• At least 20 wetlands around the Don River have been restored organizations have planted more than half a million trees, shrubs and wildflowers. (Photo: Lorne Bridgman)
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Even in those flower-child days of 1969, it was a funeral like none Toronto had ever seen. True, there were dozens of cars driving slowly along College Street, a cortège that included a tearful woman in black and a top-hatted man in a Cadillac. But diners behind the plate-glass window of Fran’s Restaurant must have paused, vinegar cruets above their fries, when two placard-carrying girls pedalled by on a tandem bicycle. Instead of a hearse, the procession was led by University of Toronto student Peter Love’s green station wagon — best known among his friends for the amount of beer it could carry. (Around 70 cases, Love confirms with a tinge of undergrad pride.)

The Don River Watershed (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)

Love went on to a respectable career, becoming Ontario’s first Chief Energy Conservation Officer, but on that November Sunday, he had swapped the wagon’s usual cargo for pails of water from Toronto’s fetid Don River. The event was the Funeral for the Don, staged by a fledgling environmental group called Pollution Probe. Love, in his best suit, was chauffeuring the dearly departed to its final resting place.

If you were sitting in Fran’s that day, you might have shrugged. For more than a century, the Don had been realigned and sullied, engineered and “improved” until its southern reaches were lined with factories, its broad valley a conduit for cars and trains, its waters fouled by sewage. Mourning a river so obviously past redemption seemed, in the words of a letter writer to The Globe and Mail, “nothing more than grim humour.”

As The Toronto Telegram put it: “They finally had a funeral for the Don River yesterday. Judging from the smell of the ‘deceased,’ it was long overdue.

Yet they say you never really know who your friends are until you’re gone, and that’s certainly true of the Don. By forcing Torontonians to confront their own reflection in the murky waters of Canada’s most urbanized watershed, the mourners helped resurrect the Don and its valley.

Since the funeral, more than 600 hectares of valley land have come under public ownership, at least 20 wetlands have been restored and conservation agencies, municipalities and volunteers have planted more than half a million trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Love now numbers among the thousands who regularly walk, cycle or jog along the river. “I can see an improvement,” he says. “I’m proud of what that Don event did to bring the issue to people’s attention.”

The funeral proved that even at its nadir, the Don still had friends. And without friends, no urban river can survive.

But surviving is one thing, thriving another. The Don’s health is affected not only by its industrial past — what one waterfront planner calls “the sins of our fathers” — but also by the water-fouling transgressions of everyday life.

Seen from above, the river and its tributaries appear to branch north like an unruly shrub. Its headwaters bubble from the gravel left by retreating glaciers on the Oak Ridges Moraine. Dozens of small rivulets link springs and marshes with larger watercourses, such as Patterson, German Mills and Fisherville creeks. Eventually, they join the east and west branches of the Don or link up near the Forks of the Don. Thirty-eight kilometres from the moraine, the Don makes a sluggish exit into Lake Ontario through the graffiti-scrawled concrete of the Keating Channel.

At the time of the Funeral for the Don, the river’s 36,000- hectare watershed was easy to divide into three regions. The foulest area was near the river’s southern terminus. Rebuilt in Victorian days as an industrial artery for a restless Dominion, the lower Don was a font of goods, everything from flour, lumber, paper, wool and brick to Coleman lanterns, Sunlight soap, Woods tents and sleeping bags, Gooderham’s Bonded Stock whisky and probably even the metal pails Love used to carry the deceased to the funeral. (The Don’s industrial role was no accident. Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant-Governor, John Graves Simcoe, decided to build the new capital of York — now Toronto — east of the river to take advantage of its timber and the sheltered waterfront created by a large peninsula and marsh. As a result, the Don was close to shipping and eventually became a railway corridor, while the larger Humber River, to the west, was surrounded first by farms and later housing.)

