Sunday, August 7, 2011

August 7, 2011: Rosedale Ravine (Vale of Avoca to Craigleigh Gardens Park)

The Rosedale Ravine stretches from Mt. Pleasant Cemetery south-east down to the Don Valley just north of the intersection of Bayview Ave and Rosedale Valley Road. We began our hike by entering the ravine via the steep wooden staircase off of Heath Street, just north-east of St. Clair subway station. One of Abbey's BFFs, Maddie, and her dad, Philip, joined us on today's hike and this entrance is within walking distance of their place.

There is another entrance to the ravine located in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery itself. If you've never been to this cemetery, I can't recommend it enough! Mt. Pleasant supports one of the finest tree collections in all of North America. Hundreds and hundreds of different tree species are represented on the grounds, including many lone examples that have been designated Heritage Trees because of their exemplary condition and age. As the four of us have spent considerable time in Mt. Pleasant over the years, we skipped the cemetery today in favour of a quick descent into the ravine.

Regardless of which entrance you use, you arrive at the same place: the northern tip of a section of the Rosedale Ravine known as the Vale of Avoca, and the exact spot where the long-buried Yellow Creek emerges from its tunnel-vault beneath the cemetery. Yellow Creek (sometimes called Sylvan Creek) has its headwaters up in Downsview, and is a historic tributary of the Don River. Like many of its brethren, it was buried as a part of storm sewer construction throughout the city roughly a century ago, and the Vale of Avoca is currently the only place where Yellow Creek still runs exposed to open air.

Toronto was right in the midst of a moderate downpour when we arrived, and the creek was literally exploding forth from the outflow of the Belt Line Sewer. As you might guess, this much force has an amplifying effect of the erosive forces the creek has on the ravine. As a result, much of the current creek bed has been lined with armourstone and/or gabion baskets in an effort to minimize the damage and stabilize the banks. Furthermore, various sections of the trail have been graced with wooden boardwalks and stairs to further reduce erosion and make hiking the trail a bit easier.

Following the trail along, you'll quite quickly approach the St. Clair Viaduct, a massive triple arch bridge, covered in graffiti, which carries St. Clair Avenue over the ravine, connecting the communities of Deer Park and Moore Park. There is an amusing bit of Toronto folklore worth repeating here regarding how St. Clair Avenue came upon its name. Back in the mid-to-late 19th century, St. Clair was merely called the 3rd Concession Road, and passed through farmlands used by the Grainger family, roughly around Avenue Rd. After watching a stage production of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a young Albert Grainger decided to adopt "St. Clare" as his middle name, in tribute to the character Augustine St. Clare. Alas, the theatre program incorrectly listed the character as Augustine St. Clair, so this was the spelling that Albert used. To amuse himself, one day Albert erected a makeshift street sign on the 3rd Concession Road near Yonge street which read "St. Clair Avenue." The name was quickly adopted by the community and eventually made its way in to late 19th century maps of the County of York. This story had some appeal to Abbey, who seemed to think it was pretty cool that a kid was responsible for naming such an important street in her city.

The viaduct was erected in 1924, as a replacement for an older iron bridge which had been erected in 1890 by John Thomas Moore (of Moore Park Ravine fame) to open access to his fledgling sub-division. The original bridge started in the east at almost the exact same spot the viaduct currently does, but crossed the Vale of Avoca at roughly a 45 degree angle, ending near the current intersection of Pleasant Blvd. and Avoca Ave. After the bridge was demolished, some of its iron work was integrated into the permanent fencing that presently separates the ravine's western slope from Avoca Ave. An abutment of this bridge still exists today, and can be visited if you're willing to scramble down the eastern ravine slope a bit from the small parkette on the corner of Inglewood Drive & St. Clair, on the eastern side of the viaduct.

