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.

apple cider

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.)

I found Toronto’s Narnia and it’s called Glen Stewart Ravine

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This Sunday, I took a long walk with the purpose of checking out a few parks I had never been to before. On the top of the list was Glen Stewart Ravine, which looked nice from the photos I’d seen.

Let me tell you: Glen Stewart Ravine is not nice. Glen Stewart Ravine is stunning.

And I mean really, truly stunning. Its snowy landscape was so beautiful I actually felt giddy, looking around for who I could share the moment with and finding only a man walking a dog who looked at me a little wearily. The dog, however, barked, so I think he got it.

Stepping into the ravine is one of those moments in Toronto where you are quickly plunged into what appears to be the middle of the woods only a few steps after you leave a residential street behind you. It’s what I imagine walking through the wardrobe and stepping into Narnia would be like. Everything has this kind of miniaturized magic to it. If a gnome had passed me on the trail my reaction would have been: Well, of course.

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The 11 hectare ravine is designated as an environmentally significant area by the City, which are natural sites of particular importance because of unique features or wildlife. In the case of Glen Stewart Ravine, “several species of birds and plants observed within the area are regionally uncommon,” the City says. (The City is proposing to expand the number of these areas from the current 18 to 86). There is also a little mini-creek called Ames Creek where I imagine the gnomes come to do their laundry.

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The ravine recently underwent a reconstruction project led by the City and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. This helped to stabilize slopes with new retaining walls and create raised boardwalks and pedestrian bridges to improve access.

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For the complete experience, I would suggest starting at Queen Street East at Ivan Forrest Gardens and walk north until you see the entrance to Glen Stewart Ravine, which is on the east side. While these parks don’t have the secluded feel of the ravine, they are wonderful spaces in their own right with a nice pedestrian bridge about halfway up.

My only complaint is that the road that edges these parks, Glen Manor Drive, is not super pedestrian friendly. Drivers went pretty fast, the intersections are wide with broad turns, and there is no crosswalk to guide you to the pedestrian bridge.

Overall,  it’s an easy walk in terms of distance and slope, mostly. But the pathways through Ivan Forrest Gardens are not cleared of snow and there are some slippery parts in the ravine, so it’s not super accessible in the winter.

The boardwalk through Glen Stewart Ravine will spit you onto Kingston Road where you can catch the streetcar or, if you’re like me, wander into the cute bookstore, The Great Escape, and buy a book to read on the way home.

But whatever you do, go to the ravine. Go there when there is snow. Look out for the gnomes.

Here’s the route I took:

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