Monday, May 29, 2006

Bike Week in the Don

Bike Week is an annual event held in Toronto. Starting today, events are held across the city to encourage more people to get on their bikes and ride (is it a coincidence that the TTC started a wildcat strike on the first day of Bike Week? You tell me...).

Two events are scheduled for places in the Don Valley. The first is a trail building seminar being held on Wed. May 29 at 6:00 PM. The meeting location is at the southeast corner of the Loblaws parking lot which is just off Millwood Road between Overlea and Southvale (see map).

Crothers' Woods (click to expand)

There will be a training session held by IMBA Canada to teach participants about building and maintaining sustainable and long lasting trails.

The second event is a bike tour of parts of the Don Valley park system. The event is on Sat. June 3 at 10 AM starting at Victoria Park subway station. The tour will go through Taylor Creek Park, E.T. Seton Park, and end up in Sunnybrook Park.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Stewardship Season Starting

Stewardship Flyer (click to expand)

The Community Stewardship Program for 2006 is gearing up for this summer. The Stewardship program is a great way to learn about the natural environment and get acquainted with Don Valley. Stewards perform site maintenance as well as monitoring of forest, meadow and wetland plants and wildlife. This is the 5th year for the program which now includes sites in the Humber and the Rouge.

You also get to meet people and make new friends. Both myself and River Rat are team leaders. There will be an orientation session for new volunteers at Riverdale Farm on Monday June 5, starting at 6:45 PM.

For more information, just send an email to

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Planting and Speaker at Riverdale Farm Ponds

An invitation to all!
The Task Force is having another planting and speaker workshop this Saturday (May 27th) at the Riverdale Farm Ponds.
Meet at the Sanctuary Pond at 9:30 am for the planting and in the Residence at 11:30 for a light lunch. Charles Kinsley, a native plant expert and an engaging speaker, will start a talk about native plant gardening at home after lunch. You can come to one or the other or both.
This is part of the Task Force's Community Stormwater Management Program efforts through the City of Toronto and the TRCA.
Come on out and bring friends!
If you feel like pre-registering, e-mail (If you preregister, we know how many sandwiches to buy!)

Leave baby birds alone

While surfing the blogosphere I came across this posting from Bootstrap Analysis. The article deals with what to do if you find a baby bird. Baby birds alone on the ground may appear to be orphans and our natural human response is to protect them but the best thing for them is the opposite - do nothing!

Some of the points in the article relate to American regulations but overall the article takes a common sense approach to the issue. So if you see a baby bird in the valley or in a local park, let nature (and its parents) take care of its own.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Crossroads, Part III: The Force Takes a Vote

Sorry, I've been distracted by my new niece (Amy Pearl, 6lbs, 10oz), born the day after the Task Force (TF)meeting on Wednesday and infinitely more fun to think about than the TF meeting! The meeting was, disappointingly, sparsely attended (more on this at a later date, me thinks!), so the vote probably wasn't as representative of the TF as it should have been.
The motion presented was strong at the beginning but quite wishy-washy towards the end and the debate got in to more about "what is net-gain for the environment?" It was a motion advising the Task Force to tell council that it does not support the Evergreen project. Instead of people speaking and then others responding and the debate never ending, the Chair went around the room and everyone spoke once about the motion on the floor. I spoke against the motion because I really think that Evergreen's proposal has environmental integrity and that it's the best solution for the Brick Works (BW) at this time. We don't want the buildings to fall down, Evergreen's high green-development standards are laudable and the majority of the 250,000 visitors will be students who arrive in buses, rather than in cars.
With respect to the arrival of people at the BW by car, well, y'know, they'll be coming off Bayview, perhaps off the DVP. 250,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to how many cars travel on those roads each year. Is there a net-gain for the environment with this proposal? I think so. Evergreen's parking proposals are clear about that. Do I support the whole project whole-heartedly? No, I have worries about sustainability AND about achieving the fundraising goals to implement all those green-development ideas.
SOOOO (and I know you're all waiting with baited breath for this), with the Chair's vote, the vote was tied, and therefore defeated. And then one of my fellow TF members accused me of being a liar so, really, what had been a mature and thoughtful discussion and debate deteriorated into petulant childhood. Too bad.
Does this mean the TF supports the BW project? No. Another member then put forward a motion that basically said "Evergreen, we want to stay informed at every stage of this project." I think this will serve as an adequate oversight advisory postion for the TF.
Our meeting then morphed into a discussion about our Terms of Reference. Does the Task Force deal with the Valley at all? Or should we concentrate our efforts solely on the river? As an advisory body to Toronto council, what do we really DO? The term of TF members is the same length as Council's term so it behooves us to reexamine our Terms of Reference so that future members of the TF (be they renewers of their current positions or new members) might start our next term with clear vision of what the role of the Task Force to Bring Back the Don is!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Another Invasive Species for the Don

