Sunday, April 29, 2012

April 29, 2012: Gates Gully (Bellamy Ravine)

Ten thousand year old archaeological artifacts, a passageway for smugglers, a secret stash of British treasure, a sunken ship, and a sanctuary for artists. Gates Gully (Bellamy Ravine) is a unique and magnificent part of both Toronto's urban wilderness and local history, a place full of legends, legacy and beauty. What more could any four year old (or her dad) want in an afternoon's adventure?

We started our hike at the northern end of the Doris McCarthy trail, at the access point on Ravine Dr. just south of the intersection of Bellamy & Kingston. Back in the early 19th century, that intersection was home to a very popular inn and tavern built by Jonathan Gates, who had settled in the area in 1815. The tavern's big claim to fame is that on the night of December 5th, 1837, it served as a rallying point for the first township militia that arrived to defend Toronto against the erupting threat of William Lyon Mackenzie and his rebels. These men, under the command of Col. A. MacLean, marched on to join the forces of Col. Allan MacNab and were amongst the artillery fire in the Battle of Montgomery's Tavern (effectively the start of the Upper Canada Rebellion) on December 7, 1837. In 1993, the nearby ravine was christened Gates Gully in honour of Gates and his tavern, although most locals still refer to it only as the Bellamy Ravine.

While Abbey was at least mildly entertained by the tidbits of history I shared with her at the start of the trail, it was the swarms of Red Admiral butterflies we soon discovered that proved, not surprisingly, to have far greater amusement value. It was the anticipation of such that had actually prompted me to chose Gates Gully for today's hike. Local naturalist, Walter Fisher, had posted some shots of this species that he'd taken in nearby Bluffer's Park only a week earlier, and had mentioned a "massive movement in to the southern Ontario region." I highly recommend checking out Fisher's Picasa Web galleries, not only to enjoy the beautiful photography, but also as an excellent way to stay informed on the comings and goings of Toronto's vibrant but often unseen wildlife.

The Doris McCarthy trail winds its way through the heart of nearly 24 hectares of ravine land, dropping about 90 meters in elevation over its one kilometer length, which leads from the plateau atop the Scarborough Bluffs down to the shores of Lake Ontario. As one of the few places along the Bluffs that affords convenient access between the lake and the flats above, the current trail is merely the latest incarnation of such to have developed over the millennia. In fact, this ravine currently presides as the earliest known site of human occupation in the entire Greater Toronto Area. Relics unearthed here by Ashley and Harold McCowan have been reliably dated from the Early Archaic period (ca 8000 BC) and both are now part of the Robert Ashbridge McCowan and William Harold McCowan Collection of Aboriginal Artifacts. Nearby McCowan Road was named after this family by Scarborough Council in 1956 to commemorate their connection with the area, which began back in 1833.

When European settlers began to occupy these lands at the end of the 18th century, Gates Gully continued to serve as a major access route down to the waters of Lake Ontario. Naturally, however, this meant it also served as a notable route up from the lake as well, a fact exploited time and time again by the various soldiers and merchants who plied the waters of Lake Ontario. This is where the smugglers I mentioned at the start of this post enter the picture. Gates Gully offered a great lookout from atop the Bluffs, a convenient beach for boat landings, and a gentle enough incline to make it possible to wheel up cargo by wagon - sort of a Smuggler's Trifecta. During the late 1830's, the ravine experienced a bit of a heyday in this regard as folks looked to avoid the dreaded import tax of "1 and 3" (1 pound, 3 pence), and used it almost nightly to bring in an assortment of merchandise including tea, tobacco and leather.

Abbey thought that smugglers sounded a lot like pirates, so the Doris McCarthy trail was graced with a volume of "Arrrrggggh, matey!" as we started our way down towards the lake. The trail shadows Bellamy Ravine Creek, a combination of engineered drainage channel and natural waterway that runs along the bottom of the ravine. The steep surrounding slopes play host to a primarily deciduous forest, and native species like white and yellow birch, American beech, white oak and sugar maple can be spotted with ease. The eastern slopes are reputed to be more aggressively disturbed than their western counterparts, the understory teaming with the usual cast of invasives found in Toronto. But the ravine is also home to a variety of regionally rare plant species, most notably Blue Cohosh, Downy Rye Grass, Thin-leaved Sunflower, Russet Buffaloberry and Hitchcock's Sedge.

