Rouge National Urban Park


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.




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


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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


Highland Creek


The entrance to the Highland Creek Ravine at Lawrence Avenue is marked by a distinctly Canadian warning sign. “Skiing, tobogganing and sleigh riding are hazardous and are prohibited on this slope.” As a historian specializing in Europe’s royal families, I don’t dispute that. Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter Princess Louise suffered a concussion in an Ottawa sleigh accident in 1880. Winter sports can be dangerous.


The painful toboggan injury is a fixture of so many Canadian childhoods – including my own – that it has made its way into Canadian literature.

“He did not see the collision coming, only the second sled’s slanting path from the darker, less frequented south ridge, and that it would surely intersect with the toboggan now hurtling in a straight line toward the ramp. When the slight human snap registered in his muffled hat-covered ear half an instant after the two sleds actually met, he began down the hill before anyone else knew what had happened, and soon was kneeling in the snow by her side, holding her squarely by the shoulders. She was crying.

He touched her leg gently, feeling for the break. “Does it hurt here?” He moved down the thigh to the shin. “What about here?” — Dennis Bock, The Ash Garden

What makes the  winter sports warning sign seem out of place is the weather, which remains unseasonably warm for December. The temperature dropped to zero for the day but there is no snow on the ground. A white Christmas is unlikely.


There will be no further signage along the Highland Creek trail until we reach the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. Those helpful Pan Am path direction notices that announce how many metres or kilometres until the next major road or trail exit are almost entirely missing from the Highland Creek section of the trail. Therefore, the first direction we will take is the wrong one, away from the Trans Canada trail and south into the Highland Creek community park. The scenery is so spectacular that the wrong way feels like the right one, following the meandering creek. This narrow waterway used to be far wider than it is today. In the 1830s, a ninety-five ton schooner traveled one mile up the creek from Lake Ontario.


Somewhere near Guildwood, I remember that maps are not just colourful images for this blog but are meant to be consulted now and then and I retrace my steps back along Highland Creek to the Pan Am path.


The scenery grows even more imposing and you can see why this site, with its fresh water and towering bluffs, has been inhabited for thousands of years. The name Highland Creek comes from Yat-qui-i-be-no-nick, the Mississauga First Nation word for “creek comes out under high [lands]” and archaeological excavations have uncovered evidence of settlement dating back to 3500 BCE.


The water is less inviting today – a sign sternly warns against swimming and wading because of pollution.



The Highland Creek trail loops around the tennis courts at the University of Toronto Scarborough. This part of the University was once the summer estate of Toronto businessman Miller Lash, whose house remains a popular wedding venue. The University of Toronto bought the land in 1963 as part of its expansion plan. Enrollment in post secondary institutions increased dramatically in the 1960s with the coming of age of the post-war baby boomer generation.


After leaving the campus, the trail passes under the Old Kingston Road, which was built as a stagecoach route between Toronto and Kingston and remained the main roadway between the two cities until the completion of the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway (Highway 401) in 1965. As the creek meanders through Colonel Danforth park (named for Asa Danforth Jr, a land speculator who acquired vast tracts of property in Upper Canada in the 1790s then upset Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe by not recruiting further settlers as promised), we encounter our first wild animal warning in our travels on the Trans Canada trail.


At first, I am not concerned. I have seen numerous coyote warnings in Toronto’s ravines but never a single coyote. But as the sun begins go down, I pick up the pace and begin singing along with my iPod, trying to simulate that “noise maker” effect recommended by the coyote warning sign.


“Say what you will, I will miss you my friends. Let me move along for the road never ends…” — Gordon Lightfoot


The only wildlife I encounter is a lone raccoon, who looks singularly unimpressed with my off key musical efforts.

I emerge onto Port Union beach, in time to join a group of dog walkers on the Waterfront Trail for a spectacular sunset over Lake Ontario.




The beach brings the Pan Am Path to an end and its signs provide a quick recap of the walks since this journey began.