School of goldfish in Brick Works pond (click to expand)

Goldfish (or koi or carp) have been present in the Brick Works ponds for a number of years, but this spring there appears to have been a population explosion. This is likely due to the mild winter we experienced so it looks like more than the usual number survived. I took these pictures last week and there were hundreds of goldfish.

The problem of people dumping goldfish has always been a problem in urban ponds and wetlands. I am not sure why people do it- maybe they think a pond isn't complete without a few goldfish. I've also heard that for some Asian people, releasing goldfish into the wild is a way of increasing your luck or good fortune.

Whatever the reason, it is bound to cause ecological chaos for the ponds. These fish will grow very large and will likely outcompete native fish. They are also bottom feeders so they stir up the mud and make the ponds cloudy and dull.

Getting rid of them is a big problem. One fisheries management tool is electrofishing. Basically you stick a cattle prod like device in the water and send out an electric charge. This stuns any fish in the vicinity and they float to the surface. You can then scoop them out easily. Another option is to drain the pond. This is more drastic and will harm other fish species as well. This actually happened a couple of years ago at Riverdale Farm Ponds. The lower pond dried up and this solved the koi problem there. However the Brick Works have a steady supply of water so it is unlikely to happen.

Fortunately for the goldfish, nothing is likely going to happen until a new management plan for the quarry ponds is finished. At that time they may decide to do something. Until then we are left contemplating a pond full of scum sucking goldfish.

A closeup view (click to expand)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Another Link for the Don

When I attend plantings I occasionally ask people how they heard about the event. It sometimes gives me insight into what are the best vehicles for getting the word out about events.

Recently someone told me that he heard about the planting from a website that I didn't know about. Apparently someone has created a personal calendar of Don events called Dig 4 the Don. Check out the website.

This is similar to another website that I look at called Toronto Activities. This website lists events from across Toronto, not just the Don and includes such esoteric events as vegan potlucks.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Crossroads, Part II: Task Force Evergreen Vote

How will the Task Force vote on the Evergreen proposal for the Don Valley Brick Works? It is not a simple answer. Let me go through the possible outcomes. The Task Force could:
  • vote to approve of the proposal,
  • vote to oppose the proposal,
  • decide to do nothing,
  • approve the proposal conditionally
You would think it would be a simple thing to approve the proposal. Everybody's happy, right? Not so. Some people only like parts of the proposal and they say that if the Task Force approves it then Evergreen could publicize the Task Force's approval of the plan as a carte blanche approval of everything they are doing.

If the Task Force votes to oppose the plan then they risk the possibility of losing any influence on future changes. Support from the Task Force is a 'nice to have' for Evergreen but it is not required. They could just decide to politely ignore us from this point on. Then where would we be? (The Task Force has been here before by the way. In 2004 they voted to oppose trail management for mountain biking in Crothers' Woods. The city continued on despite the Task Force's position and the Task Force was left in a weaker position. But this is another story).

The Task Force could opt to take no position. Doing nothing may in fact be a good position to take, even if that sounds kind of weird. By opting to do nothing we can continue to monitor the situation and advise the city about issues, something we may not be able to do if we were to vote for or against it.

Actually, I favour conditionally approving it. A motion crafted to say (In effect) "Yes, the Evergreen plan is the best plan so far, but it has some flaws with which we still have issues. So Evergreen, please proceed, but we will be watching." Of course you can't word a motion like that. It will take some council-speak to translate that one.

So there you have it - the 'Evergreen proposal' situation in a nutshell. The debate on this motion might actually be interesting so it might be worthwhile attending just to watch. All of our meetings are a matter of public record so anyone is able to attend. We even accept comments from the peanut gallery now and then. If you are interested, the meeting will be held on Wednesday, May 17, 7:00 PM in Committee Room 2, at City Hall, 100 Queen St. West. The agenda is available online if you are curious.

