Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The blog's become a book!

Pre-order now!
This blog's been silent a while but the writing and photography haven't slowed a bit!

I'm very pleased to announce that my new book, Toronto's Ravines and Urban Forests, is now available for pre-order! The book features nearly 30 of Toronto's most interesting ravines & forests, bringing to life their natural heritage and local history with in-depth profiles and over one hundred photographs. If you've enjoyed this blog, I hope you'll take a moment to check out the book, and place your order today.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

June 18, 2013: Return to Glendon Forest

The southern trail head to Glendon Forest can be approached either from the west via Raab Blvd. on the grounds of Sunnybrook hospital, or from the east via the main road that winds through Wilket Creek / Sunnybrook Park. Back in the beginning of the 20th century this area was the northern end of Sunnybrook Farms, the two-hundred acre estate of Joseph Kilgour, President of the Canada Paper Company Limited and passionate devotee of Toronto's horsey set. Kilgour's barn still stands only a hundred or so meters to the east of the trail head, and now serves as home to Sunnybrook Stables riding school. Joseph Kilgour's widow, Alice Margaret Kilgour, donated the Sunnybrook Farm property to the City in 1928 for use as a public park.

During our last visit to Glendon Forest, we started our hike from the official trail head. This time, however, we took the well-worn side trail located just a bit to the east along the edge of the parking lot. This skirts the West Don River as convenience dictates, weaving in and amongst the Sugar Maple, Red Oak, Eastern Hemlock, American Beech that populate the forest. Scattered along the trail edge and in the nearby understory you'll find natives such as Choke Cherry, Silvery Glade Fern, Red Osier Dogwood, Staghorn Sumac and Partridgeberry, as well as the usual assortment of invasives like Bull Thistle, Knapweed, Japanese Knotwood, Buckthorn and Garlic Mustard.

Of all the plants we spotted along the way, the one that brought us the greatest joy was the abundance of Milkweeds, all on the verge of bloom. Milkweeds are the only food source for Monarch caterpillars, and without them there can be no Monarch butterflies. As even my most hardcore urban friends have noted, this year the city has seemed virtually devoid of Monarchs - and that's a pretty accurate observation. According to last winter's survey at Mexico's Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, hibernating colonies occupied 59% less area than they did last year, suggesting that the Monarch population is the smallest it has been since records started to be kept in 1975. There are several reasons for this decline, but the most significant and the most troubling is the fierce decline of Milkweeds thanks to development, deforestation and the increased use of herbicides. Places like Glendon are quickly becoming important refuges for milkweeds and, by extension, for the Monarch populations they support.

When we set out this morning, our intention had been to revisit the trails along the eastern bank, perhaps even mount an attempt to find the old gravel quarry roadbed said to exist on the far east edge of the forest, assuming we could find a responsible way to get to it. Our previous visit to the eastern trails has remained one of the most enjoyable hikes we've taken to date, and both Abbey and I were very excited to be coming back. However, much to our immediate sorrow, soon after rejoining the main trail through Glendon we discovered that all bridges over the West Don River have been closed and gated. According to nearby signage, heavy overuse of the eastern trails has resulted in significant forest decay, and regeneration will only be possible if people stop visiting the area for the foreseeable future.

To understand the ecological importance of Glendon in specific terms, and why its preservation is so critical, it's perhaps helpful to understand how it earned its designation as Environmentally Significant Area (ESA) #34. At 60.6 hectares in size (77.5 hectares if you include successional habitats) Glendon Forest ranks amongst the largest forests in the City of Toronto. Its mix of woodland and wetland serves as habitat for over forty different vegetation communities, at least thirty-seven species of regionally-rare flora, and over a hundred species of fauna. Its substantial wetland supports a water storage area of approximately 6.3 hectares and serves as an important breeding ground and migratory stopover. In short, Glendon is not only an important home to vulnerable and rare plants and animals, but also provides vital ecological functions the effects of which are felt outside the bounds of the forest proper.