The Waterfront Trail leads to Rouge Hill GO train station, which was built in 1967 as the first station of a new regional public transit system for southern Ontario. The rapid expansion of Toronto and the surrounding communities after the Second World War increased demand for commuter transit beyond the capacity of the Canadian National Railway Company.


The GO transit system was popular from the start – 1 million people rode the trains to and from downtown in Toronto in the first four months – and the modern double decker trains were introduced in 1979 in response to ever growing number of commuters in the region. From Rouge Hill to Union Station, a couple blocks away from Yonge Street where this series of walks began, the GO train journey takes 30 minutes.

Getting there by Public Transit: GO Transit to Rouge Hill on the Lakeshore East line.

Further Reading: Along the Shore: Rediscovering Toronto’s Waterfront Heritage by M. Jane Fairburn

Next: Rouge Park

Scarborough Museum and the East Corridor


We’ll begin today’s walk at the Scarborough Museum, near West Highland Creek, which we crossed during our stroll along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor last week. There is currently an exhibition about the life and diaries of Frances Tweedie Milne and I am reliably informed by The City of Toronto that there will be “baked holiday goodies.” Victorian women’s history and Christmas treats sounds like my kind of December afternoon and so we will start there, just after noon, the time of the museum opens on winter weekends then finish the Hydro Corridor and walk along the Highland Creek section of the Pan Am path until dusk.


Frances Tweedie Milne was born and raised  on a farm in Whitby where she began keeping a diary in 1866, at the age of eighteen. In 1869, she married and moved to Scarborough with her husband, continuing to keep a record of her daily life. The exhibition includes her account of celebrating the first Dominion Day – Canada Day – after Canada achieved Confederation in 1867 by attending fireworks and military parades.

“Eventful Day Saw the eleph. go away, the Cavalry come in 9 a.m. Nick called at Campbells. We went to review. G. Rumsey came down to Hall with me. Went home, Em came to fireworks. Mack and I promenade around. Came home with Dave in new buggy.” — Diary of Frances Tweedie Milne, July 1, 1867


The museum imagines what Frances’s Facebook page might have looked like if she were alive today. Likes include the novels of Paul Clifford – the writer who coined the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night” – ice skating and the public library on St. Andrew’s Road.


The Scarborough museum is a collection of historic buildings from around the area that were brought together on the site of Thomson Settlement, which we visited near the end of our walk through the west and central sections of the Gatineau Hydro Corridor last time. The main house, Cornell house, belonged to a family of apple farmers and it’s decorated for Christmas in early 20th century style.


The log cabin, McCowan house, was located near the current site of the Toronto zoo, which we will be visiting in a future walk. It was the home of sheep farmer, William Porteous McCowan who emigrated from Scotland in 1833 and gave his name to one of Scarborough’s main roads.


Frances’s diary contains numerous references to dressing in tartan – in case the names of the settlers and the proximity of St. Andrew’s road and Highland Creek are not evidence enough that this community used to be more Scottish than Scotland.  In the mid 19th century, much of the political elite in English Canada was of Scottish descent and Frances Tweedie Milne and her neighbours had every reason to display their heritage in their homes, clothing and celebrations.


After enjoying the hot apple cider and apple cinnamon muffins at the Scarborough museum, let’s continue east along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor. The hydro lines in the east end of the corridor look the same as they did in the west end that we visited last time but the terrain is very different. Instead of a flat prairie, there are rolling hills and you begin to understand why Elizabeth Simcoe was inspired in the 1790s to name the area Scarborough after the town in North Yorkshire.


The landscape is different at the east end of the Gatineau hydro corridor as well. Instead of vast expanses of browning grass that encourage visitors to cycle or walk though as quickly as possible, the east corridor is filled with community garden plots and meadow restoration projects that carpet the land with wildflowers in the Springtime. Here, visitors are encouraged to linger with only the signs prohibiting kite and model airplane flying reminding us that we are in a hydro corridor rather than a traditional park.


