We pulled into the Glen Rouge parking lot, in the shadow of Highway 401 and Port Union Road, on a grey, balmy Toronto winter day.
Warm weather had turned recent snowfalls to slush, and last autumn’s leaves stained the icy puddles brown.
Two city workers, tinkering with a sanding truck, didn’t raise an eye as we yanked bulging backpacks from our car, donned cleated snowshoes and set off. Minutes later we passed a young woman walking a golden retriever. She was the last person we’d see until reaching Steeles Avenue, 10 kilometres away, the following afternoon.
With me was Fraser – an enthusiastic Mountain Equipment Co-op employee and, until recently, a total stranger. But he was the only person who responded (positively, anyway) to my search for a companion on an opaquely described mission: camping, during wintertime, in Metro Toronto.
Ahead lay the forests and ravines of the still-to-be-minted Rouge National Urban Park, amid Toronto’s eastern suburbs. The goal was to wander from one end to the other, and experience just how “wild” this landscape is firsthand.
Since a 2011 Conservative campaign pledge to study the viability of a national park in the Rouge, this municipal ravine has become a media darling – a teenage pop star, if you will, amid Parks Canada’s aging line up of dinosaur rockers.
I wanted to answer the unspoken question on many minds: Can a metropolitan park hold its own among Canada’s storied family of national parks? More accurately – because comparing an urban oasis with profoundly wild realms isn’t fair – I wanted to gauge whether the so-called “People’s Park” offers a viable glimmer of hope for the future. Landlocked by concrete, and lying within an hour’s drive of seven-million people, is the Rouge a feel-good publicity stunt for a government with a floundering environmental reputation? Or could it begin to address the burgeoning disconnect between Canada’s suburban populations and the natural spaces that define our nation?
Less than a century ago, a series of deeply incised, heavily wooded ravines bisected Toronto’s landscape, stretching north from Lake Ontario like a tangle of green arteries. Decades of development have steadily shrunk, clogged and atrophied those natural conduits. Many streams disappeared from sight, routed underground in concrete viaducts. Others have been paved. Today, just one significant splash of green remains: the Rouge.
Within its boundaries lie one of Canada’s last remaining stands of Carolinian forest. The region is one of extraordinary biodiversity, and while lacking charismatic megafauna, it rivals anywhere in the country for raw number of species present.
For decades, grassroots volunteers have fought to protect the Rouge. As early as 1987, the idea of a national park was floated, but at the time, Parks Canada was simply not interested. (Instead, a patchwork of protected and conservation areas was established, managed by the City of Toronto.) Today tells a different story. With visitation numbers plummeting and its budget slashed, Parks Canada is seeking innovative ways to extend its reach and renew its relevance.
“Are you packing bear spray?” my wife had asked days earlier, as I crammed a sleeping bag, stove and tent into my luggage for a Toronto business trip. “For people,” she added, when I looked at her questioningly.
At my luxury hotel in downtown Toronto, I organize tea, sugar, pasta and oatmeal into plastic baggies. It feels odd yet utterly exhilarating to pack for a wilderness trip while looking out over city lights. The next day, after a lunchtime presentation, I peel off my dress shirt and pants in a parkade, then pull on a fleece, hiking boots and tuque in place.
But as I race along the 401, doubts surface. A tangle of concrete, traffic and buildings run as far as the eye can see. How could there be any hint of wilderness among all this? Were my hopes and expectation – for this trip and, more importantly, for the new Urban National Park itself – too high? Not until my GPS shows I am minutes from the park boundary does the first greenery appear: a sprinkling of farmers’ fields, and amid them, a solitary white pine.