A little slice of West Coast in Toronto on Rouge Beach

I don’t ride on the GO train often, so when I do I get that warm, fuzzy going-on-a-trip feeling. Even if it’s just for 30 minutes. Even if when I get off I’m still inside the City of Toronto (man, Toronto is really, really big.)

Recently I took the GO train along the Lakeshore East line to Rouge Beach on the farthest, most eastern edge of Toronto. It was one of those super-mild December days we’ve been having. I wore fingerless gloves and brought a big salad in a Tupperware container so I could eat it on the beach.

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Okay, so it was a little too cold to really enjoy my salad on the beach (stew would have been better), but Rouge Beach’s beauty made up for my slightly numb fingers. Once you get off the train, it’s a short 15 – 20 minute walk along a beautiful lakeside pathway to Rouge Beach. Along the way are several rocky outcroppings that act as small breakwaters. It was here that I found a log to perch on while I ate my lunch.

The rocky beach here is also full of old bricks that have been worn smooth and soapy-looking from the lake. I’ve seen bricks at Tommy Thompson Park before out on the Leslie Street Spit, but these bricks seemed much more lake-worn. There was not a sharp edge in sight.

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Farther on is the actual beach, which is definitely a place I’m going to come back to in the summer. I hear the water isn’t as clean as some of the other beaches we have in Toronto, but it’s a beautiful spot that made my West Coast heart soar.

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Since moving to Toronto just over 5 years ago, I’ve missed being by the water. This is a weird thing to say for someone living in a city by a lake, but I still find it difficult to get to the lake and find a place that feels as serene as some of the beaches in Vancouver. Rouge Beach definitely hit the spot.

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This is also where the Rouge River that runs through Rouge Park meets the lake in a wetland area that would be fun to canoe along.

There are a few great, dramatic bridges that cross the river just before it empties into the lake. Like this one that you walk underneath:

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And this pedestrian bridge that takes you over to the Pickering side:

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I briefly stepped over the Toronto/Pickering border, so I guess I can say I’ve been to a park in Pickering as well.

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Rouge Beach was one of my favourite park visits this year. You can take your bike on the GO train, so I think in the summer I’ll be coming back here many times with my bike and exploring some of the waterfront trails that continue east into Pickering.

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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.)

A trip along Toronto’s (sort of) bicycle super highway, Route 22

Every few months, I see an article pop up about another city creating or planning for a “bicycle super highway” where cyclists can zoom along unimpeded in a wide separated path with the same comfort that we provide to drivers. There’s one in Copenhagen that stretches 22km to connect areas outside the city core and then there’s the planned 29km bike super highway in London, England.

Do we have any in Toronto?

I suppose some of the paths through the ravines—like the Lower Don Trail, which stretches from the lakeshore all the way up to roughly Eglinton, is a kind of superhighway–however, these pathways are really billed as recreational trails rather than commuter trails. There is little access into and out of them to surrounding roads.

But then there’s Route 22. I discovered Route 22 while searching on Google Maps for parks to visit in Ward 4. That’s when I saw the little grey squiggle running underneath Eglinton Avenue from Scarlett Road to Highway 427.

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Route 22, I learned, is an entirely separated cycling pathway that runs parallel just south of Eglinton for a total of about 5km. The irony is that the reason there was room to put in Route 22 during this section of Eglinton is that the roadway was widened in anticipation of the Richview Expressway—an expressway that was cancelled in the 1960s.

So we did get an expressway, it’s just one for cyclists. It’s also prettier than a regular expressway.

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Below is an example of what it looks like when Route 22 crosses a major street. There is a red strip that indicates the trail connection across the roadway.

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But the best part about Route 22 is that it actually seems to go somewhere. We have some great trails in Toronto, but they’re often severed, ending at the edge of a park. Lines on a map doesn’t make a cycling network. It’s the connections between those lines that matter.