The east corridor ends near Military Trail, which used to be the only way to cross Highland Creek. The ravine surrounding the creek acted as a natural barrier to settlement further east just as the Don Valley, which we visited in a previous walk, inhibited the growth of the city before the building of The Prince Edward Viaduct.


A short walk through a Scarborough residential neighbourhood takes us to the entrance to Morningside Park at Lawrence Ave, which provides access to the Highland Creek ravine that we will explore in the next part of the walk.


Getting to the Scarborough museum by public transit:  54A Lawrence East bus eastbound to Brimley road

Further Reading: Much to Be Done: Private Life in Ontario From Victorian Diaries by Frances Hoffman and Ryan Taylor

Next: Highland Creek


The Gatineau Hydro Corridor


Before you ask, we are still in Toronto. If we continue walking in this direction along the Trans Canada Trail, we will eventually arrive in Ottawa and stroll across the Ontario-Quebec border into Gatineau but that day has not yet arrived. The Gatineau hydro corridor that traverses the former municipality of Scarborough (amalgamated with Toronto in 1998) is named for the Great Gatineau Power Station that was built in Leaside in the 1920s. The electricity generated by the Chaudière Falls was transmitted to the power station along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor, the longest 220,000 volt line in Canada.


The Gatineau Hydro Corridor acts as a linear park, taking us from the industrial warehouses of Bermondsey, where we left off last week, to north of the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus. By this time of year, I expected the corridor to resemble a snow swept prairie but the weather remains curiously above zero. The Doctor Zhivago inspired landscape shots will have to wait for later in the season. Instead, there is browning grass and the occasional overturned shopping cart.


For our previous walks, I’ve had a good sense of where I am going but the Gatineau Hydro Corridor portion of trail meanders in and out of parks, through residential areas of 1950s bungalows that all look remarkably the same, over bridges and past deserted playgrounds. I know I’m walking vaguely northeast but there isn’t the same sense of consistent path as there was on The Lower Don Trail or Taylor Creek Park. The signage comes and goes and is often a recent history of Toronto itself, announcing both the Pan Am path established this year and “Metro Toronto,” which existed before amalgamation.


As a result of the meandering path and unfamiliar terrain, I am reluctant to go looking for interesting places off the trail as I did downtown but no historian can resist the giant sign that says “Historic Site” on St. Andrews Road. Here is one of the oldest parts of Scarborough, named by Elizabeth Simcoe in 1793 because the terrain reminded her of the town of the same name in North Yorkshire.

“The shore is extremely bold, and has the appearance of chalk cliffs, but I believe they are only white sand. They appeared so well that we talked of building a summer residence there and calling it Scarborough.” — Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary, August 4, 1793

St. Andrew’s Street is site of the Springfield farmhouse, Scarborough’s first brick house and a reminder that this busy region of Toronto was a rural area until comparatively recently. The first settlers here were David and Andrew Thompson, stonemasons and mill owners who established a community that became known as “Thompson settlement.”



Past Springfield farmhouse is St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and Scarborough’s first public library, which was in operation from 1834 until 1861. James Thompson, the owner of the Springfield farmhouse (and son of original settler David Thompson) was also one of the founders of the public library. In keeping with nineteenth century ideas about libraries as places of intellectual and moral improvement, book acquisitions were strictly censored to ensure that “No book of a seditious, deistical or licentious character was to be allowed on the shelves on any pretence whatever.”





The sun is going down and soon the light will not be strong enough for photos. We’ll wrap up here for the day and start the next walk at the corner of St. Andrews and McCowan road, continuing along the eastern portion of the Gatineau Hydro Corridor to West Highland Creek.

Getting there on public transit: Subway to Warden, McCowan 16 bus northbound to St. Andrews St. 

Further Reading: Leaside by Jane Pitfield

Shawn Micallef, Scarborough is wild, historic and steep, Toronto Star, March 28, 2014

Next: Highland Creek

Bermondsey and the Cookie Factory


The gingerbread dough needs to return to room temperature before I can sprinkle the rolling pin with flour and roll out the dough in sections until it’s only a quarter inch thick, ready for cookie cutter that will it turn it into a troop of gingerbread men, sent into the oven by the dozen. I made the dough on Sunday, slowly melting butter into a pot then adding the sugar and molasses, stirring until the sweetness dissolved into a gooey brown paste.


