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marcus gee

A few days after arriving in Toronto, Elizabeth Simcoe went for a ride. The wife of John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, was an avid artist and diarist. Eager to explore her new surroundings, she rode her horse eastward over the sandy peninsula that is now Toronto Island then along the shore of today's Beaches neighbourhood.

"From there, despite the restrictions of a proper 18th-century lady's dress, [she] climbed into a small boat and had herself rowed farther still, until she saw a line of immense and imposing cliffs stretching far into the distance," records M. Jane Fairburn in her 2013 book Along the Shore, a history of Toronto's waterfront.

"The shore is extremely bold, and has the appearance of chalk cliffs," Mrs. Simcoe wrote in her diary, "but I believe they are only white sand. They appeared so well that we talked of building a summer residence there and calling it Scarborough."

The Scarborough Bluffs, now as then, are Toronto's most striking physical feature, dramatic in a way no other part of our understated landscape can match.

As high as 90 metres, they rise from the water like cliffs in some places; in others they show deep ridges like the folds in a blanket; in others they soar to spires and pinnacles; in still others they are broken by wooded ravines and gullies.

Yet, most Torontonians never see them. It is hard to get a full view of the bluffs unless, as with Mrs. Simcoe, you go out into the lake by boat. The shore beneath them can be tricky to reach and the lands at the top hard to navigate.

They can be dangerous, too. Emergency services come out many times every year to rescue people who have been trapped on the slopes or at the base.

Conservation officials hope to change all that, making the Bluffs safer and easier to visit. They want to shore up dangerous bits, put in more trails and create habitat for wild animals and fish. A study is already under way, with a first set of options to be presented to the public next month.

It is an exciting project, a once-in-a-century chance to open up the whole of the Scarborough shore to a broader public. It is also a delicate one. Officials face the challenge of giving safe access to the Bluffs without destroying the wild quality that lend them their magic. Some people want them left alone altogether. Others want to see a continuous shoreline trail as you might have in an urban waterfront.

"We keep hearing: 'Where is the Ferris wheel going to go?'" says Nancy Gaffney, who is helping guide the project for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. "It's not that way at all." The objective, she insists, is to keep the shore as close to its natural state as possible.

Restoring the Bluffs to what Mrs. Simcoe saw in 1793 is not an option. Generations of human settlement have changed them. First farmers moved into the lands above the Bluffs. Then came cottages and resorts. Then, after the Second World War, suburban housing.

For thousands of years, wave action at the foot of the Bluffs had steadily eroded them, pushing them gradually inland. The sand from the erosion was swept along to the mouth of the Don River, where it helped form the peninsula that became Toronto Island and give Toronto its protected harbour.

Human activity accelerated the erosion at first. Farmers cleared the woods at the top of the Bluffs. The bottom was left exposed by decades of stonehooking – pulling countless tons of gravel and stone from the waters along the shore for use in construction.

Conservation authorities moved in to slow the erosion, which was sending some houses toppling over the edge and threatening many more. They put in breakwaters and built small rock headlands, called groynes, to create beaches that would absorb the energy of the waves.

Erosion has slowed, but the Bluffs are changing as a result. As Ms. Fairburn observes in her book, most of the narrow, natural beaches have disappeared while the slopes above have become more gradual and more treed. The Bluffs are less bluff-like.

"The irony is that bringing people down to the water also brings destruction," she writes. "In conservation there is loss, and in development there is always change."

The Bluffs are still a wonder, for all that. Just gaze on the sheer white wall called the Cathedral Bluffs. Or wander through one of the lovely parks on the bluff edge. Or swim at Bluffer's Park. Or hike one of the shoreline trails that the conservation authority wants to improve. Look up and marvel, as Elizabeth Simcoe did two centuries ago.

If the conservation authority's plan can bring more people down to see the Bluffs, Toronto should seize the chance.

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