Wandering along the trail we soon encountered a fellow traveler who threw us a "shhhhhh" signal the moment we came in to view. Close enough to talk in low tones, this gentleman told us that he'd just spotted a white-tailed deer down the trail near to where some unearthed storm sewer materials had been left to rust away. Abbey and I walked along as quietly as we could, peering into the bush in hopes of catching a glimpse of this rare sight. Sadly, by the time we got down to the area in question the deer was nowhere to be seen. A sighting like this, while rare, is not a completely unique occurrence in Gates Gully - deer, beaver, foxes and, yes, coyotes are each reported several times a season.

Surprisingly little can distract a four year old on a quest for an elusive deer - except maybe buried treasure. During a meeting of the York Pioneers Historical Society in November, 1931, Levi E. Annis (once Assistant Commissioner for the Dominion in Great Britain) told a story passed down through the last couple of generations of his family. As the Americans burned and looted our city during the Battle of York (April, 1813), British soldiers staying with the Annis family made their way to Gates Gully and buried all of the money they had on hand. No one knows just how much this was, exactly, but clearly enough to be worth the effort of burying. Apparently, Annis claims, the treasure was never recovered by the soldiers, nor by any treasure hunter (himself included) who went in search of it. The Annis' family were amongst the first non-native Canadians to live in the Bluffs area and were pivotal in blazing a trail at the dawn of the 19th century that would eventually form the foundation of Kingston Road. Their reputation was known far and wide, so much so that Rebel leader William Lyon Mackenzie was said to have hidden out at their homestead while evading Government forces in the year 1837. Being at the center of so much history in the area, I don't find it hard to believe there is at least some truth to the buried treasure myth, but what the truth exactly is I doubt we'll ever know.

Naturally, the version of the story I told Abbey was pretty simplified (and included a lot more sound effects), but it did the trick in keeping us moving down the trail far enough for the waters of Lake Ontario to come in to view. Some 13,000 years ago, this spot would have been well below the surface of Glacial Lake Iroquois, the Ice Age lake that helped to shape the nearby Scarborough Bluffs. Today it served as a scenic overlook of its smaller descendent which stretched out before us until it blended in with the distant horizon. We took the rest of the trail with a bit more speed, eager to get down to the shoreline and see what awaited us there.

The first thing we discovered at the bottom was a very large chain link fence severing the trail and preventing any immediate access to the water's edge. The TRCA began their Meadowcliffe Drive Project late last year, a significant and overdue effort to help stabilize the shoreline in this area and defend against the accelerating erosion of our Bluffs. Erosion control efforts in this area were mounted as early as 1986, yet despite this, this area has remained what the TRCA calls one of the "last unprotected sectors of the Scarborough bluffs in the city of Toronto." The fence, however, is doing very little to keep recreational users from exploring the area. Mere seconds after arriving at the end of the trail some cyclists emerged from the bushes to the east and provided us with quick proof of a way around this barrier.

The shoreline here is very reminiscent of Tommy Thompson Park, with construction rubble and beach cobble being used to craft a variety of headlands and breakwaters. It's certainly not aiming to be a destination for volleyball or sun tanning, but there is no doubt it will do an outstanding job at helping to preserve what is, in fact, one of the geological marvels of North America. Of the Bluffs, noted geologist A.P. Coleman is believed to have once said "the history of the last million years has been more completely recorded in the deposits in [the Bluffs] than anywhere else in Canada or perhaps the world." Coming from a man who helped redefine Ice Age climatology (see Moore Park Ravine) this is high praise indeed.

