Growing up on the edge of Taylor Creek Park in the 1970s, my friends and I spent our summers like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Down in the forested ravine, we built rope swings over the steep hillsides. Cobbled together forts out of discarded appliance boxes. Took off our shoes and rolled up our pants to hunt frogs in the marshes along the hiking trail. For a bunch of city kids without cottages, the otherness of the ravine was irresistible. It was paradise.
Local councillor Janet Davis understands. "There's an incredible sense of ownership and commitment to the park," she says. "We have a shortage of traditional park spaces in Ward 31 … but we have this wonderful green jewel called Taylor Creek Park."
Running from Dawes Road in the east, just north of Danforth Avenue, to the Don River in the west, the park is an almost-four-kilometre-long stretch of semi-wilderness, part of the disconnected ravine system in the city's east end. Take away a golf course here, a roadway there, and the park would easily link Scarborough's Warden Woods and E.T. Seton Park on the other side of the Don Valley Parkway.
Like those two ravines, Taylor Creek Park follows the path of a river. Taylor-Massey Creek, named after two prominent Toronto families, starts near Highway 401 and runs south along an undignified, concrete-lined course through Scarborough, picking up all kinds of debris and pollutants along the way. But at least it resembles a creek again by the time it reaches the park, bending this way and that, creating pools and eddies for the resident crawfish and ducks.
Unlike a traditional city green space such as High Park, with its formal borders, restaurant, concrete-lined pond and even a zoo, Taylor Creek Park is a wonderfully vague, meandering affair. In some places, homes and buildings loom directly above the ravine - it's often hard to know where the park ends and private property begins; in others, the greenery stretches north and south for hundreds of metres, elbowing its way through the city.
The marshes that line both sides of the creek are stuffed with cattails and willow trees and are home to dragonflies and red-winged blackbirds that complain loudly when joggers or cyclists get too close to their nests. In the eighties, many of the marshes were drained to control mosquitoes and to prevent the flooding of picnic areas and the park's sole paved path; fortunately, the city parks department now follows a policy of naturalization - a combination of habitat restoration and benign neglect - and the wetlands are back.
The forested areas, crisscrossed with simple trails for hikers and dog owners, are alive with rabbits, skunks, foxes and even chipmunks - which don't stand a chance among the aggressive squirrels of most city neighbourhoods. The trees often flash blue, red and orange with jays, cardinals and the occasional Baltimore oriole. And recent years have seen an explosion in the local population of chickadees, singing as they cling to the tall grass stalks along the riverbank.
I still live on the edge of the park, near the east entrance to the ravine. Now that I'm older, it holds a different appeal. Descending into it, in early morning or at dusk, I can get away from the din and the artificial lights of the city above. Just me and my dog among the long shadows and the gurgle of the creek. A different park. But still a paradise.