If there was any lesson to take home from a recent stroll through some East End ravines following a partially buried creek, it was perhaps that the only constant is change.
About 50 people took part in a recent Lost Rivers walk through the ravines home to the accessible remains of Small’s Creek. While some sections of Williamson Park Ravine appear to be long-established wild areas of Toronto, walk leader John Wilson remembers a time in recent memory when the city’s efforts to rid the ravine of invasive plants left the forest looking much worse for wear.
“It looked like they were clear cutting the ravine,” he said.
Two decades later, one would be hard pressed to find much evidence of that culling in the riot of green growing along the sections of creek that still flow in the open air. But it didn’t take long for Helen Mills of Lost Rivers to point out a Norway maple, “which is a plague in Toronto’s ravines.”
Although the imported maples do make good street trees, she said, they out-compete native species and can quickly overtake ravines if left unchecked.
The city has been planting some native trees and trying to remove the invasive dog strangling vine recently, according to Dina Waik, a member of the Friends of Small’s Creek Ravines, the neighbourhood advocacy group that helped organize the walk.
But the ravine is still a mix of native and invasive plants, said Mills.
Wandering through Williamson Park Ravine, she pointed out elderberry, dogwoods and cedars near a swampy area, then a butternut and a black cherry tree on the side of a sandy hill. Along with the black cherry, which feeds 98 species of bird and many insects, the ravine also featured jewel wee, known as touch-me-nots, “which is a hummingbird magnet.”
On the invasive side, along with the Norway maples, Japanese knot weed was growing quite thickly through one stretch, while watercress planted by neighbours lined the bank of the creek along a small section in Merrill Bridge Road Park.
While a walk in a formerly garbage-strewn ravine crossed by a rail line might not seem a huge draw to some, the popularity of the walk should be no surprise, as Small’s Creek and surrounding area have been attracting those interested in the outdoors for more than a century.
In fact, a section of what was once abandoned farmland south of the railway tracks between Coxwell and Woodbine was the first home of the exclusive Toronto Golf Club, which moved to its current home just across the Mississauga border in the early 1900s. It is the third oldest club on the continent.
Previous to that, however, the club operated in the East End after its founding by James Lamond Smith, whose name might be known to Upper Beach residents from Benlamond Avenue. The street was named after a former community that became part of the village of East Toronto.
In 1888, there were 35 members in the club, annual dues were $5 and there was an entrance fee of $5, according to the Toronto Golf Club. The club purchased the land in 1894, along with a deserted mansion known locally as a haunted house, which was rebuilt into the clubhouse.
Walking the heavily wooded ravine that is bisected by the rail line, it can be hard to imagine that the area was once home not only to a golf club, but also the Lindenhurst railway station and a number of farms.
Waik noted other historical points of interest along the way.
East Lynn Park, where the walk started and roughly where the creek begins, still shows signs in its landscape of holding the remnants of a watercourse, though it doesn’t necessarily show that it was once a garbage dump.
The creek was buried under the backyards of homes just south of the park, where Waik says all the neighbours have wet back yards.
Merrill Bridge Road hosts a few unusual homes as well, according to Waik. An oddly shaped house on the south side used to be a local mill, while a few of the homes now have two-level basements. As the street’s name suggests, it used to be a bridge over the creek, and when the ravine was filled in, the homeowners at the time simply added another level of basement as their houses were elevated to the new grade.
Merrill Bridge Road Park, which hosts one of the city’s only unfenced off-leash dog areas, was at one point a coal dump and water pickup spot for CN crews.
Waik, however, is more concerned with the current state of the creek and ravines, pointing out that since many creeks and streams are buried across Toronto, the fact that any of Small’s Creek is above grade is something to be thankful for.
“To have even a little bit of it here is a real coup,” she said.
While there’s much work to be done, artist Karen Franzen, one of the original Friends, said the city is not neglecting the ravines. New stairs are planned for one particularly eroded slope, and the city will hold a public consultation in the fall for a management plan that is in the works for the coming years.
Creating the Friends group was one way for area residents to let the city know the neighbours have a stake in keeping the ravines in good shape.
“We’re hoping we can have a unified voice to make improvements to the ravine,” she said.
Franzen said her own property illustrates one of the unique challenges of the ravines. Her property line extends down the slope in a pie shape, all the way to the edge of the creek. Part of the challenge of any management plan will be working with all the homeowners, some of whose property lines also extend well into the ravine.
Louise Dixon, a member of the Friends group, summed up another challenge: the growing popularity of Toronto’s green spaces.
“There’s a lot more people using the ravines now than there ever used to be,” she said.
Along the washed-out slope where a new staircase is planned, Mills acknowledged that balancing preservation and access will be the key.
“This erosion is a good example of us loving our ravines to death,” she said.
Still, as the interest shown by the crowd indicates, there seems to be an agreement that the work will be worth the effort in the long run.
“There are a lot of problems with it, but it really is quite unique,” said Wilson.