The Don’s second region lay to the north, in Toronto’s growing suburbs, where the river and its tributaries functioned as a glorified storm sewer. Beyond the city’s margins, plowed fields turned the water brown in the spring. Still, the upper watershed was clean enough to harbour sensitive brook trout until at least the mid-1940s. Even today, the endangered redside dace, a rainbow-striped minnow, leaps out of the water to snatch insects on the wing. At the same time, the area is reaching what planners call full “build-out.” With a watershed population of 1.2 million and counting, urban intensification and suburban sprawl are increasing the strain on the Don’s waters.

It was the lower river that drew Pollution Probe’s attention. “From the 1960s on, the Don really served as an icon of pollution,” says historian Jennifer Bonnell, who is writing a book about the Don. “It was a problem that was right here. You could see it, smell it.”

The Funeral for the Don set about reframing the public view. Chief among the mourners was arts student Meredith Ware, dressed as Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of the Lieutenant-Governor. Ware read sections of Simcoe’s diary from the 1790s, when waters of Toronto’s inner harbour were “beautifully clear and transparent,” loons swam along the waterfront, the Don abounded with salmon and wolves tracked deer beside the frozen river. On an expedition to gather gooseberries along the river, Simcoe saw “millions of the yellow and black butterflies.”

This elegiac tone was disrupted by a sputtering top-hatted figure played by commerce major Tony Barrett. “He was the cigar-smoking capitalist who snarled: ‘That’s the smell of money. What’s wrong with you people?’” recalls Monte Hummel, then a Pollution Probe organizer and now president emeritus of World Wildlife Fund Canada. Barrett was in mid-screed when medical student John Coombs shoved a pie in his face.

The funeral had the air of kids concocting theatre on a rainy afternoon, yet it worked. Photos of Ware’s keening ran in newspapers across the country (“When I got out of the car and saw the reporters,” she recalls, “right away I started weeping”).

What the mourners couldn’t have known is that the industrial Don was on the verge of a dramatic transformation (see timeline above). When James Onyschuk worked at a riverside warehouse in the 1960s, he’d occasionally check to see what colour the river was: pink, maybe, or bright blue, courtesy of the dyes from an upstream paper mill. Today, former factories have become trendy lofts and upscale car dealerships. North of the funeral site, the plant that provided the material for much of Toronto’s stolid Victorian architecture has been rebranded as the Evergreen Brick Works. It’s an environmental community centre and tourist draw, complete with a farmers’ market and workshops on water conservation, bicycle repairs and home canning.

Peter Hopperton remembers paddling the Don in 1971. “It smelled pretty high by the time you got to the waterfront,” he says. “We were paddling through sewage and condoms and all kinds of stuff.” Now he canoes the river during the annual Paddle the Don spring fundraiser. “You see swans and geese and ducks and snapping turtles,” says Hopperton. On the upper part of the river, he adds, “you really would have no idea you’re in a major metropolitan centre.”

Unless, of course, you test the water.

Another indicator of urban growth around the Don is chloride, mostly from road salt, which is up 68 percent over the past 20 years. (Photo: Lorne Bridgman)

Between 2003 and 2005, Environment Canada surveyed water quality at 10 Canadian lakes and 349 rivers. The Don placed in the bottom five percent, among only 16 sites to earn a “poor” rating. Key problems included phosphorus, an algae-boosting component of fertilizers and human and animal waste. Phosphorus levels in the Don have fallen by 66 percent over the past 30 years, but they’re still five times higher than Ontario’s target of 0.03 milligrams per litre.

The same is true of bacteria from pet waste, leaky sewers and sewage overflows. Levels vary with weather and location (as the water flows south through the watershed, it gathers more pollutants), but measurements on the lower Don are typically 30 times greater than the 100 E. coli per 100 millilitres that Ontario deems safe for swimming. Another indicator of urban growth around the Don is chloride, mostly from road salt, which is up 68 percent over the past 20 years.

“In the Don, there’s 150 years of history to reverse,” says Ontario Ministry of the Environment research scientist Paul Helm. Change on that scale “doesn’t happen on a dime.”

Enough dimes, however, will soften history’s more egregious insults, and a series of successful regreening efforts offer hope for a broader transformation of the river. When Nancy Penny moved to her Scarborough neighbourhood in the 1970s, the local section of Taylor Massey Creek was confined to what she calls a “concrete ditch” running through parkland that was “basically a dog toilet: a grass field with a few trees.”

