My Tale of the Don River in Toronto
The story of the Don river begins around 12000 years ago when the Don Valley in which it resides was carved out of the land by the Wisconsinan ice sheet, which covered most of Canada and a nice chunk of the northern United States with ice that was a mind boggling 3-4 kilometers thick.
Human beings have been living on or near it ever since then or not long after. My own story of the Don began about 34 years ago when I moved at about the age of five from my hometown in north western Ontario of Thunder Bay to the provincial capital and reigning giant of Canadian urbanization Toronto.
In the span from that glacial birth to now much history has passed, and sadly much of it in the last century or so has been unkind to the Don.
The Don, which begins about 38 kilometers north of Toronto in the Oak Ridges Moraine is actually part of a much larger 360 square kilometer watershed drainage basin on which Toronto sits and which is arguably the most urbanized water sheds in Canada.
In fact, Toronto used to have several streams and brooks in it's downtown, like Taddle and Garrison creek that have long since been paved over and made a part of the city's sewer system.
The Don itself is often referred to as an 'open sewer' and sadly this has mostly been true.
From heavy industry along the Don at the start of the last century, and even after that industry left, all that we have let go down the storm drains, all the salt, all the chemicals, everything that myself and my fellow every day Torontonians from all walks of life have blindly let drain down the gutter has battered and degraded the river.
To make the situation even more grim Toronto has combined sanitary and storm sewers, which means that in periods of extremely heavy rainfall the sanitary sewers can overflow and dump raw untreated waste sewage into the river, causing the bacterial levels in the river to skyrocket.
To make matters worse, because Toronto is so heavily urbanized, much of it is paved, This means there are few places for rainwater to soak into the ground and so instead of water slowly seeping and making it's way to the river, it arrives quickly and violently, scouring the river bottom and destroying habitat along the banks and filling the channel that forms it's mouth with silt.
The storm water runoff also raises the temperature of the river to the point of being intolerable to most fresh water fish.
(This is made even sadder when one considers that the river was once teeming with fish and had huge salmon runs. )
Because the Don river is too small to have created the glacial valley through which it flows it is what is known as a 'misfit river'.
Some who have seen the river at it's beleaguered worst might find a sad and funny irony in that name.
The other side of the story
The story of the Don is a sad and frustrating one, especially when one considers not only how alive and vibrant it once was, but also the part it played, sacrificing itself for Toronto's early development and playing a very key role in heading the city to the prosperity it enjoys today.
A prosperty that began with the first industries, the mills and so on that sprung up along the river.
Without the Don river Toronto could have had a much different and much less prosperous history and yet the very prosperity it spawned was the start of it's downfall.
Yet, as degraded and abused and misused as the river has been, it is still not dead. They may live in the most horrid, oxygen starved over-heated conditions but there are still fish in the river. Creek chub, white sucker, and in my early teens I saw my friend Frank reel in a brook trout just north of York Mills rd.
The valley itself, a thin narrow strip with the city encroaching at all sides has also survived and been a testimony to the tenacity of life.
When I first moved to Toronto as a young boy the city was new and exciting, but also brash and noisy and unsettling. My family had moved to a home near the Don Valley Parkway, and I was kept awake at night by the roar of traffic that now is all but invisible to me.
As I got a little bit older and more or less allowed to set out on my own a bit I would explore the valley, and enjoy the sighting of a muskrat or a red tailed hawk soaring overhead.
It was a place to gather my thoughts, a place to find some calm in the city.
Making a case for the Don
The Don River has and always will have an important place in my heart and a role in my life.
Thankfully I am not alone in my caring for the Don, as excitingly quite a lot in recent years has been done and some amazing progress has been made, thanks to the commitment and involvement of not only government, but also individuals from all walks of life.
I think sometimes issues like these get pegged as 'lefty' or 'tree-hugger' issues, and I think this is a dangerous and flawed view. This is about seeing the intrinsic value and beauty in the river and it's valley and about having pride in the place we live.
Some may argue that maintaining the river is difficult and expensive, and yes it is true, but it is a cost we can all share, and compared to the damage that can be done in periods of extreme flooding or the embarassment of having a blighted river.
Can you imagine entertaining a foreign guest, or even possibly a business contact and having this conversation.
"Oh, there is a river, I have always wanted to fish in a Canadian river"
Would you not be even just a little embarrassed to tell them that there was no fish to catch because we couldn't look after the river?
Really though, if one is looking at economic arguments I would suggest that caring for the river is not a cost, but rather the repayment of a debt to the river for which we are over a hundred years in arrears, as the very prosperity that all Torontonians enjoy today was born on that river.
How to help?
At the end of the day, because of it's overall scope and jurisdiction hopping size and importance as a waterway and watershed the Don rightfully should be considered part of the city's infrastructure and a legitimate concern of the government. Therefore simply being vocal and clear to Toronto's elected leaders that these are issues that are important to us will create the political will to get things done.
At the end of the day though, I would like to see how much we can get done as individuals. As committed Torontonians and Canadians.
Something as simple as disconnecting your downspout or keeping a rain barrel will help, as will taking part in a clean up effort or taking part in tree planting. Even something as simple as being careful about what you, your home or your business let's run down the storm sewer will make a difference.
Some projects might be a little out of the reach of many individuals, but even to these projects we can commit our time and effort, and luckily the image of corporate Canada and corporate Toronto being callous and cynical is facile view challenged by many of Toronto's business leaders strong commitment to ethics and positive impacts on the communities in which they do business.
In fact I very much hope that our business leaders will read this very article and that as individuals and also through the corporations they run will see the sense in and be moved to helping where the rest of us are unable to. Sponsor tree planting, fund the creation of new wetlands and storm ponds. Even help prevent the further encroachment of the city on what little is left of the valley.
Great progress has already been made in restoring a river that many if not most had written off.
Working together, as individuals, but also as community and church groups and as corporate and governmental agencies we can share the workload and together can make it manageable.
Also lastly, as much as I think you should do your part to preserve and protect and rehabilitate the Don, I also invite anyone who lives in or visits Toronto to spend some time in the valley, to enjoy it and maybe know it and be touched by it as I have.
Maybe then we will see that it can give us back far more than what we put into it.
It isn't hard to make a difference.
- Some Everyday things you can do that help!
NRDC: Twelve simple ways you can help stem the tide of polluted runoff.
Talking to the Don Watershed Regeneration Council's Peter Heinz about the river and the 'Paddle the Don' event that was taking place that day.
If you like this article and support it's message and what I am trying to do, please be proactive in sharing it. It truly does and will make a difference.
I know many who will see this do not live in Toronto, but I hope it will inspire you to act in your own communities and also hope that all the rest of the world knowing about it will keep some presure on us here at home to do good.