On Route 22, you can ride west where the trail seamlessly links (see title image) with the West Dean Parklands, which has Mimico Creek running down its centre. From there you can ride another 4km south where the trail ends near Burnhamthorpe and Kipling. On the east side, Route 22 links in with the Humber River trails which take you up to Steeles or south to the Martin Goodman Trail, which you can take both west to Mimico or east to the Beach. This starts to look like–gasp!–a trail network.

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OK, so Route 22 is not going to find itself included on any top ten list of bicycle super highways (or probably even 20), but it’s perhaps one of the closest things we’ve got in Toronto.

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.)

Sorry, you can’t do that in Milliken Park

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I first heard about Milliken Park in Ward 41 not long after I moved to Toronto, but it wasn’t really for the best reason. The park was in the news because the City had moved to ban kite flying. The issue was that the type of kite flying that was happening, something called “kite fighting,” was leaving bits of string coated in glass around the park that was hazardous to people, but also the animals in the park. So, they banned kite flying.

The City reported on how to regulate kite flying in 2011. It seems to ban only kite fighting and the use of dangerous materials in the string of kites (like those coated in glass), but if you go to the park there is still a sign that bans kite flying. Hilariously, the sign uses the picture of a very innocuous child’s kite with little bows tied to its string. Sorry little Sally and Jimmy, but I’m going to have to slap you with a by-law infraction.

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Walk around the park and more “No” signs appear. There was a No Model Airplane Flying sign that I found along the pathway that wraps itself around the park. I’m not exactly sure why. Were people flying their planes directly into the natural regeneration area?

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Then there was the No Picnics sign on a gazebo in a small garden area. Again, not sure why. Maybe this is a memorial garden area and is meant more for quiet reflection?

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Forget all the signs telling you what you can’t do in Milliken Park though, and what you find is a pretty lovely, large park with a natural area and trail surrounding a big open field with huge gazebos. There’s a good sized pond that was still frozen when I went. It would make an awesome outdoor skating rink–if you were allowed. There was also a dock right out onto the water that would be a great spot to sit and have a drink on a hot summer day–if you were allowed. A nearby cafe building was closed, but had a nice patio.

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After exploring Milliken, I crossed over into Markham which borders the park on the north side. I managed to penetrate the walls that were put up around a subdivision and walk down a street that was wide enough to land a commercial airliner on. Google Maps told me there was a park in the middle of this subdivision, so I wanted to check it out.

When I got there, I found a big, sprawling green space and, surprise, a park sign at the entrance with a list of things with red lines through them. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Not allowed. No. Nope. Don’t even think about it.

Is there another way we can do this?

I understand that we need to have rules and that certain things are not allowed in parks because they pose a danger to wildlife, the natural environment of the park, or simply because the park is not designed to accommodate them.

But it would be nice to find another way to portray these things. Perhaps they can be designed in such a way that they don’t resemble the signs at airport security telling you what you can’t bring on the plane. A study related to national parks in the US found that positively worded signs worked better. And if you’re going to ban something, at least explain why so that people understand the context.

In San Francisco, for example, the park signs used examples of good behaviour for most things, showcasing what the appropriate way to use the park was. The sign still has red lines through certain activities, but the overall approach is more welcoming–it even welcomes you to the park. I like this positive approach.

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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.)

Learning to skate again at Morningside Park in Ward 43

It was at around 3pm that I found myself hiding in a park washroom, balancing awkwardly on one foot with the other raised to get my toes as close as I could get to the hand dryer’s blast of warm air. The temperature was somewhere in the -10 range, a day of icy cold sandwiched between two days of even more extreme icy cold. It was also the Morningside Park natural ice rink party put on by Centennial College’s Environmental Students Society (who created and maintain the rink), so here I was attempting to thaw my toes under a hand dryer and get up the courage to put on skates after an eight year hiatus. 

Skating is not my favourite thing. In fact, as a West Coaster, winter isn’t really my favourite thing. I hate wearing layers that have their own layers. My fingers and toes have such poor circulation that they inevitably end up white and rubbery. I don’t enjoy having each word I utter freeze as soon as it leaves my mouth and clatter to the ground.