Continuing along our trail on the western side of Yellow Creek, the area surrounding the St. Clair Viaduct exhibits an amazing mix of both native and foreign trees. Crack Willow and Horse Chestnut stand against a backdrop of Black Cherry and Basswood Ash. Stands of Hemlock, White Pine and Red Oak can be seen flanked by Black Locust and Norway Maple. For the most part, particularly surrounding the creek itself, the understory is often quite lush, populated by a variety of ferns, shrubs and creeping plants. That said, the impact of sheet erosion on the western slope becomes increasingly more severe the further south you walk, and can be observed to have essentially wiped some areas clear of understory altogether. Restoration efforts have been attempted throughout the area, but to various degrees of success.

Roughly half a kilometer along the trail from the viaduct, you'll find a bridge that crosses over Yellow Creek. While we opted to cross the creek on our hike, you can continue along the western side of the creek to access Rosehill Reservoir, which sits atop the ravine slope. Constructed in 1873-1874, Rosehill was Toronto's first major water reservoir, able to store close to 125 million litres of drinking water for the city. Originally, it was built open to the air, almost like an artificial lake, and was easily accessible from the surrounding community. In the midst of WWII, out of fear the site might become a strategic target, it was fortified through various means, including the erection of barbed wire fences. In 1966, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the reservoir was expanded to handle over 200 million litres of water, and at the same time was roofed over in order to protect the water supply from radioactive fallout in the event the Cold War turned hot. The following year, in celebration of the Canada's Centennial, a small park featuring a series of small ponds and artistic fountains was completed on top of the new roof, giving the site much of the appearance it enjoys today. It's an interesting place to visit, but given the weather, and the distance we intended to cover, we opted to save it for another day.

On the eastern side of the creek, a flat, paved trail quickly emerges which, aside from the occasional humongous puddle, was far easier for the kids to manage. The path soon crosses under a CPR railway bridge which spans the ravine along what was, some twelve or thirteen millennia ago, the shoreline of Glacial Lake Iroquois. Having spent more than enough time babbling about Lake Iroquois this summer, I opted to stay quiet this time around. Instead, we paused for a minute or two while Abbey deked in and out of trickles of water falling in concentration from the bridge above. Might have actually been the highlight of today's hike for her!

Roughly 200 meters from the CPR railway bridge, Yellow Creek enters the subterranean once again, this time for good. The inlet is very visible as you approach it, and obviously a popular place to visit, as evidenced from the worn ground leading to the site. What is far less obvious, but far more interesting, is what lurks beneath your feet: a section of storm sewer that the fine folks at The Vanishing Point call the 21 Golden Steps. Personally, I find the explorations of urban spelunkers like those at The Vanishing Point and infiltration to be endlessly fascinating. Reading about the various tunnels and nooks that run beneath our ravines adds an entirely different dimension to one's appreciation of the natural spaces above, and I highly recommend spending some time benefiting from the dangerous labours these folks have performed.

Just past the Yellow Creek inlet is the grassy recreational area of David A. Balfour Park. Technically speaking, the City has bequeathed the moniker David A. Balfour Park to much of the Vale of Avoca, but in my experience when the average person uses the name they are referring to the small parkette that stretches from here over to Mt. Pleasant Road. We had planned to have a bit of a picnic here, hoping to split up the day's hike with a bit of rest and refueling. The park, however, has absolutely no benches, and thanks to the weather sitting on the grass was a terrible idea, so we had to resort to perching the kids on a lonely rock found under some trees in the middle of the grounds. Despite the awkwardness of the seating arrangement, the kids seemed to enjoy their break, and many sandwiches and snacks were devoured!

It has always struck me as odd that Balfour would be honoured with a namesake park. To his credit, he did much to advocate a variety of city improvements, including the creation of Nathan Phillips Square and the adoption of several significant traffic-related advances like one-way streets and parking meters. In counterpoint, however, he was also an ardent anti-communist, and a firm detractor of the Canadian labour movement. Moreso, he petitioned quite passionately for federal bans of a great number of books we now consider classics (some of which are now included in the City of Toronto's current curriculum) including Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wraith and Boccaccio's 14th century opus The Decameron. I suspect the catalyst for this honour rests with the surrounding neightbourhood's firm connection with early Toronto's Catholic community (as is evidenced by the hidden St. Michael's Cemetery, Toronto's oldest Catholic cemetery). Balfour was a staunch Roman Catholic and served on the Separate School Board for 15 years. Yet this would make the choice of park even stranger, as this ravine has a long-standing reputation as possibly the most well-known crusing spot in Toronto's gay community.