There is a challenging balance to be struck between preserving and protecting our natural environment, and keeping it accessible to the public. Recent history has shown that without passionate advocates, places like Glendon are too easily treated like "resources" rather than "heritage," a distinction that is all too often detrimental to the environment in question. Coupled with the constant infringements made by nearby urban development, advocacy must also inspire stewardship if these environments are to survive long-term. While there are some individuals who will be motivated to affection and action by purely abstract inspirations, a greater bulk of people require a personal, intimate connection with these places before they are willing to dedicate time, money and/or energy in their defence. So, to protect these places and spaces we must encourage people to visit them and accommodate them when they do, despite the fact that each visit comes at a cost to the very environment we seek to protect.

Such a strategy will only work, however, if "responsible use" is the watchword we are all bound by. In Glendon, responsible use effectively means only this: stay on the established trails, obey any posted signs (including those asking you to stay off an established trail) and keep your dog(s) on a leash. Sadly, as is evidenced by the gated bridges and flurry of signs and public notices, far too many of us are unwilling to be bound by even such simple limitations as these.

A case in point: Glendon has had a long standing problem with commercial dog walkers. Obviously, to insinuate that these folks carry sole blame for the problems at Glendon would be harshly inaccurate. That said, there is little doubt in my mind they must shoulder a wealth of blame so large as to make all other contributors seem pretty trivial. In the many visits I've made to Glendon over the years, I've never once witnessed a dogless visitor blatantly flaunting the rules of responsible use. Yet on each and every trip, without exception, I have encountered between two and five commercial dog walkers, each with a pack of four to seven dogs who they let off leash to wander wherever they so please, leaving behind them a wake of disturbance and disruption.

During today's visit, Abbey and I happened across just such a scene. A dog walker escorted a pack of five dogs into the forest, freeing them of their leashes immediately in front of a sign instructing people not to do so. Within seconds, half the dogs were trampling through the understory. Within minutes, the dog walker could be heard hollering and screaming for a particular dog who had now gone missing. From a vantage point further up along the trail, we watched as the dog walker thrashed her own way through the underbrush, crushing plants and snapping branches as she attempted to track down the missing pup. I consider it insult to injury that she did all this is pursuit of her own financial gain, effectively subordinating our shared natural heritage for her own personal profit.

It shouldn't be hard to imagine the sheer and utter frustration felt by the conservationists working to protect Glendon Forest in the face of behaviors like those described above. They post dozens of signs throughout the forest essentially begging people to keep their dogs on a leash, yet virtually no one does. They ask people to stay on the trails, yet evidence abounds that many folks essentially go wherever they please. They erect everything from wooden fences to massive iron gates to try an dissuade people from entering particularly sensitive areas, only to find these obstacles bent, broken and bypassed. It's nothing short of heart-breaking to see a place as important as Glendon being torn apart by the blatant selfishness of a few and the contemptuous ignorance of many others, most of whom I suspect were drawn to Glendon by the same fragile beauty they are actively destroying.

Nonetheless, rumour has it that those who wish to preserve and revitalize Glendon are planning even more aggressive actions. Apparently, a new solution may soon be attempted: a one and a half kilometer cantilever-raised platform trail. Elevated over a metre above the forest floor, and framed by various fences, railings, and extensions, this wooden walkway will attempt to combine psychological deterrents with physical barriers in an effort to FORCE people to behave themselves. Several dedicated observation posts will be positioned along the trail to offer people a chance to witness and reflect upon the forest, but essentially visitors to Glendon may soon by physically separated from the environment itself, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, simply because people refuse to abide by reasonable requests for responsible use.

