Lost rivers

Photos by the author.

A web of streams once swirled through the vast area that is now Toronto. Once upon a time, your ears would have been filled by sounds of water flow, rather than construction and traffic.

You’ve probably heard of the Don, the Rouge and the Humber rivers. But buried beneath the pavement are a network of dozens more that have largely been forgotten.

Lost Rivers Toronto is an organization that exists to bring these creeks, streams and rivers back into the public’s awareness, encouraging people to honour what was here first.  It hopes to help inspire a brighter, more conscious urban future.

Roger Powley, a member of the Toronto Field Naturalists—a group that partners with Lost Rivers—is working to eventually uncover the city’s lost waterways.

“The rivers just got to be so bad and polluted that the city just piped them like a sewer,” Powley said.

“A lot of our rivers have been lost because of that, because nobody wanted them on the surface. They were also piped for development purposes, when they were thinking about flood control and everything else, too.”

But if you’re looking for them, traces of the rivers are everywhere—they shaped the city as we know it.

The influence of Taddle Creek, for example, is the reason why Queen’s Park Crescent curves asymmetrically on its southwestern side.  And two waterways—Moss Park Creek and Mutual Stream—once ran through the campus of Ryerson University, according to maps from Lost Rivers.

The list of these lost rivers goes on and on, with Garrison Creek, Castle Frank Brook, Ashbridges Creek, Mud Creek and many more.

Although people in Toronto tend to be deeply rooted in pursuits of all kinds, implying some sort of awareness, I find that there’s a lack of collective consciousness among people, and between people and our earth.

Out of the 20 or so folks whom I’ve mentioned Toronto’s buried, lost rivers to, only a few of them had any knowledge of this part of Toronto’s environmental history, like myself. Somehow, we’re navigating through a city that’s absolutely bursting with development, without any knowledge of what we developed from.

Toronto has a way with making me feel quite buried sometimes. I’m often gasping for air, trying to find stillness in the perpetual movement and trying to find green in all the grey. When I started to learn about Toronto’s watershed history, I felt deeply connected but also perplexed.

In hopes of engaging urban dwellers to discover these neglected tributaries, the Lost Rivers website offers walking tours of lost creeks. There are also audio tracks posted online that allow you to take yourself on an informed, self-guided tour.

Mid-fall, I met up with a group of practically dressed comrades at Victoria Park station, where we stood amid the Don Valley watershed. The 12 of us headed towards the BirchCliff Quarry lands, one of Toronto’s few remaining naturally vegetated chunks of land.

Turning left off of Victoria Park Avenue, we came upon a stretch of natural grassland. Richard Anderson, the leader of the tour, instructed us to acknowledge that we were on Indigenous land, and send respect and gratitude to those who were there first. In these moments, all of my Toronto hate felt like it was lifting off of my shoulders.

Where we were standing was the beginning of a big sand and gravel quarry from the early 1900s until some point in the 1950s, Anderson explained.

“This land has had various industrial uses over the years,” he said. “This is a quarry area that’s never actually, as far as we know, been part of a formal re-vegetation, regeneration process. It’s just done it spontaneously.”

Anderson led us deeper into the quarry lands, past the tree line. Suddenly, we were in the middle of a remarkable piece of green space. Immediately, I noticed that I could hear insects and birds in wondrous symphony–a sound I’ve never heard plentifully in this city before.

Many in the group sighed with sadness when we learned that the land is threatened by development. The amount of land that will be left in its natural state is unknown, although there is a tentative plan to make part of it into a city park, Anderson added.

“Unfortunately, for the moment, it’s doomed. It’s very sad,” he said.

“The city has essentially confirmed that they are prepared to go forward with construction here. I think they’ve got four apartment buildings planned for this site.”

With a major, heavily used railway line running along the north side of the quarry lands, the plan is to use commercial buildings as a buffer between the railway and the apartments. Most of these deeply rooted, organic life forms will be no more in just a few years time.

Knowing that there are operations in Toronto that function solely to advocate for the rights of native plants and little critters does make me proud. However, it’s disappointing that they don’t have a shot against our ever-capitalizing society. Dozens of rivers were buried without consideration. Natural green spaces, like this one, are being destroyed without remorse.

“This may be one of the nicest pieces of naturalized open space in the east end of the city. It’s a golden opportunity if someone could buy it and preserve it as a park, you could do wonders with this, but it’s probably not going to happen,” Anderson said.

Nature has a hugely positive impact on human health—one that the City of Toronto recognized in a 2015 report that advised the municipal government to invest in creating more green space. Beyond that, however, connecting to the land we walk on has benefits that are harder to quantify, something I recognized on my walk in the quarry lands.

Still, Lost Rivers will continue to rally for creating a “blue green city,” one that’s conscious of water management and environmentally mindful infrastructure to restore this area’s habitats.

You can join the team in their initiatives or walk with them to learn more. The schedule is available on the Lost Rivers website.