In March 2020, as the world attempted to find the best measures to contain an unprecedented pandemic, Toronto closed all 70 of its dog parks. At the time, no one quite understood how COVID-19 spread, but it was clear there was a risk whenever people congregated. I had an energetic seven-month-old puppy at home — and he needed to run.
I sought out whatever green spaces I could use to tire him out. I wandered through a hydro corridor in Scarborough and let him play in an otherwise abandoned ball diamond. On yet another leashed walk through my downtown neighbourhood, a woman with a blind dog named Riley told me a secret.
“Go to the bottom of Beechwood,” she confided (I’m paraphrasing; I can’t remember her exact words). “There’s a sign that says the road’s closed, but it’s not. Park at the bottom. Walk down the hill, follow the path to the left, then the right, then cross over the railway tracks and go over the bridge. That’s where you can go.”
I followed her directions, intimidating as they were, but they made sense once I saw the terrain. That’s how Ferris and I found Crothers Woods — a set of winding paths through a vast wooded area in the Don Valley, smack in the centre of Canada’s largest city. That first day, we wandered over a bridge as the Don River sparkled below, roamed the trails, took in skyline views, watched woodpeckers flit through the trees and met a few other friendly dog owners. It was positively magical, a word I’ve since heard many other dog people use to describe this 52-hectare (128-acre) urban forest, which is a rehabilitated landfill and industrial site.
Since then, we’ve visited countless times — on steamy summer nights at sunset, and during deepest, darkest winter, when I wear metal spikes on my boots to avoid slipping. I’ve become part of the morning community of Crothers people and know most of the dogs by name: Roxie, Bamboo, Friday, Blossom, Cash, Pluto, Steve.
There are always new faces, too. As the pandemic wore on and lockdowns came and went, more and more people took to the trails. According to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, which safeguards nine watersheds overall and owns most of Crothers Woods, the average number of people using its trails jumped 30 per cent from 2019 to 2020, and another 20 per cent from 2020 to 2021. Everyone, it seemed, needed somewhere safe to roam.
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Crothers is no exception. The City of Toronto, which manages the woods, clocks the trail system’s use through an infrared tracking system installed on wooden posts that detect movement on the paths. The device at one popular trailhead on the west side of the woods recorded nearly three times as many daily hits in 2021 as it did in 2016.
Shawn Micallef, a flâneur and columnist for the Toronto Star who often visited Crothers with his miniature poodle, Sebastian, calls it a hopeful place.
“It maintains its mystery and sense of discovery every time,” said Micallef, author of Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto.
“It still reveals things, little passages, little nooks and crannies that I’ve never been to … I think that sense of unknown and mystery and discovery probably intrigues a lot of people as they come down, and the pandemic has nudged a lot more people into doing things.”
Dogs give people licence to practice a form of psychogeography and explore their urban environments in new ways, Micallef said. He misses his walks with Sebastian, who recently died.
“It is good to have a dog. You see more,” he said. “Having a dog gives you permission to stop and linger and loiter.”
Like me, Bruce Berga, a local chef, learned the secret of Crothers Woods from a neighbour who knows most of the Don Valley’s paths. He and his family met friends for long explores in the woods when it was one of the only safe places to socialize, or simply to let their dog Cash off his leash. However Berga uses the valley, he says he always ends up feeling more upbeat.
“It’s like going to church,” he said. “I never really consciously thought of it, but it is a really great start to the day.”
Berga takes pride in taking pictures of winter scenes on his hikes and sending them to faraway friends and family.
“They think we’re two hours north of Toronto, and I say, ‘It’s 900 metres from my house,’” he said. “We’ve, all of a sudden, become fiercely proud of it.”
The benefits of walking in nature (sometimes recently referred to as “forest bathing”) has long been studied and appreciated. In the 19th century, American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau extolled leisurely walking for connecting people back with their senses, and for being a participatory activity: “The walker is not merely an onlooker, but experiences nature as tactile and taste-full.” Some doctors in Canada are even prescribing time in nature for patients’ health and wellbeing.
But the added usage is taking its toll on the Crothers Woods, which Toronto has designated an environmentally significant area. Mike Halferty and Scott Laver, who work with Toronto’s parks department, closely watch how it’s faring. They remember a time when it was the Wild West, when people screamed through the bush on dirt bikes and mountain bikes, forging their own paths and unwittingly contributing to erosion.
It’s only in the last 15 years or so that the area has been carefully managed and restored. The city planted thousands of trees, built new trails and restored old ones to provide 10 kilometres of carefully crafted trails for people to roam without harming the native forest.
Halferty, a natural environment specialist, was on parental leave during the pandemic and spent much of his time on Toronto’s trails with his son. He noticed how some trails in Crothers Woods have gradually widened from use as people try to maintain physical distance from each other. He also took note of new trails and shortcuts being cut. The woods were, as they say, being loved to death.
“It was really heartbreaking at times,” Halferty said. “But I was hopeful for it. The positive side to that was it was very clear, to me at least, it was a very clear demonstration of the value of the work we do.”
Halferty and Laver hope all the new people who have discovered Crothers Woods will help protect it. The city is shoring up its weekly volunteer program so people can help take care of the trails.
“We just built new trails, and maybe a new culture and new community of ‘Let’s all come together and help protect this area,’” Laver said.
George Paradi bought a family home backing onto the valley’s west side 47 years ago, back when the Don was home to working brick factories. Back then, it would shake with all the industrial activity. He has long visited the Don Valley as a runner, bicyclist, skier, and, in the last four years, as a dog owner. Now he and his vizla, Roxie, use the trails almost every day. The words he uses to describe Crothers Woods are “wonder and sanity, combined.”
“It’s like I’m in a different world,” he said. “You forget you’re in the middle of a city.… Where else in the city can you go and watch a hawk at work?”
Paradi has noticed a marked increase in new faces along the trails since the pandemic began. He welcomes them and willingly offers directions when people get turned around.
“It’s not for me. It’s not my private backyard,” he said. “It’s there for people to use. That’s the whole point.”
Paradi sees the increased activity in the valley as the perfect reason to build on the success of Crothers Woods.
A longtime director of the Governors Bridge Ratepayers Association, he worked with the city to build a skyline lookout nearby, which is about to be rebuilt. The association is now encouraging the city to buy an old rail line at the top of Crothers and turn it into a walking path to connect with another trail system further south.
To him, it’s a simple proposition. If more people are benefiting from the trails, give them more to use.
“All these people are walking here anyway,” he said. “I think it is a wonder. It keeps you from going to CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) and saying, ‘I need help.’ It has that effect.”
It certainly does for Ferris and me. After a long walk in Crothers Woods, we both come home feeling relaxed, content, and eager for our next walk.
Mary Vallis is a journalism professor at Centennial College. She wrote this story as part of her course work for a Master of Professional Communication at Royal Roads University.