Lifejackets fastened and paddles in hand, the canoe made a gentle splash and a graceful entrance into the Don River on Sunday morning. Bernie McIntyre steered and narrated every bend and ripple as we navigated the river as part of Paddle the Don, an annual fundraising event put on by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. This year, with 300 canoes and about 700 participants, the event had its largest turnout ever.
Paddle the Don is a once-a-year event during which the TRCA opens up the gate at the G. Lord Ross Dam, at Finch Avenue. This adds a crucial few centimetres of water to the river, so adventurers can enjoy a morning of paddling from Wilket Creek Park, at Eglinton Avenue and Leslie Street, to the mouth of the river. Paddle the Don is pretty much the only time the river is navigable by boat, so it always sells out quickly. This year, the fee for the general public was $100 per boat.
The TRCA kicked off the event with remarks from Premier Kathleen Wynne, who attended the event as both the premier and as the MPP for Don Valley West.
“We were expecting her to arrive in an SUV,” one of the event’s leaders said. “We were looking around, and and then all of a sudden, the premier ran up to us. She ran from home. She didn’t even break a sweat.”
Over the past 20 years, Wynne has seen a remarkable difference in the Don, a river that was once notoriously polluted. The TRCA uses Paddle the Don as a way of leading people to the water and showing them the importance of watershed management.
“The idea that the community is aware of this treasure is great, it’s important,” Wynne told Torontoist. “The Don was in bad shape and it has been restored.”
As we glided along the fairly tame waters, McIntyre, who is a manager at the TRCA, explained the history of the Don River and its trials and tribulations over the years, pointing out structural curiosities and foreign objects bobbing along. We lost count of how many half-buried shopping carts we passed. The glumness in McIntyre’s voice was apparent as he explained that the rocks and netting along the bank near the launch site are the remnants of an old erosion-control technique, now considered to be an unsightly and heavy-handed method of taming the river.
Urbanization has greatly damaged the Don. Excessive building along its flood plains, the use of impermeable pavement, and other man-made incursions have changed the river’s flow and its relationship with the city. During the suburbanization boom in the middle of the 20th century, quick and immediate ways of controlling the flow of water were often used. These days, the TRCA tries to employ more natural and holistic approaches.
Those efforts at control are helped by the fact that the river curves and meanders, which helps slow down its current and manage flooding. But this natural dynamic was disrupted when the Don was shortened to make way for the Don Valley Parkway in the 1950s and 1960s.
Several weirs, or small dams, were set up to keep the river under control, but McIntyre calls them “death traps.” If a canoeist were to try to go over a weir, he or she could drown in the forceful rapids below. Fish can’t pass the weirs either, and the TRCA has noticed an impact on marine life in nearby creeks. Around the Evergreen Brick Works, while we portaged to bypass a weir, McIntyre pointed out a pile of large, rounded boulders that have formed a low pyramid on the bank. This was a non-invasive method of slowing down the river’s energy while allowing fish to pass through.
As we made our way downstream, we saw some wildlife—a sunbathing turtle, Canada geese, plenty of mallards, and many red-winged blackbirds—but after we passed underneath Pottery Road, we noticed that the banks were teeming with people. While the water might not be open to the public just yet, it’s certainly a popular destination.
Despite the highway lamps peeking over the tree canopy and the traffic whizzing by on the Don Valley Parkway, it was relatively silent on the water. McIntyre took a moment to enjoy the birds chirping. At some points, the shrubbery along the banks was thick and lush. Slumping willow trees patted paddlers on the shoulders, and the architecturally stunning Bloor Viaduct is even more majestic from a fish’s eye view.
“Ribbons of these ravines thread through three million people,” McIntyre said. It’s a poetic notion, but it’s true.