In addition to the cantilever trail, apparently the new stewardship plan for Glendon Forest also involves establishing a solar pit greenhouse near Proctor Field House on the York Campus at the northern end of the forest. This would provide a sustainable, fully-controlled environment in which native plants could be grown year round for the purposes of transplant into the natural environment. It's an idea I find particularly clever and, assuming it comes to fruition, something I'll be watching with great interest as a potential model for similar stewardship efforts in and around the GTA.

To swing this post back around to today's hike itself, Abbey and I continued along the western trail until we reached the turn off to the athletics field on the York Campus. Over a century ago, this field served agriculture purposes, a little fact I mentioned to Abbey as we spread out a blanket in the grass and unpacked our little picnic lunches. The field was completely empty save for us, and a good spot to enjoy the sun and a bite to eat.

After lunch, we retraced our steps back along the western trail until we hit the fork that leads to the side trail we had used to enter Glendon from the parking lot. Rather than take this route back, we opted instead to keep following the western trail back to the official trail head. This afforded us the opportunity to see a larger portion of the 2.5 acre wetlands that occupies this area. Cattails, Blue Flag Iris, Elderberry and Joe-Pye Weed could all be seen in abundance as we walked, accompanied by the chirps and songs of the countless birds that make their homes within.

The most remarkable sight of the hike, however, came to us as we skirted the eastern edge of the wetland not too far from our exit point. The pond waters close to the edge of the trail were alive with a teaming, swarming mass of tadpoles numbering in the hundreds, perhaps even thousands. According to a June 2012 report on Environmentally Significant Areas in the City of Toronto, Glendon is a well-known breeding spot for Green Frogs, so I have to assume that's what these were. Regardless of species, it was a pretty incredible thing to see. Abbey and I spent about a half an hour crouched over the water, chatting about things like metamorphosis and watching these little guys wriggle around in seemingly random directions, oblivious to the giants towering above them. And us, surrounded by a shield of trees and plants, equally oblivious to the hustle and bustle of the city but a few hundred meters away.

Total Distance: Approx. 2.63km
Trail Map: Google Earth | Google Maps
Start Coordinates: +43°43'25.00" N -79°21'54.51" W
End Coordinates: +43°43'25.29" N -79°21'55.74" W

Saturday, June 8, 2013

June 8, 2013: Todmorden Mills Wildflower Preserve

The Oxbow trail through the Todmorden Mills Wildflower Preserve might very well be one of the most wonderful fifteen minute hikes Toronto has to offer. The trail encircles what was once a u-shaped bend (called an 'oxbow') in the natural course of the Don River, which was severed off back in 1959 when the river was rerouted to permit construction of the Don Valley Parkway. It's an area of significant historic interest, great natural beauty, and one the most immediately approachable examples of the challenges faced in renaturalizing our urban environment. And at about half a kilometer in length, it's the type of amble that can be squeezed in to even the busiest day, which is exactly how it won a visit by us today.

The nine hectare Wildflower Preserve is located within the greater acreage of the Todmorden Mills Heritage Museum grounds, which was established in May of 1967 thanks to the passionate lobbying of the "grandmother of East York," Mayor True Davidson, and venerable Toronto naturalist, Charles Sauriol. The museum lands (coupled with nearby Crothers Woods) has served as home to some very important characters and industries of early Toronto history. It was in this area that, at the end of the 18th century, Isaiah and Aaron Skinner constructed the first grist mill on the Don River, using mill stones and irons bequeathed to them by then Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe. By 1823 the Helliwell family brewery and distillery would be built nearby, and help earn the area the moniker 'Todmorden' after the Helliwell's home back in Lancashire, England. Only a few years later one of the very first machine-made paper mills in Upper Canada would open its doors, producing (amongst other things) newsprint for such important publications as William Lyon Mackenzie’s newspaper, The Colonial Advocate. By 1855 the Taylor Brothers' York Paper Mill (or ' Lower Mill' as it was more often called) would stand on the site. From this area of Toronto, it is said, once flowed most of our most coveted staples: flour, paper, and booze.