The dry ingredients went into the silver bowl of the stand up mixer: flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, whisked together and shaped into a well to receive the lukewarm mixture of butter, sugar and molasses. I beat everything together with the mixer into a thick brown dough. The dough came out of the bowl as a heavy round ball to be kneaded on the counter then kept in the fridge to allow the spices to fully settle in. Leaving the dough to slowly lose its chill on the counter, I walk the next segment of the trail, up Bermondsey road in East York, which passes very close to the Peek Frean cookie factory and outlet store.


Until James Peek and his nephew-in-law, George Hender Frean established their business, Peek, Frean & Co. Ltd, in 1857, most cookies were homemade in small batches like my gingerbread men. The most common way to create a cookie base, creaming together softened butter and sugar, was perfected in the eighteenth century and required a wooden spoon and a strong arm before the invention of electric mixers for home kitchens in 1919.

Peek Frean pioneered the production of mass produced cookies that remained dry, fresh and edible after weeks or months in transit or on the shelf. They traveled across the British Empire from Australia to India to Canada  and supplied French soldiers fighting the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. Bermondsey, in south London, where the Peek Frean factory was located became known as “biscuit town.” (The word cookie came to what is now the United States and Canada via the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam – New York – who baked small cakes called koekjes).  The public was so fascinated by the mass production of cookies that the Peek Frean factory became the subject of one of the first documentary films, A Visit to A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.’s Biscuit Works (1906).

In 1949, Peek Frean established its Canadian cookie factory on the appropriately named Bermondsey road in East York. The factory was at the centre of a newly developed industrial neighbourhood. Before the Second World War, most goods traveled to market by train or ship, which explains the lakefront location of the St. Lawrence Market and the Distillery District, which we visited on previous walks. By the late 1940s, trucks were assuming the role of trains and factories and warehouses were built in what had once been rural areas outside the city. The apple orchards of East York were replaced by industrial buildings as well as new residential neighbourhoods for the families of returning veterans.


Aside from the occasional sign reminding us that we are on the Pan Am Path, there is little evidence of a trail near the cookie factory between Taylor Creek Park and the Gatineau Hydro Corridor. There is a sidewalk and a clearly marked bike lane but few pedestrians or cyclists and the scenery is just out of view. As you walk out of the Parkview neighbourhood along Northline road past industrial warehouses (and a church that looks like an industrial warehouse) take a peek through the dense curtain of trees on your left for a last view of the Don Valley ravine that we are leaving behind.


Once you reach the corner of Northline and Bermondsey, the cookies are easy to find. All you have to do is follow the smell of a freshly opened box of jam centered Fruit Cremes to the factory (now run by Mondelez International) and the outlet store across the road. After the overpowering aroma, my visit to the cookie outlet store is almost anticlimactic. I have been baking cookies all week and I have little need for more of them. The pair of shoppers calling out trans fat amounts mournfully as though they are reading failing grades off a report card, “40 percent…40 percent here as well,” is not making the experience any more appetizing.


Then, I see the giant boxes of Toblerone bars, the only display policed by an intimidating looking security guard. I reach for a giant box, imagining myself attaching a Toblerone bar to every Christmas present, putting out platters of Toblerone bars for guests and generally treating the next month as one long old school Swiss Chalet festive special. As soon as I pick up a box, the security guard scowls and a watching cashier gently explains, “You’re not allowed to buy that many Toblerone bars, dear, only the small boxes are for sale and there’s a limit…” I settle for a small box of Toblerones, a box of fruit cremes and a club pack of triscuit crackers then go home to finish making my gingerbread cookies.


There’s a Tim Hortons at the corner of Eglinton and Bermondsey. We’ll start the next walk from there and explore the linear park along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor.