The blunt-spoken daughter of a trapper, Penny grew up on the shores of Great Slave Lake, in the Northwest Territories. Transplanted to Toronto, she was appalled by the state of the Don’s easternmost major tributary. “I wanted my kids to be able to walk in the park, where they’d have trees and bushes and ponds and birds and maybe a few foxes and raccoons and squirrels.”

Penny mobilized parents as well as staff and children at local schools, convincing city politicians and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) to spend $1.5 million to tear out the old ditch and landscape new earthen banks, lining them with shrubs, trees and wildflowers. Today, blue herons hunt among deep pools and ducks nest on islands. On a sunny weekday morning, paths and playgrounds are full of skipping preschoolers, dog walkers and women pushing strollers. “People have started putting gates on their backyard fences,” says Penny, pointing to the homes that line the park. “Before, no one had gates because it was just a flat piece of grass. There was no reason to come here.”

Similar restorations are slated for some of the most degraded sections of the river. TRCA, in charge of Toronto’s river valleys, and Waterfront Toronto, which is overseeing the redevelopment of the city’s Lake Ontario shoreline, have plans to loosen the lower Don’s Victorian corset by adding earthen banks, riverside boulders and vegetation and to construct a new river mouth lined by wetlands and parks.

Already under construction — and slated to be the great green backdrop for the Athletes’ Village at the 2015 Pan American Games — is the prosaically named West Don Lands flood protection landform (FPL). An artificial hill formed from 40,000 dump trucks’ worth of fill, the FPL will guard areas as far west as the downtown financial district from flooding and will form the backbone of a new sevenhectare park with a mix of playgrounds, wetlands, woodland and patches of prairie.

This is spadework on an industrial scale, hampered by the district’s legacy of factories, foundries and coal yards. Rather than landfill up to two million cubic metres of contaminated soil excavated for the new river mouth, Waterfront Toronto is looking for ways to clean, sort and reuse it. In a 2010 pilot project, two Rube Goldberg-style collections of conveyors, magnets, screens, augers, centrifuges and washers churned through 20,000 cubic metres of dirt, sorting it into constituents including broken brick and concrete; sand; wood chips and coal; a sticky claylike cake whose fine pores bind most of the contaminants; and scrap metal. (In this last commodity, Toronto the Good yielded workaday stuff: rebar, rivets and assorted car parts. On a recent job in Florida, crew manager Bastiaan Lammers says workers found “a lot of guns, especially around the bridges,” as they cleaned soil dredged from the Miami River.)

The metals go for recycling, while the cake is bound for the landfill. If there’s sufficient quantity, wood chips and coal dust could be burned as industrial fuel. The remainder can be reused for landscaping, roadbeds or backfill. “If we’re going to be excavating two million cubic metres for the riverbank and can salvage 75 percent of that,” says Waterfront Toronto vice-president of program management David Kusturin, “50 years from now, when the next redevelopment happens, people won’t have to deal with these waste materials.”

When an August 2005 storm dumped more than 150 millimetres of rain in Toronto, the Don rose more than three metres in 4½ hours. (Photo: Lorne Bridgman)

The Don’s problems go beyond the remnants of its industrial past. The river faces the same challenge afflicting waterways in other sprawling cities: the everyday actions of the thousands who live in its watershed, including the de-icing salt on roads and sidewalks, the oil leaking from cars, the deposits from Great Danes and Shih Tzus, even the synthetic fragrance from detergents and shampoos. All this detritus, along with about 40,000 cubic metres of silt and sediment, makes its way down the river every year, hitching a lift on rain, snowmelt or the treated effluent from the North Toronto sewage treatment plant. The plant contributes more than one-fifth of the lower Don’s dry-weather flow.

