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Writer Ian Merringer (in the stern seat) and Jim Robb, General Manager of the Friends of the Rouge Watershed (in the bow seat) paddle near the mouth of the Rouge River in Scarborough, Ont. June 28/2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Writer Ian Merringer (in the stern seat) and Jim Robb, General Manager of the Friends of the Rouge Watershed (in the bow seat) paddle near the mouth of the Rouge River in Scarborough, Ont. June 28/2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

City River Revival

Canoeing the Rouge River: Part two Add to ...

Steeles Avenue to Lake Ontario: Part two of a 26-kilometre canoe trip down the Rouge River with Jim Robb of Friends of the Rouge Watershed and Dave Harvey of Parks People.

The rhythmic thud of wooden paddles hitting gunwales is interrupted by a shrill ping coming from over the now treeless bank. Apparently we’ve entered Cedar Brae golf course. The good news is the ball stays clear of the water hazard, and the two canoes navigating it.

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Bridges criss-cross the Rouge River as it twists through the fairways. Club-toting golfers do double-takes as we pass under. One asks if we’ve seen his ball. We shrug, but in truth have seen plenty. Stopping to grab every golf ball we see in the shallows would risk turning this into an overnight trip. But the many dimpled deposits don’t seem to bother the mink that darts ahead of us down the shore or the huge snapping turtle that drops reluctantly off his sunning log and into the turbid water as we pass by.

To the east a tall black maple dominates the tree line. This tree that grows as far south as Tennessee is a centuries-old testament to the Rouge’s diversity. According to Jim Robb, of Friends of the Rouge Watershed and a forester by trade, 95 per cent of the tree species that grow in Ontario can be found in this valley that has been carved into the borderline between the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence forest to the north and the Carolinian deciduous forests to the south. This ecological richness means the park is home to 16 endangered species like the redside dace, a minnow of four inches that hunts its prey by air. David Lawrie, of Citizen Scientists, a volunteer group that monitors the Rouge Valley, says 16 species may be an overestimation, but only because some may have recently become extirpated, not downgraded off the list.

The good news for the ball-dodging wildlife: the federal government’s recent announcement that the Rouge River and valley are slated to become a national park. Their numbers and status will be more closely tracked.

“That’s why we need Parks Canada here. They are the ecological experts,” Mr. Robb says.

Speaking of biological diversity, we pass under a metal beam that spans the river and once supported a fence to keep river-goers from passing through Toronto Zoo. The monorail track crosses the river twice, but it’s been 17 years since zoo visitors last climbed aboard for a tour of the valley, and its native and non-native dwellers.

In the native column, a large red-tailed hawk sees us and lifts of from a fence that is slowly falling downhill along with an eroding bank. It’s a common fate for the few fences in this sedimentary valley where the river constantly wears away at its bends, dragging sand downriver to bulk up Rouge Beach at Lake Ontario. The process causes park staff great difficulty in planning walking trails that will follow, but not soon be claimed by, the river. It’s one reason why this valley has only 12 kilometres of maintained trails. Erosion has never seemed more urgent a problem than at this particular bend in the river, but there’s no sign of lion scat on either side of the downed fence.

After paddling 20 winding kilometres south of Highway 407 and seeing only a half dozen people who weren’t carrying golf clubs (and the same number of buildings), signs of deliberate human recreation come into view. Tents and trailers appear as we enter Glen Rouge Campground, Toronto’s only public campground with 125 sites. It abuts a floodplain that is slowly renaturalizing after a history that included cattle grazing in the early 20th century before the Toronto Region Conservation Authority kicked out the bovines and called in the lawnmowers, unaware that the worst thing that happens to grass if it isn’t cut is that it gets longer. Mowing stopped about 20 years ago and it’s now home to a woodland in the early stages of succession and trails leading from the campground.

The valley here narrows dramatically as the Little Rouge joins it from the east, an obvious spot for engineers to build a highway crossing. The steel girders supporting 18 lanes of highways 2 and 401 loom massively overhead. Entering their shadow, it feels like we are paddling into the movie set of some dystopian sci-fi blockbuster. Urbanity intrudes further when indifferent pigeons take the place of the skittish ducks we have been chasing downriver all day and Mr. Robb reports that pollutants from the highway make this the second-most toxic site for run-off in Ontario.

Here the banks soften and the river morphs into a marsh, an ecological hotbed that’s home to unworldly creatures like mudpuppies. Mr. Robb says the foot-long salamanders with external gills date back to the dinosaur age but rarely emerge from the mud. The bright orange male Baltimore oriole that takes off from an overhanging tamarack branch is easier to spot. Mr. Robb says he’s seeing more southern species all the time, including mocking birds, which fill the valley with foreign sounds when they mimic the tropical birds they rub shoulders with during migration.

A substantial stone chimney stands alone on the east bank, a survivor from the 1920s when the marsh was filled with cottages. From the looks of the hearth that stands at least 10 feet above the ground, these weren’t shacks, but multi-storey retreats. Developer Cecil White dredged canals through the marsh and promoted it as “Venice of the North,” a grand vision that never took off and died a final death in 1954 when Hurricane Hazel convinced the conservation authorities that river valleys were for floods, not people.

A dozen people are making their way to or from the beach under the train bridge. A few more sit on rocks, as still as the fishing bobbers they’re watching at the end of their lines. The beach is a popular spot, but with no boat rentals and no trails on the marsh side, it is a rarely opened gateway to the river.

I’m tying the canoes atop my car when a mini-van pulls in beside me. A woman nurses a baby inside while a man gets out to smoke and get a view of the marsh. I’m trying to get ropes over the second canoe before it slides off the racks when the man asks, “Excuse me, are you allowed to canoe on the Rouge?”

I start to tell him about our day, but he doesn’t seem to care how far I’ve come, just that I was floating on the water.

“So you are allowed?” he asks again. I try to get a knot tied so I can turn and talk, but before I can the cigarette is on the ground and the mini-van is backing away.

After 20 years of the park trying to grow into itself, it seems its human neighbours don’t fully appreciate what the river brings to the region. Maybe Parks Canada will be able to spread the word.

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