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Toronto ravines reveal the city's rooted-in-nature history

Renee Tratch
Digital Writer, theweathernetwork.com

Thursday, October 22, 2015, 2:20 PM -

No better time to explore nature than when the fall colours are ablaze. And with almost 20 per cent of the city made up of ravines and forests, Torontonians don’t even have to leave town to escape into the great outdoors.

“One in five footsteps that you can take in the city would land you in a ravine or one of our forests,” says Jason Ramsay-Brown, author of Toronto’s Ravines and Urban Forests.

“If you are taking a road and it meanders an odd way, chances are you are going around a natural area. If you see a patch of green on the side of a bridge, chances are you are going over a ravine,” he explains.

Ramsay-Brown has spent most of his life exploring, enjoying and commuting through more than 100 of these “vital civic treasures.” But upon crossing the Don Valley River five years ago with his then four-year-old daughter, it was her question “where does that river come from?” that prompted a deeper study.

“The curiosity of a kid is insatiable and for all I knew about the ravines, I found that there was a lot of unanswered questions,” says Ramsay-Brown.

So a summer of exploring the ravines turned into research at a much broader level and a gathering of close to 10,000 photos of the ravines going back 15 years. The final product was released earlier this summer -- a collection of the local history and natural heritage of 29 of these special places.

“Our ravines overall represent some of the most ancient history of the city,” he continues. “I don’t think there is a ravine or a green spot that doesn’t have some sort of unique story behind it.”

A look into the past of Gates Gully east of Scarborough Bluffs, for example, reveals human activity and human settlement that goes back to around 9,000 BCE. And in more recent history, these ravines were used in the 19th century by smugglers to bring up materials such as leather and tobacco in order to avoid taxes.

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At one point, the central Don Valley at Todmorden Mills Wildflower Reserve was an epicentre of everything that helped build the city. But the site, which had a flour mill, paper mill and brewery, became a disaster. Largely non-native plants began to overrun the area, the adjacent brickyards had a history of dumping broken bricks into it, and the DVP had carved through it, separating a part of the Don River from the main river.

“Were it not for the stewardship group since the early 90s, I don’t even know if that place would exist anymore,” says Ramsay-Brown.

For the last 20 years, passionate groups of volunteers across the city have worked to maintain and restore these areas that are surrounded by asphalt and concrete.

But they are still in jeopardy. While approximately 20 per cent of the city is protected by ravine legislation, the actual enforcement is most often beyond the average citizen. But for Ramsay-Brown, there is still much that can be done at an individual level.

“The first and most important one is responsible use,” he explains. “There are bird migration corridors and nesting grounds, rare habitat and in some cases only exists in a handful of spots. So if these places are going to survive and let’s hope, even thrive, the primary thing that the average person can do is just look at what they are asked not to do. And not do it.” Dogs running off-leash, for example, can disturb nesting grounds, vital habitat and spread invasive species.

Stewardship is open to everyone, but it can also extend into your own backyard. Ravine land ownership is 60 per cent public and 40 per cent private, with 30,000 private addresses within ravines.

“When you’re looking to fill a garden spot, try and choose a native species indigenous to Toronto so that it can provide habitat for insects and food for birds,” continues Ramsay-Brown.

This year the City of Toronto launched its Ravine Strategy, a 50-year plan to guide the future management, use and protection of the ravines in face of the city’s population growth, urban development and climate change. A report to Parks and Environment Committee on draft Ravine Strategy is scheduled for April 2016.

Ramsay-Brown is part of the Ravine Strategy Advisory Group. And he remains hopeful.

“Once you are confronted with that solitude and that beauty and that diversity and that character, you can’t help but fall in love with (the ravines.) And people protect what they love.”

Ramsay-Brown is sharing his stories about the city’s ravines and urban forests at Toronto Public Library branches this fall as part of the Fragile Planet Series.

Here is a look at some of the sights you’ll find in Toronto’s ravines:

For more information on Toronto ravines, visit the following resources:

Thumbnail image courtesy of Janet Gosselin, North Bay, ON.

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