Unfortunately, yours truly won't be there (I am taking my girlfriend out for her birthday). However, River Rat should be there so maybe I will make her write "Crossroads, Part III".

See Crossroads, Part I for a discussion on the Evergreen Proposal.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Trout Lilies: an ecological story

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)

Ecology is a fascinating subject. There are several definitions but it basically means the study of how living things interact with each other and the surrounding environment. Interactions is the key word in this definition and this is what makes ecology a complex and interesting field of study. It's relatively easy to study one organism and how it reacts to one or two variables in a controlled environment. But how do you measure different organisms from different species in different environments? It may seem impossible to account for all the variables but progress is being made.

For example did you know that willow trees depend on wolves? About 100 years ago, wolves were hunted out of existence in Yellowstone Park in the Wyoming. Wolves were perceived as a threat to cattle ranchers. Wolves also considered elk and deer as, well... lunch. To us humans deer resonate as simple, beautiful creatures (the Bambi syndrome) while wolves are ravenous marauders. When wolves were removed, deer populations began to multiply. In order to feed themselves they ate everything they could find including young willow saplings. Eventually willow trees began to disappear.

Wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s and quickly began to control the deer population. When that happened willow trees began to make a comeback. Having wolves around allowed willows to grow. This ecological connection wasn't recognized until the natural balance was restored.

This is a long introduction to the current topic, the Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum). This is a spring ephemeral that grows abundantly in the forests of the Don Valley. Spring ephemerals are a group of forest plants that appear early in the spring and complete their life cycle before the leaves of the forest canopy shade out the forest floor.

It turns out that these lilies actually help maple trees to grow. Apparently they provide nutrients to the trees by passing them through their roots to the roots of nearby trees. How is this accomplished? A little known group of fungi that live in the soil called mycorrizhae form symbiotic associations with the lilies. They wrap tiny filaments called mycelium around the roots of the lilies. The fungi collect water and elements like nitrogen and phosphorus and pass them on to the lily. In return the lily feeds the fungi sugars and carbohydrates that they produce by photosynthesis. Through this mutualistic relationship each organism benefits.

It turns out that these mycorrizhae can link several species at the same time. Scientists were able to track carbon molecules that originated in Trout Lilies that ended up in nearby Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) saplings. The carbon moved through the mycelium pathways in the fungi. This process allowed the maples to get a jump start on the growing season. They measured the growth of Sugar Maples with a connection and without. The connected maples grew significantly more than the unconnected maples.

Trout lilies also have an unusual ability in that they experience root growth in the fall. There is some evidence that they receive nutrients back from the maples to aid their own root growth.

So you can see how this ecological study provided new insight into the workings of our forests. Through studies like this we gain a better understanding of our environment and a deeper appreciation of the interconnectedness of our world.

P.S. For anyone interested in the study being referred to, here is the complete reference.

Lerat, S., Gauci, R., Catford, J.G., Vierheilig, H., Piché, Y., and Lapointe, L. 2002. 14C transfer between the spring ephemeral Erythronium americanum and sugar maple saplings via arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in natural stands. Oecologia, 132: 181–187.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Task Force at a Crossroad, Part I

The Task Force to Bring Back the Don is a strange beast. Ostensibly it is an advisory body to city council. In reality it is more than that – it is an advocate for the Don. That means that it stands up for what it believes is the best interests of the river and the surrounding valley, and on a more general level the entire Don watershed.

Sometimes that means giving advice to council and councillors. If we are lucky they listen to us. We also work with staff and other groups whose interests are more or less in parallel with ours. Usually these relationships are harmonious but occasionally they are in conflict. The Evergreen plan for the Don Valley Brick Works is special because it contains elements of both harmony and conflict.

The story of the Brick Works is a complex one, especially in the short time that the city has managed it. Basically, the current situation came about because of amalgamation. Before 1998, the Brick Works resided in East York. During the pre-amalgamation era, the quarry was restored, the natural areas enhanced and plans were afoot for creating a heritage museum for the buildings.

When amalgamation occurred it was swallowed by the megacity along with the rest of us. When the city got around to allocating resources and funds for historical sites, the Brick Works got the short end of the stick and was left flapping in the wind, no budget and no hope. Since then the buildings have slowly deteriorated. If the situation had continued for much longer, they would eventually have been condemned.