But I have lived in Toronto for almost five years now (damn all you Vancouver friends posting your pictures of flowers blooming in February and walking around in your cotton zip-up hoodies), and here, in Toronto, winter is a thing and skating is one of those things that make this thing a tolerably thing for many, even an enjoyable thing.

So: a natural ice rink party on Valentine’s Day. Why not.

Morningside Park is a huge park. I was told there were deer and coyotes. I was told to come back and go for walks when it was warmer. The ice rink was built in a clearing near the playground and a BBQ structure. Campfires had been set up and people huddled around them, sometimes talking, but more often than not just silently appreciating the warmth.

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The rink itself wasn’t huge, but it was impressively manicured. People with big shovels would zip around every once and awhile, clearing the powdery snow that had been created from so many skates slicing around its surface. I was happy to see that many people seemed to be beginners. Metal folding chairs were clung to as people gingerly moved around the ice. The exception was one older couple zipping around, holding hands, parting only to pass by slower skaters, and a child who propelled himself forward with a crazy never-ending fearless energy.

I decided I would skate a little bit later. First I ate food, which had been prepared and brought by Lick’s and served assembly-line style under the BBQ hut. My burger and its toppings were cold, but then everything was. I sat down at a table to eat and noticed that a bottle of water left out was now mostly ice.

I can’t remember the last time I skated. I think it was in Vancouver on the rink underneath Robson Square. Although I took skating lessons as a child, it wasn’t something I kept up as I grew older, abandoned just like the piano, swimming, soccer, and baseball lessons. In Vancouver, skating is not the activity that it is in Toronto. Outdoor rinks are a rare species there. I can only think of the one at Robson Square.

But here in Toronto they are everywhere. If they are not artificial rinks maintained by the City, they are natural ice rinks created and maintained by community volunteers for the enjoyment of all. It’s a hard job that takes dedication and a set of winter chops that I don’t possess and likely never will. Getting up at midnight to go flood the rink so the kids can skate the next day? No thank you, my bed is warm and the book I’m reading is too good.

But I’m glad these people did. After discovering the heated washroom and defrosting my toes, I felt reinvigorated and marched straight to the table where skates could be borrowed free of charge, picked out a set of size elevens and, with much difficulty, laced them up. I stood, wobbling, my ankles knocking back and forth. I had a short walk down a snowy pathway to the ice rink and almost fell a hundred times, but I finally made it. My friend and coworker Minaz kindly fetched me a metal chair to grip as I stepped onto the ice.

A picture I will probably regret putting on the internet
A picture I will probably regret putting on the internet

I hear it’s just like riding a bike, Minaz said. This would be true if the bike was instead two sharpened blades that you strapped to your feet before stepping out onto a frozen surface. I made my way halfway down the rink, bent over and clutched the metal chair like how I imagine the cave people did when they went skating for the first time. Then, like evolution teaches us, I straightened up, stood tall, and let go of the chair. “Can I take this?” someone immediately asked. I nodded, gulping. My chair was gone.

I pinwheeled my arms once for good measure and set off, chairless, across the ice. One thing I had forgotten about ice skating was how much it burns. What a thigh work out. I made my way around a few times, keeping my eye trained on the older couple whizzing around so I wouldn’t collide with them. They effortlessly parted around me like water around a very wobbly and uncertain stone. I think I made about seven loops. Amazingly, I didn’t fall.

I felt ridiculously proud of myself. All around me were students, kids, and adults, many of them out on the ice for the first time, learning to do this strange activity with a smile on their face. Back in my boots, a man handed me a cup of hot apple cider which was bubbling away on a picnic table. Another man handed me a cookie from a tin. This was, simply put, the best.

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Earlier, while hiding out in the warmth of the washroom and trying to work up the courage to skate, a young guy had entered, maybe 24 years old. “Are you going to stake,” he asked. I nodded. “I think so. I haven’t been in over eight years though,” I said. “I haven’t been in my whole life,” he replied.

