Thursday, December 29, 2005

Wiki Wiki

In addition to DonWatcher, I am also busy as a new editor of Wikipedia, the online, open source encyclopedia project. I am trying to update information on the Don River which is woefully lacking.

In the Wiki world I go by the username "Atrian" where you can view a short bio of me. I expect that there will be some duplication between DonWatcher and Wikipedia. I hope to post the best DonWatcher articles in Wikipedia. I have already added a Wiki article on the Belt Line Railway, which is basically the same text as in my previous post. I will also be posting the article on the Keating Channel. Future articles will no doubt make a double debut.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Belt Line Railway

This article is about a railway system that used to go though the Don Valley called the Belt Line. Part of a series on places in the Don. The previous article was on the Keating Channel.

The Belt Line Railway was built in 1890s. It was constructed as a commuter line to service new suburban neighbourhoods being built just north of the city. It ran through the communities of Rosedale, Moore Park, and Forest Hill.

The route started at Union Station going east to the Don River. It turned north following the river before journeying up a steep grade through the Moore Park Ravine beside the Don Valley Brick Works. It then turned west at the north edge of the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. At Yonge St. it turned northwest and travelled through Forest Hill before returning to Union Station via the CNR line at Caledonia and Eglinton Avenue West.

It started running in 1892 but only ran until 1894 before experiencing financial difficulties. It failed for two reasons. First it was expensive. The company charged 5 cents to travel between each station. In order to make more money they built more stations than necessary. Second, Canada experienced a financial depression in the 1890s. These two reasons led to the collapse of the commuter traffic.

However, there was sufficient business to run freight trains along the line, servicing lumber and coal yards along Merton Street. Freight service ended in the early 1960s.

After trains stopped operating the rail line sat unused for several years. In the Moore Park ravine section the tracks were pulled up and the railbed turned into a walking trail. In the late 1960s part of the right of way was expropriated to build the Spadina Expressway.

In the 1980s CN tried to sell the right of way for housing since the land was quite valuable. However a local city councillor, Kay Gardner, lobbied the city to buy the land for a pedestrian trail instead. This purchase was completed in 1990 and eventually the trail was named the Kay Gardner Beltline Park in her honour. It now forms part of a trail network called Discovery Walks.

The section between the Allen Road and Caledonia has either been sold off to local property owners or sits neglected and unused where it runs behind an industrial park. The only reminder of its existence are two bridges crossing Yonge St and Dufferin St. The Yonge St. bridge was incorporated into the beltline walking trail but the Dufferin bridge is derelict.

Most of the train stations were torn down. The only one that was saved from demolition was the Don Station which was located at the Don River and Queen Street East. When it was slated for destruction, local naturalist Charles Sauriol heard about it and persuaded the city to relocate it to Todmorden Mills. It now forms part of the heritage museum on Pottery Road.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Tales of the Don

Over the holidays I have become interested in finding out about Charles Sauriol. For the past 10 years, the TRCA and the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust have organized a fundraising event called the Charles Sauriol Environmental Dinner. I receive invitations but haven't attended. Nevertheless, the invitation sparked my interest in this guy, the original "Don Watcher".

Charles Sauriol was a naturalist and conservationist who grew up and lived in and around the Don for most of his life. He wrote six books about his memories of the Don of which "Tales of the Don" is one.

His books create a fascinating picture of the Don which was quite a different place 50 years ago. Before the 2nd World War it was still mostly untouched forest and hinterland. It's hard to imagine what it must have looked like without the Parkway and the Bayview Extension.

I was interested in finding out more about Sauriol but apparently no one has written a biography on him. I am currently collecting biographical details and some day soon hope to post a short biography.

If you are interested in reading his books, most of them are available at Toronto Public Library.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Don Haiku

I just read an article in the Journal of Ecological Restoration that discusses the constant negative portrayal of environmental topics in the media. This has resulted in turning the general public away from the movement. The author says we should focus on positive and affirming terms like ecological restoration and stay away from fear based management of the issues.

I suppose I am just as guilty. Phrases like "Invasive Species", "Top Five Threats", "Keep Junk Out" have headlined several past postings.