The Wildflower Preserve itself was established in 1991 by the combined efforts of Charles Sauriol and his friend Dave Money, past-president of the Ontario Horticultural Association. A combination of factors had, over the decades, led to a marked ecological degradation of the Todmorden site. Most notably, the whole area was almost completely overrun by invasive species such as Dames's Rocket, Manitoba Maple, Urban Avens, Garlic Mustard, Himalayan Balsam, Black Alder, Tartarian Honeysuckle and Japanese Knotweed. In fact, it is estimated that by the turn of the millennium some 75% of the biomass at Todmorden consisted of invasive or introduced plant species - and this estimate followed several years of dedicated eradication and renaturalization efforts by a figurative legion of volunteers and conservationalists. In establishing the Wildflower Preserve, Sauriol and Money hoped that the Todmorden site might eventually be returned to a regionally natural state, colonized by a more robust and distinctly native population of flora and fauna.

Thanks to the Wildflower Preserve, its associated charitable organization, and its passionate volunteers, the situation has most definitely improved since 1991. According to the Todmorden Mills Environmental Baseline Study conducted by James Kamstra in 2003, of the 375 species of vascular plants identified on the site, approximately 240 species are regionally native with some 150 of those having been introduced to the site as a part or restoration efforts. And, while our hike today left me with little question that the battle is far from over, it also proved to me the war is far from lost. I'd think that a similar study conducted today would show that progress has continued to be made over the last decade.

The Oxbow trail was established under the assumption that it would most often be visited as a part of one's visit to the Todmorden Mills Heritage Museum. As a result, the primary access point to the trail in the south-west corner of the eastern lawn, where the bulk of Todmorden's collection of historic buildings are located. Recent construction efforts have made some significant changes to the way parking on the site works and we found that accessing the Wildflower Preserve from the southern-most lot to be easiest - basically taking the trail backwards. The only real disadvantage here is that you miss out on the Parks, Forestry & Recreation signage which is located at the official trail head.

In what I believe to be a first for this blog, the parking lot itself is actually worthy of some commentary. While its use as a parking lot started during the construction of the DVP, this location was once a field that served a much different purpose: Prisoner of War camp. During WWII, members of the German merchant marines were housed here in tents and huts while labouring at the nearby Brick Works and/or Greenwood clay pits. Although, according to the biography of True Davidson, calling it a POW camp might potentially be a bit harsh, "I remember being told by a long-time resident of East York that these were very low-risk prisoners, mostly merchant seamen caught in Commonwealth ports when war was declared. The internees worked in the brickyards and ... often socialized with their guards and residents of the community after work in the bar at the Todmorden Hotel at the top of Pottery Road hill." The prisoners were released and repatriated at the end of the war, and the camp itself was trashed by vandals shortly thereafter. The last remaining camp structures fell to arsonists in March, 1946.

Entering the Oxbow trail from the southern end of the parking lot leads one along the edge of a lush and lovely meadow, populated by an abundance of species including Wild Bergamot, Michigan Lily, Grey-headed Coneflower, Canada Goldenrod, Butterfly Milkweed, Cup Plant, Kentucky Bluegrass, Heath Aster and Sharp-lobed Hepatica to name but a handful. The meadow is also home to the dreaded Dog-strangling vine, as attested to by a prominent sign found by the side of the trail. The sign, sponsored by the Ontario Invasive Plant Council, directs visitors to report sightings of the plant to Ontario's Invading Species Awareness Program at 1-800-563-7711. The website also offers a handy form for submitting detailed sighting reports. Obviously, sightings are collected for all of Ontario, not just Todmorden, so both methods are now but a finger tap away on my phone and at the ready for future encounters in unexpected places.