Later I had passed him on the rink. His hand gripped the girl’s next to him as they shuffled down the ice, laughing.

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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.)

Getting a dose of green at the Centennial Park Conservatory in Ward 3

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Tropical Paradise, the sign promised as I stood in ankle deep snow on the side of a road in Etobicoke. It was Sunday and amidst extreme cold weather alerts and warnings of freezing rain, I had decided I wanted to read in a park.

Usually I head to Allan Gardens, a park in the east side of downtown with a beautiful, historic conservatory–one of the oldest in North America in fact. It may smell a bit pungent and small drops of condensation may drip on your head but it’s one of the only places to go and get a dose of green in the middle of a long winter.

The other is located about an hours transit ride west to the farthest reaches of Etobicoke in Centennial Park in Ward 3. The conservatory there is helped out by the volunteer-based Friends of Centennial Park Conservatory, which raise money for improvements through events. It’s free and open 7 days a week 365 days a year from 10am to 5pm (more here).

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After an unexpected 25-minute wait at Royal York Station because Google sucks at bus schedules, I boarded the 48 Rathbury which lets you off right at the bottom of a short road that leads up into the park to the conservatory building.

About 50 children and their parents, bundled up like colourful marshmallows, were sledding on a small hill at the base of the park in stark defiance of the Toronto Star commenter who claimed that “most nature loving people in burbs tend to emerge in the warmer months.” Parks are often stunningly beautiful in the winter, and besides that there is sledding, skating parties, hot chocolate, and campfires. One thing I’ve learned about living in Toronto is that you have to get outside in the winter, even when it’s freezing, otherwise you go nuts.

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But sometimes inside is more inviting. And the conservatory building looked very welcoming with the glimpses of green through its fogged up windows. There are two smaller sections branching off from a larger, central space where trees and tropical plants soar up to the high ceilings. I loved the arid house where all manner of funny looking cacti live, but sadly there were no benches in this section. A sign imploring visitors to leave their signatures in the visitor’s book was set up next to a meaty looking succulent with broad fronds that I suppose at some point a few dumb people had decided was a good surface on which to leave their autographs. Don’t tag the plants, people.

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The conservatory was pretty quiet, which was nice. Quiet, that is, except for Angel, the conservatory’s resident cockatiel. Angel lives in a cage in the central building, but is let out each morning from 7am to 10am to explore. He stared out at me with a flat, glassy black eye, fanning his yellow-tinged white feathers below him. A sign posted nearby said that if you sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” he will dance. I whisper-sang it to him, but he just looked at me unimpressed.

People drifted around the building, many with large cameras around their necks. A man set up a tripod next to me and took a bunch of pictures of a lovely white flower. There is a small pond where orange fish swim around. A young couple took a few selfies. A small boy spit at the fish.

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I found a nice bench to sit on and cracked my book. Two teenagers kept walking by, whispering, and ducking into the washroom before drifting back out into the arid house. No diss to the conservatory, but it doesn’t really seem like the kind of place that many teenage boys would find interesting. Then I went to the washroom and discovered bits of ash on the ground and a whiff of smoke. Ah, got it.

The conservatory: something for everyone on a cold winter day.

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This post is part of the City within a Park series where I’m visiting a park I haven’t been to in every one of Toronto’s 44 wards in 2015. (Also, sorry if you see ads here. I can’t control it.)

Walking along the fuzzy ice banks of Warden Woods Park in Ward 35

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While in Ward 35 in Scarborough to check out Victoria Park-Eglinton Parkette, I thought I would balance out visiting a small park surrounded by roads with a walk in a deeply cut ravine–Warden Woods Park. It’s also right on the subway line (the entrance is across from Warden Station and the other end is near Victoria Park Station) so it was easy to get there.