By one estimate — and this is no consolation to drivers on the Don Valley Parkway, home of North America’s 10th busiest rush hour — the city’s storm-sewer system is more efficient than its roadways. A drop of rain falling in any Don watershed backyard is only 15 to 30 minutes away from the closest river, and contaminants from vehicle emissions, driveway sealers, lawn fertilizers, brake linings and eroded soil tag along for the ride.

The result is a river that surges from trickle to torrent, sometimes in minutes. When an August 2005 storm dumped more than 150 millimetres of rain in Toronto, the Don rose more than three metres in 4 1/2 hours, flooding a portion of the parkway and stranding commuters. Usually a lazy two to three cubic metres per second, the river’s flow topped out at more than 200 cubic metres per second.

Downpours also overwhelm the combined sewers in older neighbourhoods, dumping raw sewage into the Don. Combined sewers feature cross-connections that allow the sanitary sewer — the one running from the toilet, tub and sink — to flow into the storm sewers during high flows. In exchange for making the sewer less likely to back up into your home, the Don is conscripted into the city’s sewage system. The lower Don has 27 combined-sewer overflows and 19 storm sewers. Taylor Massey Creek, despite its smaller size, has 13 combined-sewer overflows and six storm sewers. The modest waterway contributes only five percent of the Don’s flow but can account for up to 80 percent of its pollution.

To prevent storms from mainlining a load of salt, fertilizers and dog feces into Toronto’s rivers, the city has drawn up the Wet Weather Flow Master Plan, possibly the least interesting title ever devised for a way to spend an estimated $1 billion over 25 years. The idea is to get raindrops off the express lane, diverting them into the ground and the undergrowth, where they’ll be cooled and cleaned before slowly recharging the city’s rivers. The plan includes disconnecting eavestroughs from storm sewers on 350,000 homes, and instead directing their downspouts into rain barrels, lawns and gardens. Other aspects include flanking streets with gardened roadside swales or using “permeable pavement” such as wood chips and stone on paths.

Then there are the big-ticket items: storm-water settling ponds and a buried system of tunnels and tanks to intercept and treat storm water, so cleaner water can be released into the rivers. A similar system already in use, the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, features a four-kilometre-long pipe linking three cavernous underground tanks. The whole system holds up to 85 million litres of storm water.

Almost anything that tempers the surge of storm water and contaminants will help. “Green roofs” collect and use rain for rooftop gardens. Low-flow toilets reduce the load on the sewer system. New street sweepers cut pollution by vacuuming and trapping fine dust as well as garbage and debris. Trees and shrubs reduce erosion, filter runoff and shade the water, cooling it for fish.

But unlike the old industrial lower Don or the concrete ditch of the Taylor Massey, the impact of storm water remains tougher for people to get their heads around — or to dig into their pockets to fix. “The struggle for us has been to get people to think of storm water as being a pollution source in itself,” says Michael D’Andrea, Toronto’s director of water infrastructure management. “People say it’s just road drainage. How dirty can it be?”

For the answer, you need to return to the Taylor Massey, bushwhacking through the willows and wild roses with Nancy Penny. At the head of the creek, where a storm sewer dumps the drainage from nearby Highway 401, is what Penny calls Butt Beach: a stew of waterlogged cigarette filters, plastic bottles, coffee cup lids and broken Styrofoam. It’s the burden of the modern Don, flushed off the highway whenever it rains.

Rivers “keep showing us everything is connected. They teach us that we can’t expect things to go away,” says historian Jennifer Bonnell. “Even though on the Don, there’s a long history of scheming to flush things away.”

In the late 1990s, Phil Goodwin launched “path parties” for neighbours to stroll the riverside, listen to local musicians and appreciate the Don. (Photo: Lorne Bridgman)

“This is one of the first places I saw salmon,” says Phil Goodwin, slipping behind the cedars to the rocky edge of the East Don. “I was standing here, and a salmon was going up the river. I felt like Jacques Cousteau,” he says, gesturing with a Gallic flourish. “Here is ze salmon, swimming its riv-air of destiny.”

Unconvincing French accents aside, Goodwin is enthralled by salmon. As the chair of the Don Watershed Regeneration Council and executive director of the East Don Parkland Partners — one of a dozen volunteer groups caring for the river and its tributaries — Goodwin spends a fair chunk of his autumn weekends stalking the fish near his North York home.