After lunch, Philip & Maddie departed, taking the impromptu trail that skirts the crash barrier on Mt. Pleasant, one block south to Roxborough St. E. Roxborough leads all the way to Yonge St. and from there is but a stone's throw from Rosedale Station. This is a good route for those interested in exploring only the Vale of Avoca section of Rosedale Ravine. Abbey and I, however, were bound for the next leg of Rosedale Ravine: Park Drive Reservation. To get there, however, we first had to cross Mt. Pleasant Road. In a baffling moment of urban planning, the City somehow decided that this trail, which is also one of the City's Discovery Walks, should offer no cross walk or traffic light to help hikers get from one side of the road to the other. With no safer opportunity to cross the street visible from here, hikers are given little alternative but to jaywalk. Be forewarned, the average driver on Mt. Pleasant views the posted speed limit as a polite suggestion at best. Traffic on this roadway typically moves at highway speeds, and traffic is not light. Patience is required to find a safe lull in which to cross.

Once on the eastern side of Mt. Pleasant, a small parkette provides entrance to the Park Drive Reservation, or the Second Rosedale Ravine as some call it. A wide gravel path located on the western edge of the parkette is actually what remains of a road that once provided access to the Don Valley from here. With the completion of the Bayview Extension in 1959, and the construction of the Don Valley Parkway between 1961 and 1966, use of this roadway diminished, and it was eventually closed in April of 1973.

Very quickly after entering Park Drive Reservation we encountered a small meadow on the north side of the path. This is actually a renaturalized area, planted at the turn of the millennium specifically to serve as butterfly habitat. Thanks to the rain there were no butterflies to see, but it's still a very pretty parcel of land, blossoming with countless native wildflowers, grasses and sedges, and set before a backdrop of sumac and willow.

A bit further along, on the right hand side of the path, you will see another large sewer outflow from behind a series of fences and rails. The waters that emerge are not those of Yellow Creek, but rather those of the Spadina Storm Trunk Sewer. In essence, the waters that emerge here are what remains of Castle Frank Brook, a variety of its tributaries, and urban runoff from roads and sidewalks throughout Toronto. The path follows this channelized water for the remainder of its topside life.

Castle Frank Brook disappears back underground just a few hundred meters past the Glen Road bridge. Just past the inlet is a small nexus of trails heading off in various directions. If you were to continue straight through this intersection, the trail would soon shadow the Bayview Extension over to the Evergreen Brick Works, before winding its way back up through Moore Park Ravine. We opted to turn right instead, following the wide gravel path that leads south-west out of the ravine. This is Milkman's Lane, which was built in the in the later half of the 19th century, and is said to have picked up its moniker by serving as a popular route for dairy workers transporting product from the farms of the Don Valley. The road officially closed in 1958, which no doubt help preserved the excellent and diverse forest lining the road. Milkman's Lane will be subject to extensive construction efforts during October and November of this year, which likely will limit access to it.

When you reach the top of Milkman's Lane, turn left and you'll find the gates to Craigleigh Gardens Park, once the residential grounds of Sir Edmund Osler. This, however, I decided to save for another day. There is a bus stop to the immediate right of Milkman's Lane, but as the weather was actually starting to greatly improve, we instead walked over to nearby Sherbourne Station and headed off home.

Total Distance: Approx. 2.87km
Trail Map: Google Earth | Google Maps
Start Coordinates: +43°41'26.53" N -79°23'29.31" W
End Coordinates: +43°40'39.23" N -79°22'28.07" W

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