Warden Woods is part of the Don ravine system and on the Taylor-Massey Creek. It’s a pretty big spot, 35 hectares in size, and, according to a park sign I came across, contains forests that are “approaching old-growth conditions, with rare understorey plants.” The ravine did have a lot of cool looking plants and things sticking up everywhere. I especially liked these reedy plants with the nifty spiky balls on them.

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The park also has huge, steep slopes, and what looks like a lot of erosion. Many of the trees on the slopes have their roots laid bare. You can tell people have climbed up and down the slopes from the buildings at the top.

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Then there is the wildlife, like this strange, tiny bear I befriended.

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What really makes Warden Woods, though, is the creek, which runs along the winding path with a pleasant gurgle, even when half of it seemed frozen. There is also a lot of erosion along the creek’s banks (see this Fixer article in the Toronto Star from a few years ago.)

The mix of frozen ice and rushing water was really beautiful, with the water running under frozen sections creating almost psychedelic patterns as it pushed up against the ice over top. There was also a lot of ice build up along the banks of the creek, as if water had seeped out from the dirt there and frozen in big fuzzy masses.

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And here is some more fuzzy-looking ice:

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If there is one thing I could complain about, it’s the lack of seating. What is up with the lack of benches in Toronto parks? There is only one bench along the whole trail. The people want to sit! It also seemed to be facing the wrong way. I’d rather sit and look out towards the creek then back towards the trail.

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The ravine follows the subway line (or I guess I should say the subway line follows the edge of the ravine) so you can hear the rumble of the train every so often, but otherwise the park is quiet except for the birds and the creek. It was a good 30 minute walk, but I was going very slowly and taking pictures of spiky plants and small bears.

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This post is part of the City within a Park series where I’m visiting a park I haven’t been to in every one of Toronto’s 44 wards in 2015. This is the second post for Ward 35. You can find the other one here.  

Reimagining the potential of a small park in Scarborough in Ward 35

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Toronto has 1,600 parks. Sometimes these are beautiful places of natural respite, places where you can imagine yourself far outside of the city. Other times they are filled with people and activities or fit snugly within a bustling neighbourhood. And then there are those parks that you likely walk by, maybe every day, maybe not even realizing it is a park.

When deciding which park to visit next for my goal to visit a park I haven’t been to in every one of Toronto’s 44 wards, I took to Google Maps, flitting around Toronto until my eye caught a small triangular park hemmed in on all sides by multi-lane roads in the upper north-west corner of Ward 35 in Scarborough. Victoria Park-Eglinton Parkette, it’s called. What is that like, I wondered.

When I got there, the first thing I thought was: maps are deceiving. The park was actually far bigger than I expected. Despite being called a parkette, it was larger than some neighbourhood parks in downtown Toronto, like my home park, Jean Sibelius Square. That park has a small field, picnic tables, an adventure playground, a social space in its centre with benches and flower gardens, and a washroom building. Victoria Park-Eglinton Parkette, in contrast, has…well, nothing really. It has a few trees, but the rest is flat grass and the only benches are the bus stops at its edges. There wasn’t even a park sign.

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When I came into work on Monday and showed my coworkers where I’d gone, they said, oh yeah, we know that park. There was someone from the community there that had proposed a new design a little while ago, they said. They put me in touch with him.

Michael Kenny, a local resident of the area, told me over the phone that he’s seen this park untended his whole life. “It’s just been grass,” he said. However, Kenny, who is the Executive Director of an environmental organization run out of university campuses called Regenesis, saw more in the space. And a need for more animated community park space in the wider neighbourhood.

“Victoria Village is one of the United Way communities in need,” he told me. “While there is a lot of parkland, a lot of forest, there isn’t anything in terms of a park that is a community hub where people congregate where there are activities.”

And it does seem like the space has potential. Despite being an island in the middle of high speed roads, the park is not really isolated–in fact, it’s in the middle of a pretty bustling spot, right across the street from Eglinton Town Centre mall, close to residential areas, and right next to a future stop on the Eglinton Crosstown LRT (Ominously, one of the maps on the LRT project site has the triangular park labelled: “potential future development,” though I checked and it’s zoned as open space.)