The salmon inspiring this fervour are chinooks, Pacific imports raised in local hatcheries and stocked by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources for catch-and-release anglers. Native Atlantic salmon were driven from the river more than a century ago, largely by dam construction and pollution. The last-known native was pitchforked from the water in the 1870s. Today, the chinook have assumed their role, or a facsimile of it. Every year, hundreds of big fish carve their way upstream, dark backs blending into the river’s cobbles, silvery flanks flashing as they leap from the water.

The fish are scarce this morning, so a disappointed Goodwin hustles back to a nearby path. This is one of the Parkland Partners’ tree-planting days, and Goodwin, who is ladling compost into plastic pails, is among the dozens of volunteers planting 200 trees and shrubs along the riverbank. “We don’t have meetings,” he says, pulling on a pair of work gloves. “We just plant. I want to get my hands dirty.”

Goodwin has come full circle, from the Thornhill boy who played in creeks near his home to the grown-up mucking around on the riverbank. In the late 1990s, he launched a series of “path parties,” get-togethers for neighbours to stroll the riverside, listen to local musicians and appreciate the Don. “There’s a lot of latent interest in the river,” he says. “Seventy or 80 percent of the people who live around it would like to help out. They just don’t know how.” Using skills honed by his advertising career, Goodwin roped in friends, neighbours and business contacts, organizing tree plantings, cleanups, guided walks and fundraisers.

Early recruit Gray Hammond has been planting trees along the East Don for more than a decade. “It’s kind of a legacy thing. You want to do something that will outlive you,” he says, settling a dogwood into a hole dug with the help of his 14-year-old niece Georgia. “When I was a kid, everybody was giving up on the Don. But with time, and a bit of sweat, you can bring about a change.”

Goodwin agrees: “People don’t think they can make a difference, but if you get them involved, even just coming out once a year to pick up old water bottles and cigarette butts, they realize they can. Politicians say to me, ‘If you don’t tell us it’s important, how do we know?’ This is a matter of raising public consciousness so we can tell the politicians what’s important.”

Later that day, when the planting is done and the shovels are stacked, Goodwin returns to the river, scanning the pools and eddies. A torpedo shape, barely discernible from the moss-green cobbles of the riverbed, glides beneath the surface. “Hey, see that ripple there?” he asks. “There’s something going on!” Goodwin climbs the concrete deck of an old bridge for a better view as the salmon circles beneath. “You see how its dorsal is worn white? That’s because he’s been making nests for the eggs.”

Walkers stroll up in twos and threes. Soon a small knot of onlookers is leaning over the railing, following the salmon’s sinuous arcs from one side of the structure to the other. It’s a moment of magic and wonder on a river they used to say was dead.

The Don River may not be fully resurrected and, given its urban location, will never be pristine, but who would have thought, 40 years ago, that it would ever again play host to salmon, even if those salmon are Pacific imports? With every migrating fish or tree planting or riverside cleanup, the river turns acquaintances into friends. And as long as the river has friends, rumours of its death will prove greatly exaggerated.

Ray Ford lives 300 kilometres north of the Don, but the river’s influence is never far. Last year, he found a brick from the Don Valley Brickworks on the shore of a local lake. Lorne Bridgman is a Toronto-based photographer.

Don River historical map (Map courtesy of Don Valley Historical Mapping Project)

Draw me a river

As she assembled a picture of the Don River’s industrial past, historian Jennifer Bonnell found herself struggling with 19th-century fire insurance plans, each one bigger than the centre spread of a broadsheet newspaper. “I was photocopying these plans and taping them together into these great mosaics, eight feet long and four feet wide,” says Bonnell, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Guelph. “When I wanted to compare one year to another, I had to put together another mosaic and stick them on a wall. I knew there must be a better way.”

The better way comes courtesy of geographic information system technology, which allows maps to be digitized and information overlaid. The result is the Don Valley Historical Mapping Project, a website where visitors can see graphic depictions of industrial growth and sewer expansion or the changing shape of the Don River and its neighbourhoods between 1825 and 1951, as shown on maps (TOP, click to enlarge) and in aerial photos.

