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From Mimico Creek to the Nile, adventure is not dead

Floating through the Grand Canyon: Does it beat a city creek?

Bruce Kirkby/Bruce Kirkby

There is an advertisement running on television this fall, for one of our national banks, that encourages insuring everything; from income and health to retirement plans, mortgage payments, vacation uncertainties, travel hiccups, spiralling loans and unsavoury creditors. And for some reason, it got me thinking to a lazy stream that flowed through the suburbs of my Toronto youth.

Paralleling my walk to school, Mimico Creek's dark ravine was a magnet for children; expansive and unknown. We gathered during midwinter along on the creek's shores, trying to smash ice with our heels, occasionally limping home with a painful soaker. During summer, we explored the web of dirt trails that crisscrossed its banks; creeping beneath weeping willows, searching for crawfish in shady pools.

When August arrived, with its fist of humidity, and violent thunderstorms began rolling through, our ankle-deep creek would occasionally (and briefly) be transformed into a torrential brown river, bursting over the banks.

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During the final summer of high school, I fell upon the idea of floating down the creek during one of these storm surges, atop an inflatable camping mattress. And once the idea had lodged itself in my head, I simply could not shake it. I began watching the weather reports, racing home from my summer job at a fruit market to monitor water levels after the merest sprinkling or shower. For two weeks, my younger brother and I watched, and waited.

Then the storm came, a torrent of hail and rain tearing branches from the towering catalpa in our front yard. By the time we excavated the musty air mattresses from the basement, and drove to Echo Valley, the creek was already steaming past, swollen and angry.

Somewhere there exists a faded Polaroid from that day, which shows my brother and I - both sporting Shaun-Cassidy-style winged haircuts - blowing our mattresses up while flashing huge grins. Behind us, our slightly worried mother stands beside a large red sign that says something to the effect of "Warning: Creek may flood after rains. Keep children well back."

And then we were off, leaping aboard the unstable mattresses, struggling to stay upright as the current swept us away, around the first bend and into the unknown lands of Islington Golf Course.

We were, of course, utter fools. Although unlikely, we could have died that day. Strainers - old shopping carts, low branches, or anything else that can trap a body but allow water to flow through - are cruel and unforgiving. We knew nothing about hypothermia. We had no clue what lay ahead, and were scouting on the fly, from a prone position, eyes inches off the water.

We bounced over a few shallow drops and pinballed through boulders. An hour later, blue-lipped and shivering, we floated past Country Style Donuts (now a Second Cup), under the intersection of Dundas and Islington, and found my mother waiting for us beside Montgomery's Inn.

In the decades since, I have had the privilege of experiencing many of our planet's classic waterways: the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, the Blue Nile, the Tatshenshini, the oceans of Greenland, the seas of Borneo. And surprisingly, my memory of bobbing down a flooded Mimico remains up there with the best. It held everything that makes an adventure grand; the thrill of the unknown, the abandonment of what seemed possible, or perhaps just normal.

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Hidden amid our country's two million lakes (the exact number remains elusive), thousands upon thousands of rivers and a quarter-million kilometres of coastline, I am sure, lies your own Mimico Creek. Such places serve as an antidote to a refrain heard far too often these days: Adventure is dead. Which is, of course, ridiculous. Opportunities for adventure exist everywhere. And you don't need to tube through sewage, or seek spring floods, to find one. With a little imagination, and the willingness to try something new, the joy of the unknown can always be unearthed.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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