Getting there by public transit: Subway to Eglinton then the 34 bus eastbound to Bermondsey road.

Further Reading: The Edible City: Toronto’s Food from Farm to Fork edited by Alana Wilcox and Christina Palassio

Next: The Gatineau Hydro Corridor

Taylor Creek Park


There is little of Taylor Creek Park on the Pan Am Path that comprises so much of the Toronto section of the Trans Canada Trail. The map encourages you to leave the Lower Don Trail by walking under the Don Valley Parkway, past a curious art installation of half submerged canoes, enter the park then almost immediately leave it by climbing the Alden steps into the Parkview neighbourhood of East York.


Bypassing Taylor Creek Park is a mistake because it is the first place on the Trans Canada trail east of Yonge Street where it feels as though you have left the city behind and you are surrounded by nothing but trees and rushing water.


The land along Taylor-Massey creek used to belong to some of Toronto’s most prominent families. The Taylor family, which arrived in Upper Canada from Staffordshire, England in 1821 acquired the land closer to Lower Don Trail and founded the the Don Valley Brick Works and Todmorden mill along the Don. John Taylor achieved the first major breakthrough in paper-making in 1700 years when he substituted wood pulp for rags as the raw material, winning a £1000 reward.


On the other side of the O’Connor Bridge, named for the founder of Laura Secord Chocolates, is the site of the Massey family estate. The Masseys immigrated to Upper Canada from Vermont in the first decade of the nineteenth century, part of a wave of “late loyalist” settlers who followed the promise of free land to British North America. In 1847, Daniel Massey, a blacksmith, opened a farm equipment workshop and his company eventually developed into Massey-Ferguson, a multinational producer of agricultural implements. The family founded Massey Hall in 1894, one of the most significant cultural venues in downtown Toronto. The future King George V and Queen Mary visited Massey Hall with Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier in 1901 and musicians and world leaders from Gordon Lightfoot to the Dalai Lama have taken the stage since then.


It’s the beginning of December but it feels more like March with mud on the paths and water rushing over the lower section of the trail that passes along Taylor-Massey Creek through the park. (There are signs reminding pedestrians, joggers and cyclists to quite literally take the high road).


Taylor Creek park is popular with dog walkers. Even on fall evenings when the park is lit by the windows of far off apartment towers, there are dogs and their owners out for a stroll. Only on overcast weekday afternoons is the park nearly deserted, perfect for anyone seeking a solitude in a busy city.


The path through Taylor Creek Park leads to Victoria Park station, near a recently revitalized wetland, and you may be tempted to get on the subway and go east a few stops to rejoin us at Highland Creek, the next scenic part of the trail. I am going to make a compelling argument for why we should retrace the path to the Alden steps and walk through residential and industrial neighbourhoods of East York as the dotted line on the Trans Canada trail map instructs. You see, I have been reliably informed by The Torontoist that there is a giant Peek Frean Cookie outlet store selling equally giant bags of discount cookies within steps of the Pan Am Path…


Getting There By Public Transit: Subway to Victoria Park Station

Further Reading: Toronto’s Ravines and Urban Forests: Their natural heritage and local history by John Ramsay-Brown

Next: Bermondsey and the Cookie Factory

The Prince Edward Viaduct


“The bridge goes up in a dream. It will link the east end with the centre of the city. It will carry traffic, water and electricity across the Don Valley. It will carry trains that have not even been invented yet.

Night and day. Fall light. Snow light. They are always working – horses and wagons and men arriving for work on the Danforth side at the far end of the valley.

There are over 4,000 photographs from various angles of the bridge in its time lapse evolution. The piers sink into the bedrock fifty feet below the surface through clay and shale and quicksand – 45,000 cubic yards are excavated. The network of scaffolding stretches up.

Men in a maze of scattered planks climb deep into the shattered light of blond wood. A man is an extension of hammer, drill, flame. Drill smoke in his hair. A cap falls into the valley, gloves are buried in stone dust.

