After shuttling a car to the far end of the park, Fraser and I take a quick stroll down the sands of Rouge Beach and then set off. From the confluence of the Rouge and Little Rouge rivers – directly beneath 18 lanes of 401 and Kingston Road traffic – we turn north, ascending a ridge that cleaves between the two ravines and two distinct microclimates. Below us to the right, thick green forests of hemlock and pine cloak the cooler, moister northern slopes. To the warmer, drier south, leafless groves of hickory, maple and beech drop away.
Breaks in foliage reveal commanding views. Far below, the brown waters of the Rouge and Little Rouge swirl in a soupy mess, washing over shore-bound ice. But change is in the air. A cold front approaches, and the forecast calls for temperatures to plummet to -15.
As dusk descends and winds build, Fraser and I set up our tent on a high cliff. We sit, listening to the faint buzz of traffic and otherworldly howls from the nearby Toronto Zoo. I count the lights of 18 apartment buildings. Darkness never comes, and instead distant street lamps spray orange across low clouds.
Later, as snow pelts the tent, we huddle inside sleeping bags. Occasional trains rumble down the opposite side of the ravine, invoking a familiar nocturnal sound: coyotes howling. Up next is the rasping of a tiny saw-whet owl. Soon after, a barred owl asks the familiar question: “Who cooks for you?”
After a breakfast of oats and instant coffee we take down the frost-cloaked tent, and are hiking by 7:30. Yesterday’s slush has frozen solid overnight, turning the park into a skating rink.
The winter beauty is stark; leafless silhouettes, shoulder-high dry grass and a muted colour palette of deep red sumac, burnt orange bark and sand brown. Come spring, these dells will explode in a kaleidoscope of flowers; trilliums, wood sorrel and hundreds of other ephemeral species.
A brisk wind stings our cheeks as we begin the 50-metre climb up the former Beare Road Hill Landfill site (decommissioned in 1983).
Once at the summit – atop 5.4 million tons of garbage – the park stretches before us, from the southern waterfront to the Markham and Stouffville headwaters. On the horizon, like a ship floating above wavy ridgelines, rises the CN Tower.
A series of well-established trails wind through the Rouge, but we avoid these when possible, choosing instead to follow the main course of the river, clambering up and down the banks of creeks that feed in. No matter where we go, others have been there before: deer, squirrel, even opossum. On the banks of a restored wetland we find the palm-sized prints of trumpeter swans. Most plentiful of all are tracks of the human variety. Skis, snowshoes and footprints weave through every corner. I’m impressed.
While the protection of a rare Carolinian ecosystem may be one integral part of the Rouge National Urban Park, its twin – and equally ambitious – goal is to combat the exploding public disconnect from nature. Canada is blessed with great tracts of forest, mountains and tundra. Alongside such lonely outposts as Mongolia and Iceland, Canada ranks among the most sparsely populated countries (roughly three people per square kilometre). Yet a recent United Nations report reveals that 82 per cent of us reside in urban settings.
At the Rouge, youth will be a priority audience, along with new Canadians. Plans call for pavilions to introduce all of Canada’s national parks, along with plentiful interpretive events such as the popular Learn-to-Camp program.
“Some people have to be taught how to interact with wild places,” says Parks superintendent Pam Vienotte. “It’s not because they’ve chosen to ignore them. Just that they’ve not had access.”
Beyond Meadowvale Road we enter no-man’s land; a stretch where no official trails run. We push past branches, duck under deadfall and are occasionally forced to crawl or scramble over obstacles. We wander past abandoned bridge pilings and through shady cedar groves. Not until we near Steeles Avenue, and our waiting car, do we bump into dog walkers.