Finding the Don Valley

In 2004, when I was six years old, my family and I moved From America to Toronto. I was leaving behind the forests of rural Missouri.

Days of catching crawdads in the creek (pronounced crick, in the Ozarks drawl) and smelling woodsmoke on starlit summer nights had suddenly disappeared, replaced by a decidedly concrete, urban environment that didn’t really have a precedent in my life at the time. City life was incredibly new to me – Before we crossed the border into Toronto, I thought about what it would be like.

Here are some of the notions I had in my head:

  • Polar bears just walking through the streets – because it’s Canada, and it’s cold, right?
  • The only buildings we’d be seeing would be igloos – because it’s Canada, and it’s cold, right?
  • Subway trains had entire ‘Undercities’ in the tunnels, and people would live in them.

When we arrived in Toronto, we lived in a tall apartment building in the east end of the city. North of us was a largely industrial area, full of concrete factories and chemical plants, abandoned warehouses and empty lots, while to the northwest was the affluent neighborhood of Leaside. But to the northeast and surrounding us on all sides –

That was the Don Valley.

Let me give you some history on the Valley itself. For one thing, it’s had its protectors over the years. It seems like every decade or so the Don Valley chooses someone to champion it, to explore its many hills and ravines. Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), a founding member of the Boy Scouts of America, wrote extensively on the Don Valley, even owning two small cottages for some time in parts of the ravines.

“All my nature craved for knowledge of these things….When I glimpsed some new bird…I got a curious prickling in my scalp. Something clutched my throat; and when the bird flew off, leaving me dark as ever, it was like a swift blackness with a vague sense of sorrow and loss.”

— Ernest Thompson Seton

The second champion of the Don was Charles Sauriol (1904-1995) another naturalist who has written several books on the subject of the Don Valley as well as a major protestor of the Don Valley Parkway, an expressway project constructed in 1961.
He also owned two cottages for some time in the ravines – on the northeast corner of the Forks of the Don, the remnants of which I’ve been to several times, although the area is currently a hotbed of mosquito activity, so I can never stay long. What I have found is the remnants of Sauriol’s old bridge that crosses the Don, and what I believe to be an old well.

Charles Sauriol has written several books on the subject of the Don Valley

Today, the valley is still a hotbed of activity and while it has become less of a wilderness in recent years, there are still areas of it that are largely glossed over by the average hiker or mountain bike enthusiast. Areas with decades upon decades of history just beneath the surface.

I have no cottages in the ravine, nor any published books detailing my explorations, but I am lucky enough to live in a building that is as close to the ravine as possible without actually living in it. As I write this I have a birds-eye view of the 20th century railway bridge that Sauriol showcased in a picture as an example of the industrialization of the natural beauty of the ravine.

And I have some stories and photographs from the sixteen years I’ve spent exploring the Don Valley, which I can share with you here.

The Bottle Dump

Leaside was always a railroad town. It was one of the very first planned communities in Canada, and its streets (Hanna, Wicksteed, Fleming) all showcase that. All of these names harken back to the Canadian National Railway company, who had a hand in organizing the creation of Leaside itself.

One day I was wandering through a part of the forest close to my apartment, south of Leaside along a small western offshoot creek that fed into the Don River, doing some mudlarking, trying to find some interesting fossils or cool rocks when I saw a glint of something half buried in the creekbed. Intrigued, I waded in a little bit and pulled the object out of the creek – finding that it was a large, intact antique wine bottle that seemed to be in relatively good shape. Continuing my search of the creek I found more pieces of busted pottery, and a few old, yellow bricks.

This part of the river was downstream – so I walked further on up the river, through a couple brambles, while being accosted by mosquitos the whole way.

Eventually I reached the bottom of a large ravine. All along the North side of this ravine was a treasure trove of glass. All sorts of cobalt blue bottles, interestingly shaped soda bottles – and it was totally untouched, other than the steady flow of time.

What I’d found was the old Leaside bottle dump. These bottles all date back to the early 20th century, from about 1920 – 1932. Many of these bottles are pharmaceutical in nature, and from my research and some of the embossed glass on the side, I’m inclined to believe they came from the Tamblyn drug store on Bayview and Millwood.

It’s an interesting place – time is frozen there, since it’s so hard to reach due to the hazards of the swamp around it – and the trees blocking it from view, its a very solitary area – a small piece of history hidden amongst the trees of the Don.

And that’s what Sauriol, Seton, and modern contemporaries like Robert Burley – photographer and writer of the book An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Parklands all have in common. We are all explorers – and so very lucky to have these incredible green spaces here in Toronto.