Now I hope to reverse that trend. The valley is a place of wonder, no doubt. It's just something we take for granted. Does the answer lie in... poetry? Maybe it's worth a try. I don't claim to be a poet, but I've tried now and then. I will keep this one safe by using haiku, in the classic 5-7-5 syllable form. No title but it is seasonally themed.

winter valley sleeps
green turns white as night dawns grey
somnolence gathers

I offer you the chance to try your own. Submit your own poetry to Don Watcher: valley themed, any form.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Wildflower Preserve Newsletter

Todmorden Mills is a Toronto heritage site on Pottery Road in the Don Valley. Near the front entrance are a number of buildings including an art gallery, a theatre, and a museum. The theatre is used by the East Side Players to perform amateur productions. Behind the buildings is a natural preserve which is managed by the Todmorden Mills Wildflower Preserve.

TMWP is a non-profit organization that maintains an interpretive trail and performs stewardship in the forest and in the wetlands. They produce a newsletter two times per year which they usually put up on their website. Unfortunately the webmaster found a teaching job in New Zealand and no one has been found to replace him so they haven't been updating it recently.

Therefore I am making the fall 2005 issue available until they get their act together. The newsletter is now available online in PDF format.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Top Five Threats: Infrastructure

This article is a continuation of the Top Five Threats story thread started last month.

The Don valley has the distinction of being the most central geographical feature in Toronto. Unfortunately this has produced a legacy of being the most frequent host for all the stuff the city doesn't want to move through its neighbourhoods, namely roads and railways. There are also pipelines, hydro-electric towers and sewers that lace the valley from the harbour up to Steeles. There is also 'soft' infrastructure in the form of two snow dump sites and city works yards. Let's not forget about the North Toronto Sewage Treatment Plant and the Police Dog Training Compound. Also some miscellaneous structures such as service roads, old landfill sites, weirs in the the river, culverts and concrete lined channels, etc.

Here's a summary of what the valley faces:

  • Don Valley Parkway: it enters the valley south of the 401 and except for a short respite at Eglinton it dominates the lower Don

  • Bayview Extension: enters the valley at the south end of Leaside it occupies most of the west side of the valley.

  • CN/CP railway lines: entering the valley near Eastern Ave, the railways don't exit until around Lawrence.

  • Enbridge gas pipeline: enters the valley at Bayview and Gerrard and continues north through most of the valley.

  • Transcontinental Oil Pipeline (TCPL): another pipeline runs underneath the valley but is currently decommissioned. They never removed the pipe so there's no guarantee that it won't be reused.

  • Hydro-electric corridor: a line of towers snakes north from the waterfront then veers east through the Taylor Massey Creek ravine.

  • Various sewers and city owned pipes: the valley is interlaced with a variety of storm and sanitary sewers, as well as some electrical conduits.

City infrastructure isn't so much a threat as it is an impediment. One of our priorities is to try and restore the valley to a more natural state. It becomes very difficult to do this if the available land is already occupied by roads and railways. For example, the section south of Riverdale Park is known as the 'Don Narrows'. Here the river is confined to a straight channel lined by steel and concrete embankments. It would be nice to try and restore some meanders which would renaturalize the banks of the river and help to slow down the water during peak flow periods. Unfortunately this is difficult to do because it is constrained by highways and railways on both sides.

Roads are also an impediment to wildlife. Now that deer are making there way into the Lower Don, they are finding out the hard way that roads are not the safest place to be.

If the above list is not bad enough the city is thinking of building yet another road in the valley. It is actually the last vestige of the Leslie Street extension, an obsolete plan that would have extended Leslie south to Bayview. Now it is called the Redway Road extension and is being proposed as a bus only road that would run from Millwood Road to Bayview. This is part of a larger plan to improve transit in the Don Valley Corridor. The Task Force views this as a Trojan Horse. Once it is built there will be serious pressure to open it to cars as well.