But then a light appeared on the horizon. Evergreen, a national charity, came up with an off-the-wall idea to turn the Brick Works into a combined headquarters and education centre. The city perked up and thought to itself, “Yeah, why not? Evergreen guarantees to restore the buildings with their own funds. Toronto gets a restored heritage site for very little money and Evergreen gets a signature site which will raise their profile, nationwide. A win-win situation!” Everybody's happy – right?

Not so fast. The project doesn't please everyone. How can it? With so many players (TRCA, city, community) and interests (environmental, cultural heritage, geological significance), in order to please everyone the project would be so large, bloated and expensive it would collapse under its own weight. What Evergreen's proposal does it chart its own path – accomplishing their goals is the primary task, if that happens to meet someone else's goal, that's good. If there's a conflict, Evergreen is happy to listen, appear empathic, but they keep on listing all the reasons why these goals can't be met. For them it is a reasonable course of action.

So what is the Task Force's position? Currently we don't have one, because we haven't voted yet. To date we have listened to presentations, attended seminars and community consultation meetings, joined the liaison committee, etc. etc.

Individual members certainly have opinions, some like it, some oppose it, some haven't decided, the usual mix of any group. The reasons for liking the proposal are that it will restore a neglected site in the Don Valley, bring a presence to an area that needs an element of security, and create an environmental education centre that parallels some of our broader goals of community and urban learning. Evergreen has been a long time partner in past projects and we have a certain amount of good will towards them and would like them to succeed.

Those opposed to the project, see it as an overuse of the site. The plan calls for the parking lot to be expanded to 425 spots. Evergreen projections show that the site could attract upwards of 250,000 visitors per year. There are fears that the quarry ponds park behind the Brick Works (which will remain under city management) will be degraded by the new influx of people. Some members are opposed to some of the commercial aspects of the plan, ie. The nursery, restaurant, and conference centre.

So how will the Task Force vote? More on this next week.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Native Plant Gardening

On Sunday, May 7, we had our first Wet Weather Flow workshop. The topic was Native Plant Gardening. While the connection may seem tenuous between native plants and reducing the load of wet weather on our rivers and streams it all has to do with water efficiency. Commercially sold nursery plants tend to be water hogs so you need to water them alot. Since most homeowners don't know how much is enough, they tend to water too much. So when it does rain, their property is already watersoaked and the natural water just flows right off. If native plants are around they tend to use less water, thus rainfall has more chance to soak in when it does come.

Charles Kinsley, former owner of Ontario Native Plants gave an interesting talk and slide show about native plants. There are certainly enough aesthetically pleasing native plants that you don't need to use hybrids or foreign sourced plants to achieve a beautiful garden. How many of you know about such plants as, Ironweed, New Jersey Tea, Butterfly Milkweed? All native, all showy, all easy to grow.

The big question for me is where do you acquire native plants. There are a few nurseries like ONP that specialize in locally grown plants. You can also order online and grow from seed. There are also a number of groups that hold spring sales of native stock. Friends of the Don East is holding one such sale this Saturday, May 13, 1 - 4 PM as part of the Leslieville festival. It will be at Grove Park at the corner of Jones Ave. and Queen St. East.

Our second workshop is still to come and will be held at Riverdale Farm on Saturday, May 27. There will be a tree planting at 9:30 AM followed by a light lunch and a presentation at Noon. I just want to give a big thank you to Marni for organizing these events and Aynsley for her valuable assistance. Other volunteers included Susan, Kyle, and John.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Don Mouth Terms of Reference

The next step in the long process to restore the mouth of the Don has been completed. The Terms of Reference for the environmental assessment have been completed. These are available for viewing and comment until June 5, 2006. You can read the summary on the Ministry of Natural Resources website (which administers the EA process) or the full version which is available on the TRCA website (who will actually perform the EA).

Creating the ToR was an exhausting process. I hope the actual EA when it gets going will be a smoother. We'll see... I'll keep you posted on future announcements.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

What needs to be fixed in this city?

"The Fixer" column in Friday's Toronto Star featured large tree branches under the old railway trestle across the Don between the Riverdale parks. This debris is a result of the August 19 storm last summer. "A large tree branch is suspended on a thick cable in one of three channels running under an old railway trestle that crosses the Don between Riverdale Farm and the Don Valley Parkway. The channel closest to the west bank is also blocked by sand and silt causing the river levels to be much higher than normal. If the river levels suddenly rose and more debris got caught, it could potentially flood the DVP, as happened during the August thunderstorm when people had to be rescued from vehicles."