After bypassing the fence, we headed immediately over to "Passage," a large and impressive sculpture by Marlene Hilton Moore that rests here on the shores of Lake Ontario. Installed in 2002, the sculpture is meant to honour both Doris McCarthy and the Scarborough Bluffs themselves. According to the artist "The form of this corten-steel sculpture is based upon the rib cage of the fish and the ribs of the canoe. Passage links together the idea of a significant passage through life, the passage of the fish through the water that shapes this site, and the silent passage of the canoe, symbol of the exploration of our land. The interior base, upon which the dates are placed, simulates an architectural scale ruler whose stylized end resembles the trillium, provincial flower of Ontario." According to Abbey it "looks like dinosaur bones." Eye of the beholder, as they say.

By now, you're likely wondering about the connection between renowned Canadian artist Doris McCarthy and Gates Gully. The answer lies a top the Bluffs on the western side of the ravine. This property, once owned by James McCowan, was purchased by McCarthy in 1939 when she was 29 years old. Her mother considered the purchase extravagant and referred to it as "that fool's paradise of yours." By the winter of 1940, with the help of architect Forest Telfer, McCarthy had built herself a small home on the lot, a place she dubbed "Fool's Paradise." She spent her remaining years living here, occasionally opening it up as a refuge and retreat to the likes of singer/songwriter Lorraine Segato. Seven acres of the property was donated to the Ontario Heritage Foundation in 1998, and in response the trail through Gates Gully was christened the Doris McCarthy trail in 2001.

We wandered across the cobble beach for the better part of an hour, exploring the various headlands and breakwaters, tossing stones in to the lake, and even checking out some of the huge construction equipment littered across the area. When I sensed Abbey was starting to tire we ambled west along the shore a bit, driven by a fruitless (but fun) search for the wreck of the steamship Alexandria. On the afternoon of August 3, 1915, a wooden steamship en route from Montreal to Toronto ran aground about 150 meters offshore just west of Gates Gully. All hands aboard were saved, thanks to a human chain formed by members of the local community. Thanks to the hands of those same people, by the morning much of the ship's 300 tonne cargo of food, clothing and household items had also found itself "rescued." No formal effort was ever mounted to remove the wreck from the lake, although a shortage of scrap metal during WWI was incentive enough for some folks to effort salvage missions of their own. Today, I've been told, the boiler and remaining superstructure can still be found out there. I held no illusions we were likely to spot it from shore, but the fun is in the search, not the finding.

Ten minutes or so later we started our climb back up the Doris McCarthy trail. Abbey charged us with a renewed quest to find that elusive white-tail deer, which kept us pretty busy along the way. No deer was spotted, but we were rewarded by the antics of some Eastern Chipmunks, glimpses of a hawk soaring back and forth over the ravine, and a visit by a very chatty Red-winged Blackbird. Like many of the natural areas along the Toronto shoreline, Gates Gully is a significant stopover for migratory birds and serves as valuable hunting and nesting grounds for our own domestic populations. Over 100 different species have been spotted and identified in and around Gates Gully including a variety of grebes, warblers, herons, ducks, kinglets, mergansers, hawks, swallows, gulls, woodpeckers and terns. The chorus of chirps and songs we heard along the way certainly testifies to this diversity but, hawk and blackbird aside, they all seemed most content to remain out of view.

Traditionally, I would wrap up this post once we had exited the trail. However, after we arrived home I learned something of personal interest during one of my far too infrequent phone calls with my own father (as a reader of this blog, I imagine him nodding in agreement right now. Hi Dad.) Apparently an original Doris McCarthy painting, "Daisy time in Barachois" (1945) hangs in my father's house, having been purchased by my step-mother at an auction in 1992. An encounter with McCarthy at a book signing a year later led to an exchange of letters in which McCarthy remarked "That painting was exhibited at Simpson's in 1946 - and at Windsor in 1953 - finally sold in 1970 for $40.00 - Comic, isn't it?" I suppose I'll never see that painting again without thinking about Gates Gully, nor the ravine without thinking about McCarthy's art. And, perhaps, that's just as it should be.

Total Distance: Approx. 2.42km
Trail Map: Google Earth | Google Maps
Start Coordinates: +43°43'50.97" N -79°13'26.82" W
End Coordinates: +43°43'50.97" N -79°13'26.82" W (back to the start)

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