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A group of young paddlers are photographed near the mouth of the Rouge River in Scarborough, Ont. June 24/2011.Kevin Van Paassen

Tracks on the clay beach suggest Canada geese have been the only recent visitors to the water's edge when we launch two canoes onto Milne Park's reservoir.

A kingfisher starts an aerial reconnoitre and a great blue heron waits reed-like in the shallows as we paddle east to the dam that still temporarily backs up the Rouge River where a grist mill once brought industry to the frontier town of Markham.

Beside the dam, a new fish ladder is a belated nod to the instinct that salmon and trout have to swim upstream.

The salmon are gone – thanks to things like millponds – but the fish ladder is a concrete symbol of the recent history of the Rouge: through incremental steps comes increased access.

"We'd have bald eagles here if we could just get the fish populations back up," says Jim Robb, a forester and advocate and educator for Friends of the Rouge Watershed. He's in the tandem canoe with David Harvey, founder of Parks People, a new group that tries to inspire local involvement in parks.

Rouge Park is both huge and under-serviced, a vast suburban wilderness that spans three municipalities yet has no visitor centre, no canoe rentals and only one washroom. That could all change with last month's announcement in the Throne Speech of a national park designation. The increase in funding, facilities and visitors that will come with the designation will mean changes for the park, and perhaps the cities that surround it.

Mr. Robb, Mr. Harvey and I are taking advantage of a stretch of wet weather for a late-spring run down the Rouge. We've planned on 26 kilometres of current-aided, rock-impeded paddling through this valley that escaped the bulldozer of suburban development which, in the past half century, rolled out of Scarborough and into Markham and Pickering.

Dropping below the dam, the river is narrow enough so the occasional leaning tree that is falling out of the eroding banks reaches right across. We throw in regular propulsion strokes between frequent steering draws and pries, but mostly let the river move us southeast.

Hearing Mr. Robb on the prospects for salmon, it's clear he hasn't had any optimism drained out of him after 20 years of pushing to have the river protected and the park expanded. The conversation is interrupted as mid-current rocks, slow to reveal themselves in the murky water, become jolting reminders of upstream realities facing the Rouge.

The river would have been both deeper and clearer 80 years ago, Mr. Robb explains – the difference now being the amount of surface area in the drainage basin that has been paved, cemented or shingled. When rain falls on an impermeable urban landscape it rushes off in a flood that erodes riverbanks with warm, polluted water. A healthy river is instead fed through springs that deliver a gradual flow of cool, filtered groundwater that has soaked through layered soil.

While the sewer system in the Rouge drainage basin does include some ameliorating features like storm-water-management ponds, it remains an uphill battle given the fact that only 4 per cent of Markham is still forested. Mr. Robb says water quality has flatlined this decade, with no marked improvement or deterioration.

Coming around a bend, we spook a painted turtle just as the huge concrete pillars supporting Highway 407 come into view. As far as symbols of development pressure go, they are impressive, especially the central pillars that are presumably in place for an expansion of the superhighway.

It's only through an approach that Toronto City Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker calls "benign neglect" that the valley has remained in a largely natural state. He remembers hand-drawing on a map the rough outlines for the initial Rouge Park in 1987. As a summer employee of Save the Rouge Valley (a non-profit organization of which he is now president), he was alarmed that the Ontario Realty Corporation was pushing Scarborough council to zone 5,000 acres of what is now parkland for subdivisions.

"We were under attack. People said we were crazy," says Mr. De Baeremaeker. But, thanks to large tracts of land that were publicly owned, the park idea gained ground and, in 1990, David Peterson's government drew park boundaries around 4,500 acres, creating the largest urban wilderness park in North America.

"We've grown 1,000 acres at a time," says Mr. De Baeremaeker of the park that now stands at 11,545 acres – 29 times the size of High Park.

We stop to scout the best way over a barely submerged weir. On shore, a swimmer's ring buoy hangs on a tree at the edge of a clearing. Mr. Robb tells us that Box Grove is at the top of the hill – an area once zoned by Markham to remain a hamlet but instead turned into 700 acres of urban growth starting in the late 1990s. Mr. Robb credits the attention paid to the development with helping to win public support for the Oak Ridges Moraine and Greenbelt legislation starting in 2001. The Rouge Valley, explains Mr. Robb, is part of the Greenbelt and is the only link from Lake Ontario to these protected lands that link the Niagara Escarpment to the Kawarthas.

It's because of such natural connections, contends Mr. Robb, that the valley is home to wild species like the bobcat confirmed last year to be living in the Altona Forest, a patch of woods about a kilometre east of Rouge Park along a hydro corridor.

Mr. Robb knows the conservation currency offered by an exotic species like a bobcat – he credits the appeal of resident white-tail deer with helping Torontonians first notice the Rouge in the 1990s – but there is another visitor he'd like to see more of in the park. Humans.

He sees signs of some when we stop for lunch in the shade of the Steeles Avenue bridge. There in the mud beside a deer-hoof print are parts of a smashed clay pot that Mr. Robb says was likely part of a Hindu funeral ritual, the Rouge River in this case being in some way a stand-in for the Ganges.

The conservationist in Mr. Robb knows that increased human use of the park will have to be done carefully so the valley isn't overrun, but the park activist in Mr. Harvey can't help but think of the untapped potential of this natural showcase in the midst of so many people.

He sees the Rouge as a gateway to the kind of natural landscapes that Canada is famous for, but that too many urban Canadians have no connection to.

"Here we are, just steps from a TTC bus route. Seven million people can get here by public transportation." says Mr. Harvey. "This thriving river valley is the obvious first wilderness experience for new Canadians. Where else in Canada can so many people connect with real wilderness so easily?"

Special to the Globe and Mail

Note: Any time after early spring, the water levels in the Rouge River depend on recent rains and do not reliably allow for canoe travel upstream of the Glen Rouge Campground near Highway 401.

Next in the series: Rouge River, Part Two - Steeles Avenue to Lake Ontario