole Park, and then headed north through the Park and into the Chaplin Estates neighbourhood along Lascelles Boulevard all the way north to Eglinton, where I crossed into Eglinton Park and kept onwards north to Roselawn where I turned west and slogged up the hill to Avenue Road and home.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery on a chill winter’s day

Walking on a day like today, with hard crunchy snow underfoot, is a lot more tiring than walking on bare, dry roads. Your feet slip a little and so you shorten your stride and walk a bit flat-footed so that you keep more of the sole of your boots on the ground. That change in gait is less efficient that a full, free stride, and you work muscles you didn’t know you had – my hips are sore and so is my knee.

On top of that, with the cold and the wind, you need to be careful to manage your temperature. I wore 3 layers of clothing under my coat plus two layers on my legs, so at first I was warm but not overly warm. As I went on, however, my face was getting blasted and I could feel my cheeks freezing so I had to cover up to avoid frostbite. When I did that I started to overheat a bit. The last couple of km home were a grind, alternately too hot and too cold, with dragging feet and heavy legs, especially up the hill at Roselawn. I’m pretty gassed even now, a couple of hours later.

Still, walking in winter is always interesting. You could tell it was cold just by the crunchy sound of the snow when you walk on it, and with bright sunshine you needed sunglasses – I have a bit of a wind/sun burn on my face except around my eyes as a result.

Some folks are diligent about shovelling and some aren’t so there’s navigation challenges avoiding slippery bits. Others chuck salt about like it’s free so you feel like you’re walking on pebbles. Then there are the homes with heated driveways which melt the snow and cause the runoff to freeze into ice patches on the sidewalks and roads.

As you walk you pass others out, walking dogs or just walking, and you nod to each other acknowledging the cold and the challenge of being out in it. Numbskull drivers without winter tires spin wheels and slide about, making crossing streets a near contact sport for the pedestrians. Snow plows leave curbside snow ridges to be jumped, and snow blowers with unobservant operators make snowstorms to pass through.

Our winters, in truth, are not that long or severe compared to other parts of Canada. Usually it’s cold for about 3-4 months and there will be warm spells in there too, so when we get a cold snap and a bit of snow it’s more of a taste of real winter than a meal. Torontonians whine about winter, but we know deep down that we’re wimps compared to our fellow Canadians in Edmonton, Winnipeg, or Montreal. Walking on a day like today is a chance to pat ourselves on our red flannel backs while we sip our Tim Hortons double-doubles and dream of spring.