a coyote looks my way and stops suddenly. He becomes hard to discern, grey-beige fur against the beige-grey sand that surrounds the Leslie Street Spit. I fix the coyote in my memory against a clump of birch shoots before turning to look over my shoulder at the city skyline. Tall lit spires reach higher into the sky than any tree, and strings of car headlights, like so many beads on a thread, course along the Lakeshore and Gardiner. It’s a contrast that still amazes me after 10 years of canoeing the lake and rivers around Toronto – the sheer joy of gliding under bridges while GO Train commuters thunder by, or floating quietly downriver as deer browse and nibble on twigs along a grassy plain mere feet from where traffic is stalled on the Parkway.
But Toronto’s ancient First Nations commuter routes – the Don, the Humber, the Rouge, the Lake Ontario shoreline – are not the proud waterways they once were. Human civilization has tampered with their natural flow, and paddling is not for the faint of heart or minor of muscle. Paddle at your own risk, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority is fond of saying. No number of watertight flashlights and bailing buckets can make up for the difficulties of inner-city navigation.
Human-made “waterfall” constructions, put in place to control the rate of flow from the headlands down to the lake, have changed the course of rivers. They rush madly where once they flowed lazily, a reason water levels are kept very low.
As a consequence, paddlers now find exposed banks and storm drains, a sad collection of shopping carts, bicycle carcasses, flotsam and other detritus clogging the inlets and marshes, making it harder for every form of life to survive – let alone flourish. On the Don, it’s only perfect canoeing once a year, when the sluices are open for the Paddle The Don celebration.
The challenges involved in paddling the treacherous Western Gap, along the lakeshore, are many. Swells of water bounce off the man-made concrete shorelines and lift a canoe unexpectedly skyward. Wind direction must be gauged when setting out so the air currents are at our back when returning, tired, at the end of the day. We’ve capsized more than once because of swells and unexpected surges, even just twenty feet from the shore.
Then there’s the Eastern Gap,which is the place where huge tankers enter the inner harbour. These ships create enough water gushes to easily swamp a canoe.
I’ve learned the hard way that manoeuvring under such a variety of circumstances is no walk in the park. In the last few years, the lake has receded so significantly that at Clarke (Cherry) Beach, where we launch our leaky fibreglass canoe t0 paddle over to the Leslie Street Spit, the beach has at least doubled in width. We have felt personally how much the city needed this year’s rains.
This is evident in the ride through the Eastern Gap and across the inner harbour (aside from the deep route regularly dredged out for ships), too. With the water so much lower – and therefore that much warmer – the weeds are harder to paddle through.
The reclaimed land of the Spit, otherwise known as Tommy Thompson Park, has extra sand beaching its perimeter, which puts the dens of the muskrats, beavers and other water creatures dangerously far up onto land.
Some of the peripheral nesting areas for water birds, like herons, have totally dried up. A hidden inlet into which we used to canoe has become nothing but a mucky flat full of water plants.
Even if the junk humankind carelessly tosses away wasn’t present, the state of the riverbanks needs attention. Under natural circumstances, cold water from the Oak Ridges Moraine and Vaughan would feed the rivers from below. But asphalt paving and concrete eliminate regular drainage through the land, so the runoff water is warmed. This challenges the cold-water fish like our native trout and salmon.
Another coyote – smaller and darker, also stands stock still, staring. I howl, long and loud, glad we’re the only boat on the water near the Spit. I howl again. This time the larger one, the male, I guess, howls back. But as soon as we dip our paddles into the pink-and-gold sunrise reflections on the water, they turn their bushy tails and disappear into the cobwebs between the poplars and scrub. This is the land of guano from nesting seagulls and cormorants, rabbits running wild and coyotes and foxes feasting.
Once, my partner and I watched a crow dive to catch a snake – longer than its own wingspan – then fly off out of sight with this writhing reptile clutched in its claws.
Along an inner channel in the Toronto Islands, we found shells from turtle eggs dug up and turned into a meal for a red fox.
We’ve been splashed by absolutely enormous fish sunning beneath lily pads in the Trout Pond, so close and so powerful I feared they might upset our canoe. And we’ve observed deer in meadows along the Don not far north of the Danforth.
Seeing this bountiful nature first-hand is both frightening and encouraging: encouraging because we’re learning to incorporate wild life into city life, frightening because we’ve only got it only partially right.