December 4, 2010

Walk #2: East Don, Eglinton to Lawrence

Walkers: Jennifer Bonnell, John Wilson, Helen Mills

We set out to pick up where we left off on a cold day in early December (I’m taking up the dubious practice of blogging a month after the event). Or, at least, more or less where we left off. Our last walk

Flemingdon Park Golf Club, south of Eglinton. Note East Don curving along western boundary of golf club, and rail line along its eastern boundary

concluded south of Eglinton at the south end of Flemingdon Park Golf Club. Here the river bends to the west, and access to it is complicated by the Golf Club property (along the eastern bank of the river), the DVP (west of the river), and the rail line (which bounds the golf course to the east)–see inset. To continue north to Eglinton, one is faced with the choice of walking along the railway line (not recommended), or crossing the river and walking through the golf course property (permission required). We attempted to find a pathway east of the railway tracks, but met with steep slopes and boggy wetland areas. In the end we elected to circumvent this stretch of river and pick up our walk on the north side of Eglinton Avenue, north of the Golf Club property.

Entering the valley at an open grassy ridge known informally as “the orchard,” we skirted the residential development to the east and then followed the contour of

Black cherry with its signature plated dark grey bark

the valley through a lovely deciduous forest, the noise of traffic on Eglinton receding behind us. Black cherry, white pine, birch and hemlock covered the slope running down to the river bed, and large houses clung to the edge of the ravine above us.

We followed the course of the river north and east along a deep oxbow. The trail became more legible  in places, and at one point we were joined by several groups of local residents out walking their dogs. West of Wigmore Drive the valley opened up, and we found ourselves on a

Looking south from the East Don River near Wigmore Drive

particularly stunning stretch of trail that traced the rim of the valley wall, with

great views of the river below and the city to the west and south. In the forest just south of Anewen Drive, we came across a great old  white pine about eight feet in diameter.

Following the curve of the river west again, we passed under two railway overpasses before connecting with the established (City of Toronto) trail along the river at Wynford Heights. Here the grade became level and wide–too wide for my liking, but presumably constructed as such to accommodate future cyclists as well as walkers. As John Wilson’s map of our walk route shows, the trail will  eventually be linked with the Moccasin Trail west of the DVP. Without the need to watch our feet or seek out the traces of a trail, we covered the last leg of the journey to Milne Hollow very quickly, following the path beneath the spectacular CP rail bridge in the falling light of the afternoon.

Remains of ski lift, former Don Valley Ski Club

Tucked away on a slope just north of the rail bridge we passed the rusting remains of a ski lift once used by the Don Valley Ski Club, now surrounded by industrial buildings. According to Don Valley conservationist Charles Sauriol (1904-1995), the ski hill was cleared in preparation for the Ontario Championship Ski Meet in February 1934. Jumps created at the site allowed competitors to make jumps up to 150 feet; the 1934 event apparently attracted about 10,000 spectators.

CP rail bridge south of Milne Hollow

We concluded our walk at Milne Hollow, once the site of a small nineteenth-century industrial community in the valley (which included among other buildings a woolen and a saw mill, a dry goods store, and workers’ housing). The city trail leading up to this site passes through wetlands and restored wildflower meadows in the valley flats. Today, the site comprises the northern reach of the Charles Sauriol Conservation Reserve, and is among the City’s Bird Flyways sites, a project to enhance bird habitat along migratory corridors.

Milne House

The light was magnificent as we approached Milne House, a gothic revival-style farmhouse built in 1860, and the only surviving building left on the site. Its unlikely survival through over 150 years of valley history has made it the subject of restoration ideas by the City, the TRCA, Heritage Toronto and local conservation groups. The building’s boarded windows, and the quiet of this valley location, however, suggest that those plans may be long in the making. For further exploration of the house and its history, see Gary Miedema’s post on the Spacing site.

A spectacular willow in front of Milne House

Before we set out on our first walk in mid-October, John Wilson and I wandered around the area surrounding the Charles Sauriol Conservation Reserve parking lot, deliberating about the location of Charles Sauriol’s former cottage sites at the Forks.

Sauriol and his family spent almost forty summers at their cottage on the Don between the late 1920s and the late 1960s. Sauriol had first leased the cottage from the Canadian National Railway in 1927; after many years of lobbying, he finally purchased the property in 1939. The deed of sale encompassed four acres of land on both sides of the river, and included a second cottage on the west side of the river that rented for $180/year.

Sauriol lost the first cottage, located on the East branch of the Don north of the Forks, when construction of the Don Valley Parkway bisected the property in 1958. Rather than leave the valley, Sauriol and his family picked up and moved across the river to the second cottage on the property (the former Degrassi homestead, located on the west side of the East Don River). Their time in the valley, however, was almost up. Widespread damage caused by Hurricane Hazel in 1954 gave new urgency to flood control measures, and the newly formed Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (today’s TRCA) wanted to remove houses from risky floodplain areas. In 1968, the Sauriols were expropriated for a second time, and this time they left the valley for good, reconstructing their summer home on a property near Tweed, Ontario.

The landscape has changed considerably since the Sauriols left, and amongst the exit ramps for the DVP, parking lots for recreationalists, and nearby subdivisions, it is difficult to discern where Sauriols’ cottages may have been.

Thanks to University of Toronto GIS and Map Librarian Marcel Fortin, we were able to take the original 1939 deed for the Sauriol property and “georeference” it, or establish its location in terms of con-

Deed source: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 3, File 28

temporary map coordinates. Georeferenced to map coordinates from the same period as the document (1939), we can then approximate, as closely as possible, the location of the property deed on the current landscape.