“People love to see the history of the sewers,” says University of Toronto GIS and map librarian Marcel Fortin, who created the project with Bonnell. “There’s a love of history in Toronto, despite the fact that our old buildings are disappearing. We get letters from people saying thank you for putting these maps online for free.”

— Ray Ford

An abridged history of the Don


12,500 years ago: There isn’t one Don system, but many Dons, as the East and West Don and Taylor Massey Creek follow separate routes to Lake Ontario’s glacial precursor, the larger Lake Iroquois.

11,000 years ago: In the wake of the glaciers, the Toronto area is a tundra-like plain, where nomadic hunters stalk caribou and mastodon.

9,000 years ago: As the lake’s level falls, branches of the Don link up to form one river.

1400 AD: First Nations villagers grow hundreds of hectares of corn in the upper watershed, venturing to the river and its ravines for salmon and deer. The Don system is “the outdoor equivalent of a supermarket,” says Toronto archaeologist Ronald Williamson.

1793: John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant-Governor, establishes the new Town of York west of the Don, so named after a waterway in the north of England. The marsh at the mouth of the Don is one of the largest wetlands on the Great Lakes, but Simcoe is more impressed by the valley’s “excellent Timber” and a “Situation admirably adapted for a Naval Arsenal and Dock Yard.”

1834: Land clearing and erosion along the banks of the Don clog the harbour with silt. In a case of blaming the victim (a theme constantly repeated through the Don’s history), irate ship’s captain Hugh Richardson brands the muddy river a “monster of ingratitude.”

1881: Toronto Mayor William McMurrich travels to Cleveland for the funeral of assassinated U.S. President James A. Garfield. Noting how Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had been straightened to serve the city’s industrial heart, he pushes to have the Don similarly “improved.” The subsequent Don Improvement straightens much of the lower river, but cost overruns and dredging problems leave parts of the waterway too shallow for large freighters.

1894: Despite the improvement, the Toronto Daily Mail brands the river a “pestilential channel,” its waters stricken with “a yellowish-green colour and slimy, soup-like consistency.”

1931: Oil-slicked ice on the Don ignites, destroying a footbridge. When the Cleveland’s Cuyahoga burns in 1969, the waterway — which “oozes, rather than flows,” according to Time — rallies the nascent environmental movement.

1951: Construction begins on Toronto’s Don Mills, a community whose meandering streets and single-family homes become the template for Canada’s post-war subdivisions.

1959: Flemingdon Park, north of the Forks of the Don, is promoted as Canada’s first high-rise “apartment city” for newcomers.

1968: Charles Sauriol, the son of a man who worked on the Don Improvement and one of the great friends of the Don, is expropriated from his riverside cottage for the second time. Struggling to maintain the Don Valley as “wilderness at Toronto’s doorstep,” Sauriol kept honeybees and gardens at his home in the valley and helped form the Don Valley Conservation Association. He was initially driven from his valley retreat for the construction of the Don Valley Parkway and this time when his cottage was slated for parkland. He lived long enough to see his vision take hold, however, becoming executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

1969: As the poster says, “Pollution Probe regrets to announce the untimely passing of the Don River and invites all grief-stricken parties to weep and gnash their teeth at a funeral!”

1971: The Don Patrol, a summer work program hiring students to clean up the river and valley, collects more than 200 tonnes of litter.

1989: Inspired by an article in Toronto magazine, 500 people attend a forum on saving the Don. The city sponsors the citizen-driven Task Force to Bring Back the Don. Volunteers and public agencies launch extensive efforts to regreen the watershed, restore wetlands and improve fish and wildlife habitat.

2010: Waterfront Toronto releases plans for new development around the Keating Channel. To reduce energy use and encourage residents to walk and cycle, buildings will be arranged to ensure optimal sunlight exposure and buffer winds. The goal, says planner Brenda Webster, is to “create communities that can steward the landscape.”