Pickering

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A Long Walk from Toronto has left Toronto. Aside from a “Pickering” stone marker  there is no dramatic transformation of the Trans Canada Trail at the city’s edge. I am still on the Waterfront Trail, following the shore of Lake Ontario. The biggest change from the last walk is the drop in the temperature. There are fewer patches of snow and ice on the ground but a brisk -8 wind chill.

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Since I will be spending several hours outside, I dress as though I am going to the Arctic. I start with a series of layers reminiscent of a frugal airline passenger attempting to avoid a checked baggage fee by wearing all their clothes for the flight.

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The bulky ensemble is topped with a hat, gloves, infinity scarf, oversize sunglasses and my knee length, puffy down filled blue parka that makes me look like an upright sleeping bag on snow booted legs. A more experienced hiker would no doubt have a more stylish ensemble but the layers serve me well, making it possible for me to stop moving at a brisk pace and admire the view now and then.

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As chilly as it is here in January 2016, the weather in what is now Pickering was once far colder. Just east of Rouge Beach, beyond the Petticoat Conservation Area (which is a park not a costume museum) is Frenchman’s Bay. There, Francois de Salignac de Fenelon established a mission school in 1669-1670, one of the coldest winters on record. The ground remained frozen until June,  causing devastation for the Iroquois inhabitants of the nearby village of Ganatsekwyagon (now an archaeological site in Rouge Urban National Park).

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The village of Pickering – named for the town of the same name in North Yorkshire – grew in the early nineteenth century as “Late Loyalists” from the United States traveled north in search of free land. Pickering attracted Quaker settlement and by the War of 1812, the town had 140 residents. Frenchman’s Bay harbour expanded in 1875, exporting local barley to American breweries until tariffs sent the community into a decline that lasted until the explosion of demand for housing within commuting distance of Toronto after the Second World War. Pickering now has a population of around 90,000.

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Despite the fact that the entire Pickering section of the Trans Canada trail is part of the Waterfront Trail, the views of the lake come and go over the course of the walk. The Petticoat Conservation Area looks out over the water and the west side of Frenchman’s Bay is filled with parks that provide a nice view of the skating and ice fishing on the frozen Bay.

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Unfortunately, the “Waterfront Trail” on the east side of the Bay is mostly sidewalks through nondescript residential areas. One constant throughout the trail are long narrow signs listing all that is forbidden while walking across Pickering from fireworks to golf to “annoying or obnoxious behaviour.”

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The lake reappears at the Nautical Village, a collection of shops that are mostly closed for the season.

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There’s a particularly appetizing looking ice cream parlour that seems to sell both Chapman’s ice cream and Kawartha Dairy ice cream but sadly, only from Victoria Day to Thanksgiving.

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The village leads to attractive beach boardwalk that is filled with warmly dressed families out walking and admiring the Canada geese.

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The beach doesn’t last for long. The boardwalk comes to an abrupt end and the trail disappears behind the nuclear plant. Instead of the lake, there is a long stretch where the only sights are these cheerful signs reminding passing walkers to stay on their own side of the fence.

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At Squire’s Beach, the Trans Canada Trail leaves the Waterfront and turns inland. I had low expectations for the final stretch of the day’s walk because when I typed “Squire’s Beach” into Google, one of the top result was the Squire’s Beach dump where you can unload a van full of waste for $20. Thankfully, the dump or “waste depot” is far from the waterfront and there is a nice bridge for admiring the sunset over the lake.

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Squire’s Beach is on the border between Pickering and the town of Ajax, where this series of walks will resume, weather permitting, in February.

Getting there by public transit:

Start: Rouge Hill GO Station

End: Durham Regional Transit to Ajax GO Station

If you run out of steam in the middle: Pickering GO Station

Further Reading: Hidden Ontario: Secrets from Ontario’s Past by Terry Boyle

Next: Ajax

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Rouge National Urban Park

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The GO train pulls into Rouge Hill station and I’m back where I left off in December. It’s a balmy zero degrees and the sun is shining over Lake Ontario. The Waterfront Trail continues east past Scarborough bluffs from Port Union to Rouge Beach, where a flock of Canada geese and a lone swan have found shelter from the winds coming off the lake.