The new men arrive, “the electricals,” laying grids of wire across the five arches, carrying the exotic three-bowl lights, and on October 18, 1918 it is completed. Lounging in mid-air.

The bridge. The bridge. Christened “Prince Edward.” The Bloor Street Viaduct.” — Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion


Take a few steps backward on the Lower Don Trail and look up at the Prince Edward Viaduct. It’s a grey afternoon in late November with snow flurries and there are few sounds other than the rattle of subway trains passing under the bridge. The Bloor-Danforth subway line did not open until 1966 but the design for the bridge anticipated future trains. A bridge for both road traffic and a possible subway line drove up the cost to $2.5 million (35.5 million in 2015 Canadian dollars). Torontonians objected to this money being spent during wartime for a bridge to carry trains that had not yet been invented to the region east of the Don Valley where few people lived.


The controversial bridge received a much needed royal seal of approval when it was named after Prince Edward, the future King Edward VIII. Edward is better known today for his abdication in 1936 to marry the twice divorced American Wallis Simpson but during the First World War, he was one of the most popular members of the royal family, admired in Canada for visiting Canadian troops on the Western front.

“This ideal, this mold for his outward man, was no one less than Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, the Prince of Wales. The papers were full of the Prince at that time. He was the great ambassador of the Commonwealth but he also had the common touch. . .” — Robertson Davies, Fifth Business

In 1919, Prince Edward visited Toronto as part of a two month cross country tour of Canada. There are many similarities between the 1919 tour and the 2011 Canadian visit by William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Like William and Kate, Edward was praised for modernizing the royal family and his fashions were widely imitated. (In True Style: The History and Principles of Classic Menswear, G. Bruce Boyer  credits the future Edward VIII with persuading a generation of young men to trade in their tailcoats for shorter dinner jackets). Edward made the cover of Vogue magazine and his tour was one of the first Canadian national events to be captured on film.

The Lower Don Trail continues north-east from the Viaduct. Across the Don Valley parkway, the chimney of the restored paper mill at Todmorden Mills (now a heritage site) is just visible, marking the border between the old city of Toronto and the former borough of East York. The Prince Edward Viaduct brought new residents to the east of the city, first working class English immigrants then a thriving Greektown along the Danforth. Residents living east of the Don Valley complained they were not receiving the same level of municipal services. In 1924, East York became a township then a borough in 1967 before amalgamating into the “megacity” of Toronto in 1998.


Todmorden Mills and the former Don Valley Brickworks, visible across the river as we walk along the Lower Don Trail, were both owned by the Taylor family. We’ll visit the lands once owned by the Taylors, now Taylor Creek Park, in the next walk.

Getting there by public transit: Subway to Broadview 

Further Reading:

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje

King Edward VIII by Philip Ziegler

Next: Taylor Creek Park


The Lower Don Trail

IMG_20151123_144907[1] At Queen and River street in Toronto’s Corktown, the Don river is a shallow green trickle that absorbs the first snow flurries of the season into its much depleted waters. On one side of the Lower Don Trail – a narrow ashphalt bike path – are metal fences and railroad tracks, separating the path from a series of fancy car dealerships: Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus.


On the other side of the trail, across the river, is the Don Valley Parkway. There is a constant roar of passing traffic that cannot be blocked out by the BBC world service documentaries on my iPod. My phone is buzzing in my purse as it’s a Monday afternoon and there are e-mails to answer and tweets to retweet. I reach for it, tangling myself up with the wire of my headphones. A passing jogger, seeing that I’m juggling multiple electronic devices, points to his wrist with a theatrical gesture so that I will remove an earbud and let him know the time. The walk, the Don, the city: none of it bears the slightest resemblance to the description in the 1790s diary of Elizabeth Simcoe – an artist, geographer and wife of Ontario’s first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe.

