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.