A sliver of Narnia that makes you forget the 401

MARCUS GEE

May 8, 2010

When you were a child, did you have some special, magical place in the outdoors: a tangle of woods behind the house that was your own personal Narnia, a hill that you climbed as if ascending Everest, a cottage bay that seemed as secret as a pirate’s cove?

For me, that place was the Rouge Valley. In the 1960s my father took my younger brother and I there for weekend adventures. We would drive beyond what were then the farthest suburbs and park near a farmhouse, descending into the valley by way of a trail used by weekend horse riders. At the bottom were open fields with tall brown grass, small woods and the ruins of old homesteads, all of it criss-crossed by the rushing milky waters of the Rouge River and Little Rouge Creek.

My brother and I built a fort in a cedar grove out of old split rails from a farm fence. We roasted hot dogs over a fire that we ringed with river stones. On one birthday-party outing, my pals and I spent hours trying to dam the river with logs and rocks and mud – a failed engineering project, but glorious fun.

Dad discovered the Rouge as a boy in the 1930s, riding his bike all the way from his home in the Beach with his best friend Al. Later he carved his initials beside those of his future wife in the bark of an old tree near the river. The Rouge awoke his love of exploring, and, through him, mine.

The valley today is a different place than it was. Bland subdivisions crowd up to its very edges. The 401 roars over it. But descend into it, as I did the other day, and you can still experience the feeling of apartness that long ago aroused my sense of wonder.

In the part I know best, just north of the 401, you can explore a network of trails that cover the sides of the valley and follow the river below. Sprays of trilliums lined the path I took: the Mast Trail, where foresters once felled great trees to supply the British Navy with spars. Trout spawn in the river below, turtles lay nests in its sandy banks and bald eagles sometimes perch in the trees that hang over it.

That the Rouge survived at all is something of a miracle. The march of urban sprawl was encroaching from all directions when the Save the Rouge movement persuaded the government of Premier David Peterson to protect it, putting a halt to plans for garbage dumps and highways.

It became a park in 1995 and now covers 47 square kilometres, 13 times the size of New York’s Central Park, in a triangle spreading from the lake to the verge of the post-glacial Oak Ridges Moraine. It is such a treasure that mayoral candidate George Smitherman wants it declared a national park.

The magnificence of the Don Valley was compromised by the parkway decades ago. The Humber Valley is squeezed by development. Only the Rouge remains. It is the single significant break in the great wash of subdivisions, malls and industrial parks that spreads from Scarborough to Pickering, Whitby and beyond. One minute you can be grabbing a sandwich at Subway, the next walking alone in a fragment of rare Carolinian forest.

Places like this have a special pull. Since discovering the Rouge, I’ve learned to love exploring fragments of wildness in big cities. In Mexico City, I took a bus through choking traffic to a mountain park where I glimpsed a red warbler in the underbrush. In Port of Spain, Trinidad, I left a busy suburban road, walked across a golf course and found a trail to a perfect tropical pool fed by a waterfall. It always amazes me how few people you find in places like these.

For all its wonders, the Rouge is unknown to most Torontonians. Tens of thousands people traverse it every day without a second thought. They are missing something.

When my first child, a son, was born, I knew I had to introduce him to the Rouge. With my dad and brother along, we went to look for that old horse trail, but the farm where we used to stop was long gone. We searched down one suburban cul de sac after another. We had almost given up when we saw a wild-looking thicket at the end of a street. We pulled apart the brush and, lo, there it was: the path to the hidden valley. Despite the onrush of the spreading city, the magic of the Rouge remains.

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