Kenny had a team of student researchers “look at the space of the park and talk to residents to see what type of stuff they might want and what could fit in the space.” Some of the ideas, like an outdoor skating rink, probably wouldn’t have fit into the space. Other popular ideas were a space for a farmer’s market, adventure playground, community gardens, and an event stage for performances.

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Image credit: Regenesis

When I asked whether people had expressed concern over safety issues because of the roads, he said they hadn’t really. “The space is used a lot to traverse between the mall and bus stops,” he said. “People are crossing it all the time.” In fact, there is a dirt pathway carved through the park that shows exactly where people have gone, which they used to form the design of where actual pathways might go.

It’s an interesting design, if a bit crowded. Some may lament the loss of the grassy, open space. And I still wonder about all those cars zooming around its edges.

But the importance of what Kenny and the students did stands: to reimagine what a park can be and look at it differently, trying to see how it can, as Kenny said, become “a community hub that could operate all year round.”

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This is the second post in the City within a Park series, the first of which, Earl Bales Park, can be found here

Little hills and big hills at Earl Bales Park in Ward 10

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Earl Bales Park is one I’d heard a lot about in the last year, but had never actually seen myself. That is, until I took the 35 minute transit trip from my apartment to the park in Ward 10 as the first in my goal to visit a park I haven’t been to yet in each of Toronto’s 44 wards this year.

The reason I’d heard a lot about Earl Bales is because my coworkers at Toronto Park People have worked with several partners in the park, including the volunteer-run Friends of Earl Bales Park. Angie Buado from the Friends was lovely enough to meet me at the park’s community centre and take me on a little tour.

I knew the park was going to be big, but I was surprised by how big. There was a lot to see and I only really explored the top half. Earl Bales has a bunch of unique features that make it pretty different than other parks in Toronto. One is the small rolling hills of the park itself, which are a remnant of when it used to be a golf course. This gives it a very pleasant, country-ish feel. If I owned sheep I would bring them here to graze.

But even before it was a golf course it was a farm owned by John Bales, the great-grandfather of a former mayor of North York, Robert Earl Bales who the park is named after (the City has a nice little history on its website). One of the things that Angie showed me was the old farmhouse in the park, which is pretty cool, if in need of a little TLC. At least a bird had made its home in one of the windows.

Aside from all this, there are two other things that make this park different. One is the ski hill and the other is the amphitheatre. When I heard there was an amphitheatre at Earl Bales I thought maybe it meant just a bandshell set amidst some grass, but no: it’s an actual amphitheatre with a nice stage and stadium-style seating. Angie told me the Friends of Earl Bales help organize music performances there, which would be great.

Photo by Liam Cochrane
Photo by Liam Cochrane

The ski hill was something I already knew about, but was surprised to see how much of an operation it was. While the rest of the park was fairly empty on this cold January day, the hill was buzzing with people in brightly coloured jackets and pants who were way too excited to hurtle themselves down a slippery slope on what basically amounts to two skinny sleds strapped to their feet (I don’t ski).

I just appreciated the nice view of the Yonge skyline in the distance and the strange but charming view of a ski chairlift in the middle of the city. I would come back and ride it in the summer if they kept it open, like a very slow amusement park ride (related note: a zip-line was once proposed for the park!).

Earl Bales is also part of the western branch of the Don ravine system, so there are some lovely trails and connections to other nearby parks. It’s interesting to stand in the park and realize it’s part of a system that connects all the way down to the waterfront and has branches that flow off into other parts of the city–something I’ve written about before.

I walked a little ways down a trail that went around the bottom of the ski hill where there is a nice off-leash dog area and a little river where a bit of rushing water could be seen through spots in the ice. If my toes hadn’t turned into complete ice cubes by this point, I would have continued on walking.

I’ll definitely be back. Perhaps to take in a show at the amphitheatre in the summer or just lay on one of the lovely little hills and read a book.

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