It’s not every day that people can head out on a two hour paddle through the heart of Toronto. It’s actually only possible one day a year, when the Don River is flooded to allow paddlers enough water to make their way down a river that is typically not navigable the rest of the time.
On May 3rd 2015, at the 22nd annual Manulife Paddle the Don fundraiser, 600 people canoed and kayaked what was briefly a class 2 river. Proceeds from Paddle the Don are used by the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority (TRCA) to protect and restore the Don River watershed. Participants ranged from families with toddlers, corporate teams, expert kayakers, couples and friends, and brave first time paddlers.
Paddle the Don is a remarkable event and not just because it’s an opportunity to run rapids just a few minutes from Eglinton Avenue. It’s a taking stock event, revealing the river’s hidden natural beauty to lucky paddlers before they watch it degrade over the course of the 10.5 km paddle into the contaminated and waste-filled waterway that most Torontonians know as the Don.
The Upside of the Don River
At the launch point at Ernest Thompson Seton Park the river is fast and beautiful. There the Don is narrow and winding, shaded by trees and low hanging branches that are budding and filled with song birds.
“This is the Don?”
Yes, this is the Don. It’s bewildering to reckon with the fact that we have this quiet treasure babbling through our city. The Don is typically thought of as the city’s sewer, the dirty Don, the flammable river. It was even nicknamed “pestilential channel” by the Toronto Daily Mail in the 1890s.
It was an extraordinary experience to see this side of the Don. The upside, if you will. The downside is downriver. The closer we got to the lake the more the Don resembled its reputed image.
Even as we gasped and cooed at the Don’s unexpected beauty it was hard to ignore the sheer number of outfalls we paddled past over 10 km. The TRCA reports that there are 30 combined sewer outfalls and 872 storm sewer outlets on the Don River.
The state of the Don’s waters is of major concern to Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and many other local groups, organizations, and citizens. The river is severely stressed by over 150 years of polluted effluent running into its waters from the city’s industries and residents. So poor is the water quality in the Don that the river, along with only 3 other rivers in Canada, has earned the distinction of “Poor” by Environment Canada. The Don is also listed as a major contributor to Toronto’s water quality status as an Area of Concern.
The State of the Water
There have been improvements. For instance you can’t light the river on fire these days. It doesn’t turn from pink to blue anymore as dye factories stopped pouring their potions into the water. What’s more promising is that wildlife is managing to etch out a life in and from the river: Birds, waterfowl, beaver, turtles, even salmon have ventured back to the river.
While many of the industries no longer drain contaminants into the Don, historic pollutants continue to challenge the river’s waters, which have not been healthy since the mid 1800s. Stormwater runoff and wastewater from combined sewers are significantly impacting the river’s water quality. North Toronto’s Wastewater Treatment Plant also sends overflow from CSO tanks into the Don (there were 21 such events reported in 2013).
Rainwater and snow melts flow directly into the river, and with it come contaminants ranging from dog poop and cigarettes, to road salts and chemical de-icers, heavy metals from emissions and vehicle corrosion, soaps and household cleaning products, fertilizers, and tons of garbage.
Damaged but not lost
As paddlers reached the lower section of the Don the foul smell noticeably increased, as did the amount of pollution in the water. It was a sobering last couple of kilometres, considering the life and beauty upriver where everyone started their day.
The end of the course was the Keating Channel, which was built at the turn of the century. The water was bubbly brown and full of trash, and frankly we couldn’t get out of the boat fast enough.
The post-paddle landing party was aptly located on a bank of the channel, providing the perfect view to the event’s participants as to what the paddle was all about. As damaged as the river is, it’s not lost. And we have proof, just a short paddle upstream from where we recovered with hamburgers and lemonade.
Paddle the Don raised $100,000 for the TRCA’s work to protect, regenerate and conserve the river. While the paddle only happens once a year, the river needs help year-round to reverse 150 years of damage and to quell the continue day to day contamination the river faces.
Get Down to the River
On May 3rd only 600 people got to what the Don can be if we work hard enough to restore and protect it. The river’s the surprising grace and admirable resilience remains largely unexperienced by Torontonians. Lucky for us, it runs through the city and it’s easy to get to.
The best thing you can do for the Don is to get out there and visit this important watershed. See for yourself why it’s worth fighting for.
We want to send out a very special thank you to Toronto Adventures for lending us a kayak for the event. This family run business, started by Ted Cordina, and run by sons Rosaire, Mathias and Kyle Cordina, is doing great and exciting things to get Torontonians outside and having great adventures in their environment. They also provided a huge number of canoes for Paddle the Don participants who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to experience the Don River this way. THANK YOU!