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.
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.
Two Toronto Parks employees preparing for a tree survey approach us. "What were you guys doing?"
"Just out for an overnight hike," we reply. "Are we in trouble?"
"Oh no!" they say with a smile. "We're just curious. It's not often we see people with backpacks."
As we change into clean clothes, I'm aware of that familiar sensation of "re-entry." It feels like ages since we left the car. Our cheeks tingle with sun and wind, and our eyes sparkle with the lightness that comes from time away.
Despite passing a few powerlines and roadways, it truly was an escape.
A CANADIAN FIRST
When it comes to reconnecting urbanites with nature, a national park moniker comes with a gravitas no city park can match.
Last May, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that $143.7-million would be spent over 10 years to turn the Rouge River watershed into Canada's first National Urban Park. (Parks Canada is vague on when the transition will be official.)
It is "a brand new concept," says veteran Parks Canada superintendent Pam Veinotte, who's led Banff, Yoho and Fundy and is now in charge of the Rouge. "It will require an innovative approach to conservation and management."
For example, Parks Canada can't use fire and flooding – the norm in other national parks – to regenerate plant life. Further complicating matters are the farms, roadways, train tracks and transmission lines that stand within the proposed boundaries.
Some conservationists are concerned that handing over these fragile lands to the federal government might actually diminish protection. "If it truly is a national park, we welcome the idea," says Jim Robb, general manager of Friends of Rouge Watershed. "We have great respect for Parks Canada, but we want to ensure this becomes a bone fide national park – where ecological health is given top priority – and not some pale imitation."
If the Rouge works, it could sweepingly change our country's relationship with national parks. "It is critical we get the legislative framework right, because the Rouge is not a one-off," says Faisal Moola, director general of the David Suzuki Foundation. Communities the across country are campaigning for similar projects, he says, citing examples of Bowen Island (just offshore from Vancouver) and the Gatineau Hills (north of Ottawa).
For more information, visit rougepark.com.