This week, I witnessed one of nature’s marvels: salmon fighting their way up a river to spawn. One by one, they tried to get past the torrent pouring over a low dam and reach the calmer waters above. Some leapt at the waterfall, then fell back and tried again. Others swam straight up the clear wall of water, wriggling and twisting to try to outrace the cascade.
What made it all the more wondrous is that this was happening not in some wild and distant mountain river but in the heart of Canada’s biggest city. Every fall, people flock to Toronto’s Étienne Brûlé Park to watch the spectacle. On the sunny weekday when I visited, photographers with long lenses were crouching on the banks of the Humber River to capture the scene, couples with children oohed and aahed and a group of daycare kids chanted “go salmon go” – all of them just a few minutes walk from a station on a major subway line.
Toronto is not renowned for its natural glories. It’s not like Vancouver, with the mountains and the sea all about. It’s not like Calgary, where you can be hiking in the Rockies within an hour. But it has splendours all its own.
Three lovely rivers – the Humber, the Don and the Rouge – flow through it to Lake Ontario. Its famous ravines carve their way past apartment towers and busy highways. Those who descend into them to explore, discover a different world, steps from the teeming streets above.
A man-made natural wonder, the Leslie Street Spit, juts into the lake. Once a barren wasteland of rubble, concrete slabs and twisted rebar from Toronto construction sites, it is now the home of foxes, mink, coyotes, muskrat and beaver, not to mention scores of species of birds. The Toronto Islands just next door are a lasting treasure, their sleepy lagoons shaded by willows and cottonwoods.
Then, of course, there is the lake itself. Lake Ontario is more a freshwater sea, 224 metres deep at its deepest point. The city turned its back on its greatest natural asset for decades. Now it is rediscovering the lake and its shore. Toronto’s splendid Lake Ontario beaches have remained open during the pandemic. The water is cleaner than it has been in decades, tested regularly and perfectly good for swimming when the conditions permit.
In fact, both the air and the water have improved dramatically over time. You can troll for bass in Toronto Harbour and watch fish heading up not just the Humber but the Rouge and even the Don, a waterway that was once considered little more than an open sewer.
Sad to say, some of Toronto’s natural heritage is gone forever. This is the city that filled in the vast marsh at the mouth of the Don River and built an expressway through the Don Valley, an act of unforgivable and probably irreversible vandalism. But the rest is surging back.
Getting out into nature is not hard. It’s all around us. In Toronto the Wild: Field Notes of an Urban Naturalist, author Wayne Grady says that “there is as much of nature in the city as there is out of it. So much, in fact, that it becomes difficult to think of the city as being somehow separate from nature.”
Yet many city dwellers persist in thinking that way. They will drive for hours to sit by a northern lake when they have a vast one right in front of them. Nature is something to be found “out in the country.”
Fortunately, that is beginning to change. Since the pandemic closed down most foreign travel, people have begun to explore the prodigies of nature right here at home, not just in the raw Canadian wild but in the places where most of us live: the cities.
The trails beside the Humber Valley were busy when I went to watch the salmon this week, full of cyclists, dog walkers and rollerbladers enjoying the height of the fall colours.
A couple of days later, I walked the trails of the Rouge Valley, now a national urban park. They were busy, too, but just a few minutes from the parking lot, I found myself alone in the woods, moving along a tree-lined ridge far above the river. The muffled din of the nearby Highway 401 was the only reminder that I was still within the boundaries of a bustling city.