Also found in the meadow is a non-native species whose charms are so plentiful it's somewhat difficult to disparage its presence: Black Locust. In fact, rumour has it that at least some of the Black Locust in Todmorden may have been introduced by Charles Sauriol himself who, as an avid beekeeper, was likely enamored by the quality and quantity of honey produced by bees who feed on their nectar-rich blossoms. This species is equally famous for the nitrogen-fixing bacteria it hosts on its root system, which allows these tree to grow in very poor soil conditions and serve as an effective colonizer of eroded or disturbed areas. It is, however, the intense fragrance of its flowers that may be its most endearing characteristic . Abbey spent more than a few minutes lingering around a particularly large specimen we discovered in full bloom, essentially face-planting herself in its flower clusters, intoxicated by their remarkable scent.

The trail soon skirts along Todmorden's most heavily forest area. Sycamore, Sugar Maple, Silver Maple, American Elm, Trembling Aspen and White Ash, as well as regionally rare Red Cedar and Slippery Elm, can all be found scattered from the edge of the wetlands all the way out to the southern end of the site over by Chester Hill Rd. While a few loose trails do branch off deeper in to the woods, we kept along the Oxbow trail proper as it arched its way further in to the wetlands. Aside from the fact that this trail follows a more densely scenic route, the woods off-trail are known to contain rather aggressive nests of invasive European Fire Ants who may swarm and sting if disturbed. So while I can't comment on what wonders may lie elsewhere, I can say the understory we saw from the trail is certain not shy on beauty. Scores of species occupy your view no matter where you look, including such interesting fellows as Riverbank Grape, Virginia Creeper, Virginia Water-leaf, Burdock, Jack-in-the-pulpit, White Trillium, Chokecherry, Hedge Bindweed, Bloodroot and Heart-leaved Aster. These woods are also known to support one of the largest populations of Skunk Cabbage in the Greater Toronto Area; in league with Nordheimer Ravine, I'm told. These plants are very early bloomers, known for flowering while there is still snow on the ground - a sight which might be worthy of a trip all its own next year.

Continuing along, the trail soon ascends a flight of wooden stairs and then on to cross a few sturdy, boardwalk bridges. Natural springs, coupled with runoff from the streets above, create intermittent watercourses that flow down from the steep valley walls to the east. As they level out to join the Oxbow, they help to create marsh-like conditions which serve as home to Swamp Milkweed, Jerusalem Artichoke, Marsh Marigold, Red Osier Dogwood, Cow Parsnip, Spotted Jewelweed, Fringed Loosestrife, Joe Pye Weed, and a variety of ferns including Marginal Wood Fern, Christmas Fern, and Ostrich Fern. Moss-covered logs lay strewn about in abundance, serving as home to countless creepy-crawlies as well as majestic examples of bracket fungi and other mushrooms that I sadly know very little about.

Next up along the trail is the spectacular Todmorden Pond, which came in to being in 1994 after volunteers enhanced and deepened a large natural depression, hoping it could serve as vital habitat for a variety of local flora and fauna. Efforts were quite successful it would seem - sitting by the water's edge our vision was filled with Cattail, Smartweed, Burreed, Duckweed and patches of Blue Flag Iris (and non-native Yellow Iris) in bloom. But the true highlight was the chorus of Green Frogs glugging away their banjo-like calls and splashing about in search of food. I've been told that both Snapping turtles and Red-eared Slider turtles are residents of Todmorden Pond as well, but none made themselves known to us during our twenty minute stay by the pond.

From the pond it's hardly a two minute stroll to the edge of the Preserve which, as mentioned previously, is actually the official trail head. Rather than complete the loop by crossing the bridge back to the parking lot, we instead opted to retrace our steps back around the Oxbow. Taking the trail in reverse gave us an opportunity to catch a variety of sights we missed during out first pass, and would certainly be the route I recommend to anyone who is interested.

Total Distance: Approx. 0.81km
Trail Map: Google Earth | Google Maps
Start Coordinates: +43°41'04.48" N -79°21'35.18" W
End Coordinates: +43°41'04.48" N -79°21'35.18" W (round trip hike)