Cedarvale Ravine was the first park where I walked my dog Zsa Zsa off-leash. It was nerve-racking at first because she was so fast, a black streak and toothy flash through the bare trees in winter, up and down the sides of the ravine. A shepherd-husky cross, at least she was easy to see against the snow. I loved Cedarvale from then on.
I always set out near the subway exit on Heath Street and entered the descending tree-lined pathway. Zsa Zsa always shot out on either side, picking up instantly on scents and sounds. As she got a little older and mellower, she'd return sooner to the path and trot ahead of me, shoulder-checking now and then to make sure I hadn't been abducted.
At the bottom of the hill, a wooden footbridge spanning the creek that in winter bubbles, audible but unseen, provided many ear-cocked moments of inquiry.
In spring, the ice would be pawed and pierced and sometimes shattered with a running plunge. Thus refreshed, my dog would rocket off, icy drops flying, recharged by the shock of cold like a shot of booster fuel.
The walls of the ravine sweep up closely on the left and farther away on the right. Where the creek widens, temptation was intensified by the presence of ducks - dog-savvy ones. The path stretches ahead, cutting a swath through tall reeds.
Another footbridge crosses a permanent marshy puddle, a real stink-hole in summer, and this was where I sometimes gave in. It was so gratifying to see how gratified she was immersing herself in all those reeking lifeforms.
Then she'd tear through the reeds, mysterious and fleshy in summer, papery and ghosty-sounding in fall. The path bends to the right, and I'd meet her emerging from those reeds, the odd burr clumping to her side or tail.
To the left, at the elbow of the path, she invariably scaled a pile of rocks, pausing, head high, ears erect, as though in atavistic tribute to Rin Tin Tin, then scampering down and around toward where the concrete legs of the first big bridge straddle the path.
I soon realized that it's Bathurst Street up there, but somehow that banal fact never quite computed, and the colossus striding the ravine took on a mythic uncharted character. Straight sailing from here to the next bridge, and by now the first yas-yas were out.
Zsa Zsa would occasionally take strongly to another dog, one who could match or even best her in the kind of aggressive play and heart-bursting prey-predator pursuit she enjoyed. She had a strange reverence for greyhounds, always stopping as though arrested at the sight of them and whimpering inscrutably.
Past the second bridge, a field opens up to the left and the ravine ascends in a gracious invitation to toboggan and sliding carpets. Here I always had to restrain my dog. Kids and parents couldn't be expected to understand the raw joy of the prey-predator pursuit game. (I used to slide with her barking and biting at my elbows all the way down, and found it crazily exhilarating, but, then, I knew and loved - and trusted - every one of those shiny white teeth.)
This is where we'd turn around and start the walk back, she trotting fairly close to me now, pleasantly tired, back up to Heath, where I'd hold the leash up for her to see and she would come. We'd cross to the car and I'd do my best to dry the mud off her paws and belly with a rotting towel. I liked the wet dog smell that permeated my car. I liked her head, shoulder-high and jutting forward between the front seats, her front paws planted on the fraying leather skin around the emergency brake.
Sometimes she'd rest her chin on my shoulder and I'd feel her breath, the lovely proximity of her soft chewy dog-lips and, most gemutlich of all, those teeth, Granny.
It was a 40-minute walk, I could tell by the parking meter.
Thanks, Zsa Zsa (November 1995-July 2004).