Horrors! A flooded DVP, people trapped in cars! A priority item to clean up in the Don? Not in my view. The DVP is located in a floodplain, no wonder it's getting flooded. The creation of the DVP led to even more river diversion; wetlands were drained or paved over so natural overflow basins disappeared, leading to potential flooding problems.

How about flooding the parts of the DVP permanently? We could recreate the wetlands, have nice meanders down the sides, people could commute by train and relax and enjoy the bucolic river on their journey up and down the Valley.

Not likely but you can't help wishing.

Okay "Fixer", how about finding the people who are dumping old tires in the river next?

Friday, May 05, 2006

Mayor Miller Makes it to the Don

Miller, Davis, Ootes, Pitfield, Pantalone, Bussin... almost a council quorum.

On April 29, a bright sunny day, the city hosted it's 3rd annual Trees Across Toronto event. The Don Valley site called Sun Valley (after a soap manufacturer who used to occupy the land) is where we have planted almost 4,000 trees and shrubs. The first two years it was just Miller and Pantalone who showed up for speeches. This year being an election year has brought a whole host of councillors out for what was mostly a photo-op. They made speeches, planted one tree then left for the next event.

It was a bit of a circus with tents set up that gave away free Starbucks coffee, hotdogs from Loblaws, Mark Cullen from CFRB was there for some reason. The fire department even showed up with a water truck. While it was a bit of a circus, it did bring out about 200 volunteers who planted 1,300 trees in less than 2 hours, so not all was lost. Besides I got a free Starbucks coffee mug.

On your marks, get ready...

30 minutes later...

Get 'em started young - tree planter for life!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Brick Works Billboard

New sign at the Brick Works

Here is the first indication that something is brewing at the Brick Works. No, I don't mean literally (although that idea was discussed). Evergreen, a national NGO whose mandate is to improve the environment of Canada's urban spaces has a plan to restore the Don Valley Brick Works and make it their national headquarters. Their plan calls for a $50 million dollar restoration of the now derelict Brick Works site. They have already raised about $15 million and plan to start construction within the next year.

While some people have expressed concerns about the project, especially in the increased use and traffic that will enter the site, most people agree that plan is generally a good one. I'll go out on a limb here and say that I support it too. The city doesn't have the money nor the will to restore the site. Once Evergreen moves in, they will perforce, stop a number of inappropriate uses that are potentially damaging. These include use of the buildings as a homeless squat and impromptu raves by youth. They should also have an indirect benefit on the quarry ponds park area which will remain under the city's control. The indirect affect will be (I hope) to control dog owners who let their dogs run free, limit the dumping of turtles and goldfish into the ponds and halt the proliferation of paths on the slopes and through the forest.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Spring Workshop

Bring Back the Don Flyer (click to expand)

In our continuing quest to educate the public about wet weather flow, we are holding a couple of workshops this spring. The first workshop is something of a gamble in that we are holding it outside of our normal operations area of the Lower Don. This one will be in Earl Bales Park at Bathurst and Sheppard. This park was a former golf course but has been returned to the public as a large urban park. It is situated on the west branch of the Don River so it is still within our watershed of responsibility.

Basically the message we are trying to get across is that home owners can make simple changes to their properties to retain rainwater where it falls. Most of the city now diverts it directly into the storm sewers where it quickly ends up in the river as a flood of polluted water. If enough houses make changes, then this could have a significant effect on the river.

This is a bit of a quixotic quest but we will have fun trying anyway. So if you happen to live in the neighbourhood, come out to our planting on Sunday, May 7 at 10:30 AM followed by our workshop at 1 PM. A light lunch will be provided. You can pre-register at See flyer for details.

Monday, May 01, 2006

This time it really is closed

Lower Don Trail closed until May 2007

There have several warning signs about the trail closing since January but this new fence took many trail users by surprise, especially the fast cyclists who train on the path. I watched several zip under the Queen St. bridge, go by the stairs and then see the fence. They had to hit their brakes hard to avoid crashing. They then stood puzzled by the fence and the signs and then got off their bikes and climbed the stairs up to Queen St.

Of course, those of us who actually heeded the warning signs know enough to stop just north of Queen St. and duck through a hole in the fence. This allows you to avoid the stairs and continue along Bayview to Queen and River.