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Matthew Perlanski navigates the Don River during the Paddle the Don event on May 6, 2012, in Toronto. Paddlers started their journey at Ernest Thompson Seton Park and ended at Lake Ontario. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)
Matthew Perlanski navigates the Don River during the Paddle the Don event on May 6, 2012, in Toronto. Paddlers started their journey at Ernest Thompson Seton Park and ended at Lake Ontario. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Upstream fight, but there's hope for fish in the Don Add to ...

Bernie McIntyre has a dream: to see salmon leaping up the Don River to spawn.

Mr. McIntyre works on environmental issues at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. In the 1990s, he helped draft a fisheries management plan for the waterway. On Sunday, I rode with him in a canoe from just north of Eglinton to Toronto Harbour as part of the annual Paddle the Don event.

A burly 50-year-old in a peaked camping hat, Mr. McIntyre bubbles with enthusiasm for the river that most people dismiss as a dirty creek next to an expressway. “You’re talking about the most urbanized river in Canada potentially,” he says. “Most people would think: The Don is dead. There’s nothing in there.”

In fact, he says, the river and its valley teem with wildlife. Trout have been seeded in its headwaters, and pike and walleye have come into its lower reaches from the lake. Even salmon have ventured into the river, he says, though none have spawned successfully.

If the water quality continues to get better, and conservation authorities can ease some of the barriers on the river that prevent fish from migrating upstream, he says, it is not inconceivable that the river could see a salmon run like the Credit and Humber rivers to the west. “Will you have a really large run in here that would support a commercial fishery? Not going to happen. But as a symbol for people: huge.”

The Don badly needs some sort of image boost. When I mentioned I was planning to paddle down the river, most people made a face. The Don? That muddy channel you see from the Don Valley Parkway?

The river was Toronto’s dumping ground for decades. Tanneries, breweries and mills fouled its waters. “From the mid-19th century on,” says one academic paper on the river’s history, “the Don is frequently described as an ‘objectionable stream.’… The river flooded frequently, and the lower river and marsh it fed became heavily polluted with sewage, animal wastes and industrial effluents.”

Engineers shifted the whole course of the Don in the 1960s to make way for the new DVP. Even today, the river shows many signs of urban use and abuse. Metal pipes carrying runoff from city streets protrude from its banks, which are “armoured” against erosion in parts with ugly paving stones and piles of rock covered with wire mesh.

Here and there you see a rusting shopping cart, an old park bench, a plastic lawn chair. On the Lower Don, homeless people have set up camps by the river. Drying sleeping banks and plastic tarps hang from tree branches.

Normally the Don is not navigable. It’s too shallow and full of rocks and “sweepers,” or fallen logs. Engineers release water from a reservoir upstream for Paddle the Don, raising the water level about a foot in parts.

Surrounded by a city of 2.6 million, the Don “will never be pristine,” says Mr. McIntyre, but “it’s come a long way.” On our trip, we saw bank swallows darting into their burrows and a kingfisher chattering from a tree.

Although railways run over the river and the Bloor-Danforth subway clatters overhead, “there are places in here where you can’t hear anything,” says Mr. McIntyre. “You are hearing wildlife, you are hearing the sound of the river.”

He is first to concede that the Don has a long way to go. In heavy storms when rain overwhelms the drains, sewage still finds its way into the stream. Even in ordinary rains or snow melts, car oil and road salt gets flushed into the Don. It will take decades and billions of dollars to solve some of the sewerage problems.

One huge project that is hanging fire is re-naturalizing the mouth of the river, which now empties into a shipping channel. Waterfront Toronto agreed to take a new look at the plan after Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug complained that current plans for redeveloping the adjacent Port Lands were taking too long.

There are other problems, too. Because so much of the land around the river is paved, water that used to be absorbed into the ground now runs into the river, which carries twice the volume it did 30 years ago. That means more erosion and muddier water, discouraging aquatic life. Still, the conservation authority, the city and their community partners have been busy for years planting trees, building trails and restoring eroded riverbanks.

Mr. McIntyre points with pride at one of his own projects: a series of rocky ramps in one section of the river that replaced a small dam and made it easier for fish to move upstream. Could salmon one day flash through on their way to a spawning bed? Despite all the work still to be done, he can dream.

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