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The beach is a tiny piece of the Waterfront Trail but it is one of the entrances to Rouge Park. It’s time to explore the first National Park that intersects the Trans Canada trail route east from downtown Toronto.

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Since I began this series of walks from Yonge Street in November 2015, Toronto amenities have never been far away. Even when I have been at the bottom of the Don Valley Ravine or in the parks along Highland Creek, the trail has led eventually to food, water and even an entire cookie factory. The conditions get a little more rustic this week. Rouge Park may be an urban national park accessible by public transit but it’s still a wilderness area. The New Year will begin with the transition from city walking to hiking.

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Of course, I will not be hiking the entire park in an afternoon. When Rouge Park  is complete, it will be 79.1 square km and will stretch from Lake Ontario to Uxbridge. (Here’s the map). Instead, I make my way up Rouge Hill Drive then down into the ravine and under Hwy 401 to Glen Rouge campground and the start of the Mast trail.

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The Mast trail is a 200 year old logging route. The timber floated up the Rouge River for use in shipbuilding including mainmasts. The path through the woods goes up and down hills and has some icy stretches this time of year. More experienced hikers than myself have crampons attached to their snow boots. When I encounter a particularly treacherous looking slope in my travels, I sit down and slide to the bottom, using the back of my knee length parka as an impromptu toboggan.

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At Sheppard Ave, the Mast Trail comes to an end and the Orchard Trail begins.

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This trail provides spectacular views of the Rouge River, flowing under a thin layer of ice. There are few people out walking in this weather – the most recent issue of Macleans Magazine claims that Canada has become “A nation of winter wusses” –  but this area was once filled with activity.

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The Rouge River valley was charted by Louis Jolliet (1645-1700), royal hydrographer to King Louis XIV of France. Jolliet’s 1680 map was one of the first to use the word “Toronto” – an Iroquois term for “where the trees are in the water” – to describe the area. While past generations of explorers of what is now Canada had crossed the Atlantic from France, Jolliet was born and raised outside Quebec City. In 1673, Jolliet, Jacques Marquette and a team of Metis voyageurs paddled and portaged from Lake Michigan to the mouth of the Arkansas river, exploring the upper Mississippi. One of Jolliet’s descendants, Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché became a father of Canada’s Confederation.

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The Rouge River valley had been inhabited for thousands of years before Jolliet arrived. Rouge Park contains the site of Bead Hill, the 17th century Seneca village of Ganatsekwyagon, that was a key site in the fur trade. Correspondence between the Comte de Frontenac, Governor General of New France from 1672 to 1682 and Louis XIV reveals French concerns that the inhabitants of Ganatsekwyagon were trading with the Dutch, based in New Amsterdam (New York). These disputes over trade and territory erupted into open warfare. The village was abandoned in 1697 during the French and Iroquois Wars. Today, the site is archaeologically sensitive and not open to the public. 

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The Orchard Trail ends at Zoo Road. The Rouge Valley conservation centre is located near the trailhead, in a house built for local sawmill owner James Pearse Jr. and his family in 1893.

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There’s another hiking trail – the Cedar Trail – that continues north of Zoo Road but it’s nearly sunset, time to wrap up the walking for the day.  The corner of Zoo Road and Meadowvale Road is on the bus route back to the city from the Toronto Zoo.

Next time, we’ll leave Toronto and follow the Waterfront Trail around Frenchman’s Bay through the nautical village in Pickering.

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Getting there by public transit: GO Transit to Rouge Hill for Rouge Beach, Subway to Kennedy then 86A bus to the Toronto Zoo for access to the Orchard and Cedar trails. 

Further Reading: The Rouge River Valley: An Urban Wilderness by James E. Garratt

Next: Frenchman’s Bay, Pickering