As this view from Google Earth shows, the 1939 deed straddles the DVP, on the right, and Don Mills Road on the left. If you look closely at the deed you can see a box-like structure indicating the location of the first cottage on the line of the DVP. The second cottage is indicated by a three-sided box on the deed, west of the river and immediately east of Don Mills Road. It was probably immediately east of the Charles Sauriol conservation reserve parking lot (which lies along the former Don Mills Road), just west of the river. You can access this file for viewing in Google Earth, here. You may need to download Google Earth to view the file. Once there, you can zoom in for a closer look, or switch to “google maps view” to explore the territory underneath the overlaid map.

October 16, 2010
Walk #1: Forks to Eglinton on the East Don

A stunning fall day, perfect for slipping into the urban wilderness. We decided to begin our walk at the Forks and head north along the East Don–the Lower River being a place I’d walked many times before. This reach of the river now forms the southern extent of the Charles Sauriol Conservation Reserve, which runs from the Forks north along the East Don to Lawrence Avenue East. Sauriol (1904-1995), a great advocate for the Don as a vital corridor of green space for the growing city of Toronto, spent his summers with his family at a cottage at the Forks from 1927 until he was expropriated for the construction of the Don Valley Parkway in the late 1950s. The area we walked was a favorite haunt of his, and its dedication as a protected area in September 1989, just six years before his death, he recalled as “the most rewarding, significant day in [his] long career as a conservationist” (Green Footsteps: Recollections of a Grassroots Conservationist, 279).

My companions on this first walk, John Wilson of the Task Force to Bring Back the Don, and Helen Mills of Lost Rivers, carried between the two of them a great collective knowledge on the history of the river valley and its relationship with the city. Such a treat to spend a few hours with them, walking and talking about this place that we’d all spent so much time thinking about.

We began by following a small path from the CS Conservation Reserve parking lot to the river’s edge, scrambling along the narrow space at the edge of the river beneath the Don Mills Road bridge to stand at the actual “forks”–the v-shaped juncture of the East and West Don. As we turned to look behind us up the west Don, John pointed out a small fall in the river that was once the location of the Taylor Brothers’ third paper mill, the “upper mill” on the West Don, just north of the forks. This mill operated from 1846 until 1890.

We returned and walked the roadway east away from the forks towards the DVP overpass and the parking lot for the trails along Taylor-Massey Creek. Just before the DVP overpass, we turned left and passed through a chain-link construction fence (conveniently unlocked) to follow the trajectory of the river’s East Branch. As we walked north and east along a new road bed under construction adjacent to the river corridor, we spotted the silver gleam of a lone salmon slapping and splashing in the river shallows on its journey upriver. Likely one of the Pacific salmon stocked by the Ontario government to supply the Lake Ontario sport fishery, the fish was unlikely to spawn successfully, John pointed out. Salmon require cold, fast-moving river waters and gravelly river beds to lay their eggs. Salmon may have returned to the Don, but the habitat required to allow them to establish self-sustaining populations has not. All of this aside, it was nevertheless very exciting to see a salmon doing what salmon do, fighting its way upriver in fall.

As we walked further north the trail moved through valley woodlands of hemlock, birch, black cherry, white pine, and maple. From the ravine edge above us, we could hear the barking of dogs and make out the fences and outbuildings of back yards running to the edge of the ravine precipice. The trail became narrower as we continued, moving up the side of the ravine east of the river in switchbacks and steep pathways that had us scrambling for footholds in places. The apparatus of extreme mountain-bikers lay all around us in this section of the valley: narrow elevated plankways constructed of branches and pieces of trekked-in wood, jumps and curved runways set at impossible angles. We walked along this precarious apparatus as it crossed small ravines, continually awed by the athleticism and daring it implied. That we saw no mountain bikers in the area on such a beautiful fall day may have been due in part to the highly technical nature of the trail–perhaps the constructions of a small group of elite riders. Not only did we see no mountain-bikers, we saw no one else on the trail the entire afternoon.

Moving up the ravine wall we found evidence of cast-away items tipped over the ravine wall and out-of-sight, including the body of an old car rusting and collapsing into the soil around it. The view of the river opened up below us, and we looked down to the river sparkling below us, passing under a railway bridge and curving past the high eroded valley walls of the east valley.

As we continued, the trail moved away from the river to open onto a wide clover-covered embankment. We could feel loose rocks under our feet as we moved across this bright green meadow, and John noted it was very likely a former landfill site graded and seeded with clover for bank stabilization. John spotted a flash of blue ahead of us, and trained his binoculars on a pair of Eastern Bluebirds and a Phoebe, flitting and moving about in the trees at the edge of the clearing. As we moved back into the underbrush, we heard the thumping sound of a deer leaping through the trees and out of sight. Hello, Toronto!

We finished our walk by crossing the tracks and walking up a service road past the Bermondsey Waste Transfer Station, the smell of which was enough to keep us moving to the Victoria Village Arena parking lot, where we’d left a car with which to return to our starting point.

A fantastic start to the Don walks, and so very good to take a stolen afternoon away from work and family responsibilities–however good those things are–to explore what is still, however altered, a wild place within the heart of the city.

Disclaimer

This site is not to be confused with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s Walk the Don website, a series of self-guided interpretive walks located throughout the watershed that are suitable for family use. The exploratory walks described here are not intended as public walks. They often move through treacherous terrain and along seldom-used trails. Anyone who attempts to follow these routes does so entirely at his or her own risk. Click on "About" in the menu above for further details about these walks, and the idea behind them.

About the author

Jennifer Bonnell is an environmental historian based in Toronto, Canada. She is currently working on a book on the social and environmental history of Toronto's Don River Valley.