The two great watersheds that brace the city of Toronto, the Don and the Humber, provide the north-south course for more than 10,000 hectares of green space, and they interconnect a lattice of smaller municipal parks, ravines and hollows that thread through the city. These smaller lots are maintained by the respective boroughs, and the only mandate hailing from the city fathers in the wake of hurricane Hazel in 1956 was that there was to be no building in the major waterways. The no-build edict proved to have been particularly apt this past June when the rains came with unusual ferocity. Remember the image of the drowned bus in the lower Don while frightened passengers awaited rescue. But the no-build edict has also rendered, as a consequence, the rarity of a city enfolded in green.
Twenty years ago when I was monitoring an urban planning conference, a European urban architect commented that in a city of such magnitude with so much spread, this much green was remarkable. “It is a city built in a park,” he noted. And I registered for the first time what I had taken for granted in my first 20 years living in downtown Toronto.
Ten years ago, the ravines took on a wholly new meaning as our means of transit and training when we began the program to train mid-life women to run a marathon. From 2002 to 2009, we recruited upwards of 200 women every January and launched them on an endeavour that would take them to the start line of a fall marathon in nine months.
Winter running is not done in the ravines, but then again that was early in the program, and these novices relished the breaks that stoplights provided. But by the end of summer, they were logging 30-35 K runs on the weekends and 10-15 K runs in the week, and now stoplights were anathema.
Plus we had discovered the ravines.
Two hundred women all setting out to run 35 K at the same time is a daunting prospect and a logistical conundrum — until the ravines showed the way to split the groups into the west, east, and north entry points for our women. They met in their own hoods and left from High Park going east to the Humber, Edwards Gardens going south to the Don, Ashbridges Bay going east to the Bluffs. At some points we might cross paths and on some long, long runs we ran to each others’ hoods. And we always knew where to find respite, food and good cheer.
For me, the treasure of this time was that our women were safe. There was heartfelt camaraderie in the wonderful isolation of trail runs and in the green canopies that we all sought in the hazy days of August. We became enamoured with water. Not only along the waterfront where the skulls raced in the rise of dawn as we ran east or the flocks of geese nesting along the boardwalk of the Ex, but also when we ran, cushioned within the mini-cascades of the Don and the smooth ebb of the Humber.
One of our running coaches, as a point of pride, took on the task of creating runs that never had a stoplight in their course. We ran in green space, long distances, and even though we knew that public transit was nearby, the joking about wanting to or needing to cut out never seemed serious. For those eight years, the ravines and the waterfront linked a mass of women who, years on, I still meet out there in small groups on any Saturday run.
The winter activity that the ravines do support is cross-country skiing, requiring only enough snow to make it passable on boards. So this past winter we had a February dump that unfolded a spectacular white wonderland in the Don. For the two days that the temperature held low, we travelled this river route along with dozens of others who descended into the valley from a myriad of access points, all now visible in the ski tracks.
Along its length, I was reminded that we are villages in this city. We ran into friends, I ran into patients. Time slowed and crystallized however briefly, like the frost on laden sumac misting in the suns rays.
We were nearing the Brickworks, ready for lunch, when we stopped to share our one iPhone, broadcasting CBC’s Sunday Edition with Michael Enright. That meant we had one earplug each, draped over each other, leaning on poles. And that was enough to draw the attention of two drivers on the Bayview extension – a reasonably busy highway access. One got out of her car at the stoplight to ask if we needed assistance in any way. So did the other a bit later, as he waited to get onto the road. I was astonished and somehow grateful. I didn’t think we looked particularly distressed but to passersby, something must have seemed odd. Taking the time to stop and inquire was a warm act indeed.
Perhaps that is the greatest gift of the ravines – it slows time while you are there, it lets you see the same thing differently, it lets you look and think and respond.