Exploring the underbelly of Toronto along the Betty Sutherland Trail

Our experience of the city is often by going over things. We take bridges over rivers. We travel on roads that go over other roads. We ride on subway cars that coast over ravines. This is great if you want to get around quickly, but so much of our city happens in the spaces underneath these things that we end up missing out.

Toronto’s ravines are the obvious casualty of “going over things” because ravines are often the things that we are going over. While these natural areas thread their way through so much of our city, tying different neighbourhoods together and linking parks and schools and tower communities, we often don’t realize they’re there because the city is designed to cross over top of them.

By dipping down into valleys, ravines, and underpasses you get a whole new perspective. It feels kind of like travelling the back alleys of the city. Down here the city is quieter, darker, and damper. Infrastructure soars overhead and paints a post-apocalyptic picture. It’s easy to imagine the world has ended and you’re all that’s left, walking through a ruined landscape that nature has begun to retake.

For this walk, with my friend Eleni in tow, I chose the Don River Trail which leads into the Betty Sutherland Trail, tying three wards together across two very busy roadways and the busiest roadway of them all–the 401 highway.

As ravine walks often do, this one started by finding a narrow pathway sandwiched between two large houses in a subdivision.

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Follow the trail a little bit and go down some stairs and you’re transported out of this suburban-style neighbourhood with its cut-and-paste house styles and looping roads, and into a lush, quiet green oasis.

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The first thing we went under was a narrow rail trestle that spanned the ravine. A battered chain-link cage was constructed over the pathway to save us from any falling debris. It was all very Lost-esque.

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The path wound around before spitting us out at the busy corner of Sheppard and Leslie where we had to cross two large, roads–each highways in their own right–to get to the Betty Sutherland Trail connection on the other side.

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This trail swoops south, bending around the North York General Hospital and following the lazy East Don River underneath the 401 highway. I never really thought about the 401 as having an underside, but yet here we were.

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Sitting under a highway is a strange thing. Each car sounds like a bomb going off very, very far away, but it’s quieter than you might think. In a weird way it reminded me of sitting in a big church with a soaring ceiling and many columns. Terrible graffiti–the kind that teenagers write (“Fred is a loser”)–was scrawled over the supporting pillars. If the world was coming to an end, this would be a good place to make camp. Roast some rats over oil drum fires and talk about the good ol’ days when we had electricity, that sort of Cormac McCarthy-style thing.

We finally left the shadow of the highway and stepped out into bright green nature on the other side. The trail kept unfurling, a pathway lined with yellow flowers and high grass. The highway hummed behind us, hidden up above.

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This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)

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Hunting butterflies in Rosetta McClain Gardens

Rosetta McClain Gardens, a park that hugs the waterfront in Scarborough just west of the Bluffs, looks like the perfect place to have a picnic. It has beautifully arranged and well-maintained flower beds, lush green lawns that roll out in every direction like carpet, large trees that provide shade, and criss-crossing pathways to let you meander.

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All in all a great spot to whip out the ol’ park blanket, uncork a bottle of wine, and unwrap a few sandwic–oh, what’s that? No picnics allowed? In a park that was basically designed with maximum appeal to picnics?

Yeah, well, this is a garden park so no picnics. So says the City sign posted. And so says the (very polite and friendly) park maintenance staffer who had to go over and tell an older(ish) couple having a picnic that, really, sorry, so so sorry, they weren’t really supposed to be doing that.

So fine, no picnics. I think that’s silly, but I’m not going to let that cloud my view of this park. Because Rosetta McClain Gardens is really a wonderful, incredible gem of a place that I’m not sure too many people in this city know about.

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I biked there from my apartment in the Annex, which took about an hour. It was hot and sweaty and mostly uphill. Finally, after what seemed like forever biking, I pulled over to check my phone to see just how much farther this stupid park was anyway, which is when I realized that I had pulled over right next to the park sign: Rosetta McClain Gardens. I was here.

This park is also very accessible, with raised-bed gardens and Braille on the beautiful metal park maps that tell you what each part of the garden is (there’s a scent garden!).

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This was one of the most well-maintained parks I have ever been to in Toronto. The grass was so neat and fresh that I wanted to roll it up and put it inside my apartment. The flowerbeds were so colourful they looked like cartoons. Even the bees seemed friendlier.

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In the centre of the park was a wonderful circular plaza-style space with curved flowerbeds all revolving around a stone fountain that gurgled continuously. As you can imagine, the place smelled fantastic, rich and perfumey but not in an overwhelming way.

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And that’s when I saw the monarch butterfly. It floated past as delicate as something made of soap bubbles. And then another one came by. And then another. I waited, crouched, with a few other people trying to take photos of the papery little beasts as they flitted from flower to flower. I even got a slow-motion video on my iPhone, of which I’m quite proud. You don’t realize how strong a butterfly’s wings are until you see them flapping in slow-motion like tiny sails.

Even though I had to let my park blanket stay rolled up inside my backpack, I still enjoyed sitting under a vine-covered trellis watching the butterflies. This park is pretty special.

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This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)

Prescription strength nature

I love this video that parodies drug ads using nature. It’s kind of silly, but a lot of what is said in the video is actually backed up by research that shows nature is good for your mental health (research showing nature’s effect in quelling murderous rage is harder to find.)

Studies have shown that even getting outside for a little bit during the workday can help you clear your mind and de-stress. In some places, doctors have actually begun prescribing nature to patients rather than drugs. In that sense, our investment in parks and trees should be seen from a public health perspective as well as from a recreation, social, and ecological perspective. In fact, in the US money for park improvements does sometimes come from the health sector, like this potential greenway in Minneapolis.

Charles Montgomery writes a lot about the happiness-inducing effects of nature in the city in his book Happy City, which is well worth a read. And you should read it while sitting outside in a park.