Toronto’s Ravines On The Edge – Fall Forum #4, 2019

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“Venice has its canals, but no other city has ravines like Toronto.”

Ian Darragh, master photographer and former editor-in-chief of Canadian Geographic magazine, has, for the past two years, been a volunteer for the city of Toronto’s Community Stewardship Program. His passion for the ravines that cover 17 percent of the Toronto area shone through his fascinating “show and tell” Forum presentation on the extraordinary ecosystem that makes our city unique.

The Toronto waterway system, dominated by the Humber, Don, and Rouge rivers, offers us so many trails and secret places to discover. The system had its origins in the glaciers (“two-and-a-half times as high as the CN Tower”) that blanketed this region some 15,000 years ago. When the glaciers started to retreat, melt water carved out the ravines we know today.

Another pivotal event that shaped our ravines was Hurricane Hazel, the deadly and destructive weather system that struck the Toronto area in 1954. A positive result was the implementation of flood control systems to mitigate future catastrophes.

Ian’s slides took us to some of his special spots in our urban wilderness: children examine a snapping turtle in the ponds at the Don Valley Brick Works; a salmon attempts to leap up the Humber River. One of Ian’s favourite ravines is the Vale of Avoca in the St. Clair/Deer Park neighbourhood. There is a footbridge spanning the Yellow Creek that he likes to photograph in all seasons.

However, the picture has a darker side. Climate change is a major threat, as is the widespread practice of paving over gardens, which causes excessive runoff into sewers and ravines. Monsoon-like rains and flash floods led to a five-year-long closure of the Wilket Creek trail. Invasive plants such as the dog-strangling vine are another problem, as they rob native species of their nutrients. And the Norway maple trees that proliferate in the Moore Park ravine have caused the desertification of the forest floor — fungi in their roots kill native plants.

“Torontonians love their ravines too much,” commented Ian dryly, showing us an ancient beech tree deeply scored with carvings of lovers’ initials. Or perhaps we don’t love our ravines enough: one of his photos shows garbage bins overflowing with coffee cups and other refuse.

Good news is that volunteers in the Community Stewardship Program fan out across natural areas in the city between spring and early fall. Their activities include cleaning up, monitoring, removing invasive species, and establishing natural regeneration areas.

Ian ended his presentation with the slide of a house perched on the edge of a ravine, and a powerful quote from Anne Michaels’ novel Fugitive Pieces: Toronto is “a city of ravines.… Through these great sunken gardens you can traverse the city beneath the streets, look up to the floating neighbourhoods, houses built in the treetops.”

By Lorna Poplak

Some additional resources:

Toronto's Ravines and Urban Forests: Their Natural Heritage and Local History by Jason Ramsay-Brown. 

An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto's Natural Parklands by Robert Burley et al

City of Toronto Maps of Trails In the Ravines (downloadable pdfs)

Toronto's Lost Rivers and Hiking Trails in the Ravines


Photos of the event to follow shortly