Walk revives ghost of river past

A trickle of blue wound through the city Sunday as a ‘Human River’ traced the path of hidden Garrison Creek.

Beginning at Christie Pits Park and ending at Fort York, 50 people wearing various shades of blue sought clues to the lost river.

Along the way they listened to the unmistakable sound of rushing water beneath their feet, merged in the sewer below. Later, they smelled it, off-gassing from large green pipes on a quiet neighbourhood street.

The fifth-annual walk was presented by the Toronto Public Space Committee,  a group that seeks to protect the city’s streets and green spaces.

As part of Human River, participants dress in blue and visually recreate the creek to bring awareness to Toronto’s hidden water systems as well as to the water people can see.

Garrison Creek originally flowed from a point just north of today’s Davenport Road and emptied into Lake Ontario at Fort York, the site of the lake’s former shoreline. It was buried completely by the 1920s.

The project was conceived by advocate Dave Meslin in 2005 after the city expressed interest in unearthing the Garrison. He called it a creative way to get people interested in water conversation and Toronto’s history.

“If you don’t put a creative spin on it, it’s hard to attract people,” he said. “I just thought, ‘What’s the best way to get people excited about the idea of the river flowing in a place they weren’t aware of?’, and of course it’s to become the river.”

Co-ordinator Erin Wood said Human River is more than a way to raise awareness about how to save water. It’s also a way for people to understand how the city’s past affects the present.

“There are all these different landscape features that have influenced the growth of our city. We want to take what’s happened in our past – in terms of how we’ve not treated the environment so well – and take those lessons into our future development in the city,” she said.

Garrison Creek was buried after it became severely polluted by sewage in the early 1900s. When it became evident the city needed to install a sewer system, the creek was merged with the new underground brick and mortar structure.

The Garrison river valley was also hidden from view, filled in over time with dirt from the subway excavation.

But signs of the river and the path it carved into the Earth still remain.  Winding streets along the Garrison Ravine trace the course of the creek’s former shoreline. And along Crawford Street, tilting houses offer a clue to the water’s path below.

“As the fill starts to settle, the foundations shift and the houses become crooked. When you see crooked houses, that’s a sign that (they) might be over a buried creek,” Wood said.

A large and thriving weeping willow in the backyard of a home near Trinity Bellwoods Park offers another clue to the water below. Because willows need large amounts of water to survive, arbourists think the tree may have tapped into the creek, perhaps through a crack in the sewer.

John Wilson of the Task Force to Bring Back the Don and Lost Rivers attended Sunday’s walk. He said understanding the water cycle is key to not repeating mistakes made in the past.

“The water that lands on our roofs and on our streets is all flowing downhill and going to the sewers below. What we really must think of is not how to clean Garrison Creek, but rather how to make sure the water going into the gutter is clean so we don’t end up with a situation where we have to bury a water feature we should all be enjoying,” he said.

And that’s why Human River co-ordinator Georgia Ydreos makes water conservation and awareness a priority in her life.

“I’m a water person,” she said. “I find myself going to the water when I need to calm down. It’s been a constant in my life and I think it’s important that I try to protect it.”