Faced with these obstacles the future of the valley looks pretty bleak. However things are changing, slowly, within the city. It is unlikely that any new infrastructure (aside from Redway Road) will ever be proposed for the valley. Also the Task Force has prodded the city into keeping an open mind about valley use alternatives. A recent report investigated alternatives to using the valley as a place to dump snow. While the Don may not benefit much by this new thinking it will certainly have a beneficial impact on Toronto's other river systems, namely, the Rouge, the Humber, and Highland Creek. Maybe we should rename the Task Force to Bring Back the Don to the Task Force to Bring Intelligent Planning to the City.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Please Keep Junk Out of the Valley

Art or Garbage?

This is another one of those appropriate use questions. This thing appeared in the Moore Park Ravine last spring. It is located beside Mud Creek just west of the Brick Works quarry ponds. The piece is obviously constructed and not a random piece of industrial refuse. It is made of some sort of metal about 1cm thick and stands about one metre in height. It is not signed nor is there any indication as to who created it or why is was placed here.

I contacted Sandra Lougheed, the city's curator of public art but she said there is no record of it. In other words, an anonymous person decided that they wanted to install this piece and chose this spot with no public consultation.

I admit to being an admirer of contemporary art and appreciate a well thought out sculpture. If you're looking for good examples of outdoor art you should visit Toronto's Sculpture Garden on King St. East just east of Church St. Opinions on contemporary sculpture vary widely but in my opinion this piece is pretty good. It is well balanced with clean lines and unpretentious.

That said, the thing that bugs me is that it is in the wrong place. The Don is already overburdened with the works of man, eg. highways, railroads, paths, pipelines, etc. The remaining area needs to be left to nature as much as possible, even in an area as degraded as the Moore Park Ravine.

So what should be done with it? At the very least it should be relocated out of the valley. I would suggest moving it to nearby Chorley Park. This is a large 'grass and trees' park in Rosedale and there are several places where it would fit right in. I asked the city if there was a policy on unofficial art installations but received no response. I don't know whether the city can actually 'adopt' it.

So if the city dithers long enough I might just load it into a wheelbarrow and truck it home. I think it would look good in my backyard.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Slime Molds

Fuligo septica: The 'Dog Vomit' Slime Mold

Another one of my favourite Don Valley creatures. The one pictured here was photographed on a wood chip pile at the Brick Works.

This year I signed up for a university course in botany because I am interested in the study of plants. For the first two months of the course they talked exclusively about all the life forms that aren't plants but are studied by botanists. These are mainly algae and fungi. Then there are the things that are neither fungi nor algae. Nobody knew how to classify them so they gave them to the botanists. These are the slime molds. They have characteristics similar to fungi but have some characteristics that make them rather unique. For one they have the ability to move around, something that no fungi can do. There are about 700 to 1000 species currently known. Most occur in temperate regions like Canada.

The slime mold pictured here is Fuligo septica, also known as the Dog Vomit Slime Mold. It is an ugly looking mass of yellow or orange stuff that does sort of look like something the dog left in the backyard. In fact this creature is in a state called the plasmodium, an amoeba-like mass of protoplasm that moves by pushing out pseudopod fingers of plasma.

They are often found on piles of wood chips or mulch. They feed by ingesting woody material. This is different from fungi which feeds by absorption. When conditions become too dry they form a resting state called a sclerotium. One reason that they were once thought to be fungi was due to its reproductive cycle. It uses spores to reproduce. When the time is right it sends out masses of spores from pods called sporangia. This is similar to the way fungi reproduce.

Fuligo septica in a quasi-hibernation state

My botany course lecturer, a mycologist, told an amusing anecdote about slime molds. Way back in the 1960's, Americans were experiencing a rash of UFO sightings and rumours of alien invaders were common. Apparently slime molds can grow quite large in ideal conditions and one day someone spotted a monster slime mold several square metres in size in their backyard. They called the police and when they arrived they thought it was some sort of alien from outer space. Their response was typically American: they shot it!

Where do slime molds fit into the ecosystem? They belong to a class of creatures known as detritivores. They process dead plant and animal material and turn it back into elements that can be reused. If they didn't perform this vital task we'd be neck deep in crap in no time at all! So next time you see this little critter don't cringe in fear, it's one of the good guys.