When I was growing up, Toronto’s ravines were wild and dangerous places - or so it seemed to us.
We lived in Moore Park, a comfortable midtown neighbourhood near Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue. Our first house was on Inglewood Drive, beside Mount Pleasant Cemetery. A deep ravine lay just to the west. It bears a poetic name – the Vale of Avoca – but we simply called it “the ravine.” I passed over it every day on the way to school when I crossed the St. Clair Viaduct (“the bridge” to us). I often stopped to stare down into the woods and creek below, leaning over a heavy stone railing that was like the battlements of a castle. In winter, we would drop giant boulders of frozen snow over the side and watch them explode on impact in a most satisfying way.
At recess or lunch, we would scramble down the muddy sides of the ravine to goof around under the bridge, a massive structure with great black steel arches to support it. Our shouts would echo from its underside, which loomed above like the roof of an abandoned cathedral.
The brave kids (not me) would take turns swinging from a thick rope someone had slung from the bridge. A swing suspended from that height has quite an arc, and kids sometimes lost their grip, busting an arm or a wrist.
The school ordered us to stay out of the ravine, a place where students were sure to curse, smoke and worse. Rumours were always circulating about the shady individuals who were supposed to lurk down there, preying on boys and girls.
We went anyway, of course. The ravine had the irresistible lure of the uncharted and the unknown. To descend into it was to leave the orderly adult-ruled world on the surface and enter a whole other realm; our little Narnia. There were snakes down there, and feral teenagers playing hooky and homeless guys living in lean-tos made of tree branches and tarps. The only reminder of life above was the sound of cars trundling over the bridges.
Toronto’s ravines are tamer now. The creeks have been civilized, their banks lined with stone in places to prevent erosion. The twisting, narrow, foot-beaten paths I used to follow have been replaced in many places with proper trails suitable for bicycles and strollers. The sandy slope where, 50 years ago, my schoolmates would launch themselves into space on that rope swing is now covered with fieldstone.
When I went down into the “Vale of Avoca” this week to explore my old haunts, it was a splendid spring day, with life bursting forth all around. Passing joggers and dog walkers, I walked up from the bridge into the cemetery, then headed east, across Mount Pleasant Road, then walked down into Moore Park ravine. This was the ravine we wandered when my family moved to a second house in the neighbourhood, on Heath Street East.
It, too, has been tamed. The trail that runs through it is now part of the Beltline, which takes you from the cemetery all the way down to the Evergreen Brick Works in the Don Valley and beyond. More joggers, more dog walkers. Spandexed cyclists whizzed by, trailed by teens on their beater bikes. A bunch of kids played in the cave-like hollow under the roots of a big tree. One of them fell with a thump and commenced to cry (he was fine). Another boy further down the creek waded into the cold water in his running shoes. His parents shook their heads, but smiled.
Further taming is in the works. Toronto has a “ravine strategy” that aims to protect them and make them easier for people to navigate. Three cheers for that. Toronto has been rediscovering its natural glories during the pandemic and the ravines are among them. As the authors of the strategy put it, “Once seen as the biggest challenge to Toronto’s growth, these corridors of “disordered nature” are now treasured as one of its greatest assets.”
But let’s hope they retain some of the mystery that drew me and my friends all those years ago. Like the Leslie Street Spit, the man-made peninsula in the lake that has become an accidental wilderness, the ravines have a quality you can’t find in a groomed city park. They are a defining part of the city’s topography and history yet somehow apart from it, with a character all their own. That is something to cherish.