“This Evening, we went to see a Creek which is to be called the River Don. It falls into the Bay near the Peninsula. After we entered, we rowed some distance among Low lands covered with Rushes abounding with wild ducks & swamp black birds with red wings. About a mile beyond the bay, the banks become high & wooded as the river contracts its width.” — Diary of Elizabeth Simcoe, August 11, 1793

As I walk northward, under the Riverdale Park bridge toward the Bloor Street Viaduct, the designs on the path remind me that I am not looking at the same Don River as Elizabeth Simcoe did in the eighteenth century. “The Don Narrows” is  far more narrow that it was a couple centuries ago.

IMG_20151123_154452[1] By the late nineteenth century, the wetlands were polluted by the Don Valley Brickworks and other factories along the river. The swamps were blamed for cholera epidemics. As a result, the river was straightened and narrowed in a series of public works projects with varying degrees of success. In the early 20th century, dozens of sewage treatment plants were built along the Don and parts of the ravine became landfills for industrial waste. The building of the Don Valley Parkway in the 1950s and 1960s caused further environmental devastation and the Don became one of the filthiest rivers in Canada. Efforts are now underway to restore the Don to a more natural state.


“There is a great deal of snow on the River Don which is so well frozen that we walked some miles upon it today, but in returning, I found it so cold near the Lake that I was benumbed & almost despaired of ever reaching my own house & when I came near it the Hill was frightfully slippery. Near the river, we saw the track of Wolves and & the Head and hoofs of a deer.” — Diary of Elizabeth Simcoe, January 11, 1794

The Simcoes were so enchanted by the Don Valley that they made their home – named Castle Frank after their son Francis – on a bluff overlooking the ravine. North of the Bloor Street Viaduct, the landscape bears a greater resemblance to the wooded tracts of centuries past. The roar of the Don Valley Parkway, however, is never out of earshot, even when the sight of passing traffic is obscured  by the restored Crothers woods.IMG_20151123_160717[1]




We will resume the walk on the Lower Don Trail at the Bloor Street Viaduct then continue northeast to Taylor Creek Park.


Getting there by public transit: Subway to Queen, 501 streetcar eastbound

Further Reading: Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary by Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe and Mary Quayle Innis

The embroidered tent: Five gentlewomen in early Canada, Elizabeth Simcoe, Catharine Parr Traill, Susanna Moodie, Anna Jameson, Lady Dufferin by Marian Fowler

Next: The Bloor Street Viaduct

The Distillery District and Toronto Christmas Market

There’s a high school business class receiving a tour of the Distillery Historic District. “You are surrounded by the largest surviving collection of Victorian industrial architecture in all of the North America,” the tour guide proclaims with such enthusiasm that passing Christmas shoppers stop to listen. The students, however, quietly talk among themselves despite their teacher’s intermittent attempts to shush them. The tour guide tries again, “You might have heard of some of the hundreds of movies and TV series that have been filmed here: Tommy Boy, Cinderella Man , Chicago, Murdoch Mysteries, Road to Avonlea.”


I remember how the Distillery District stood in for Halifax harbour in Road to Avonlea but there’s no sign of recognition from the students. The tour guide takes a deep breath and tries once more, “Al Capone’s Canadian office was just over there, where thumbs were chopped off and kneecaps were broken.” Now the students are listening.


During Prohibition, Toronto’s Gooderham and Worts Distillery sold liquor to American bootleggers including the famous Al Capone. James Worts and his brother-in-law William Gooderham established a grist mill on the site in 1832. In 1834, a distraught James Worts threw himself into the company well after his wife died in childbirth. (His ghost is said to haunt the Distillery District to the present day).


Gooderham added a distillery in 1837, the year of the Upper Canada Rebellion. In the hard drinking 19th century, distilling whiskey was a lucrative trade. By 1871, the distillery was producing 2.1 million gallons of whiskey and spirits every year. During the First World War, production switched to the acetone needed for antifreeze.


In 1916, the Ontario Temperance Act banned sales of alcohol in the province. The act followed a decades long campaign by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Canada, the largest non-denominational Canadian women’s organization of the time, which raised awareness of the domestic abuse and economic hardship that men’s heavy drinking outside the home caused for women. The act remained in force until 1927 and the Gooderham and Worts distillery seemed destined for bankruptcy.

In Quebec, where alcohol was traditionally consumed more moderately by men and women inside the home, Prohibition lasted only two weeks. The Gooderham and Worts distillery skirted the laws in Ontario by sending their spirits to Montreal to “age” overnight then importing their products back to the distillery. Bootleggers like Capone bought up Canadian Club whiskey and resold it for an enormous profit in the United States, where Prohibition was in force from 1920 until 1933. The distillery survived Prohibition and continued to be in business until 1990.


Today, the Distillery District is one of Toronto’s most popular tourist attractions, filled with unique shops, restaurants and galleries. From November 20 until December 20, the historic neighbourhood is the setting of the Toronto Christmas Market. There’s a gigantic Christmas tree, gingerbread house shaped kiosks selling tasty treats and unique crafts, and Christmas carolers. In between live carol singing sets, the sound system plays a uniquely Canadian mix of Christmas songs from the melancholy strains of Gordon Lightfoot’s Song for a Winter’s Night to the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan medley of We Three Kings and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.


Enjoy the Christmas Market and sample the desserts. (I recommend the giant nanaimo bars at the Brick Street bakery). The next set of walks will take us north along the Don Valley Ravine, under the Bloor Street Viaduct to Taylor Creek Park.

Getting there by public transit: Subway to King station, 504 King streetcar eastbound to Parliament Street.

Further Reading: Toronto’s Distillery District by Sally Gibson

Next: The Lower Don Trail

Sugar Beach

IMG_20151120_132558[1]Sugar Beach used be an abandoned parking lot on a neglected industrial strip. Now, it’s a sand covered park named for the nearby Redpath Sugar refinery that we bypassed during the last walk. This beach is not designed for swimming or wading in Lake Ontario. At the moment, that’s just as well. The sun is shining but the water looks choppy and cold. We’ll settle into the white Muskoka chairs under the umbrellas and admire the view of the Toronto Islands instead.



Sugar beach made headlines in 2014 when former mayor Rob Ford falsely claimed that $900,000 had been spent on the umbrellas and rocks there while he was in rehab, a supposed example of “the gravy train” chugging along in his absence. Sugar beach in fact opened in 2010 and Ford posed for pictures there that same year. Sigh.


In August, Sugar Beach becomes the setting of Toronto’s only sail-in cinema. The movies are projected onto a giant inflatable two-sided screen on a floating barge for landlubbers and seafarers alike to enjoy. I doubt there is any other cinema that has a Frequently Asked Questions page quite like this one:

Q: Do I need a ticket if I’m coming by boat?

A: No…just sail in and drop your anchor.

Q: What if I have a rowboat, kayak or canoe?

A: We recommend that you watch from land or use a powered vessel.


Let’s get out of the wind and step inside the nearby Corus Quay building. There’s an aquarium style art installation on the ceiling where the “fish” swim in schools and change colour. There’s also a nice restaurant, Against the Grain, with views of the waterfront. If we head back outside and continue to walk east along the waterfront trail (keeping to the sidewalk to avoid wandering in front of the cyclists), we pass part of George Brown College and the Sherbourne Common, which has an ice rink in the winter, a splash pad in the summer and is pretty deserted this time of year.


Beyond Sherbourne Common is one long construction site as condos rise up on Toronto’s old industrial waterfront with names like “Aquavista.” Let’s step away from the dump trucks and cement mixers and visit one of the best preserved historic neighbourhoods in Toronto. We’re going to leave the waterfront path at Parliament Street, walk north under a particularly crumbly looking section of the Gardiner Expressway and follow the smell of gingerbread and the sound of carolling to the Toronto Christmas Market in the Distillery District.


Getting there by Public Transit: Subway to Sherbourne then 75 Sherbourne bus (southbound)

Further Reading: Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto by Shawn Micallef and Marlena Zuber

Next: The Distillery District and the Toronto Christmas Market