Robotic Deer, Digital Drones, Nuclear Realities : Ajax to Scarborough

It was already a hot, sunny, summer day at 7:00 am as we set off down the trail in Ajax. Almost immediately we ran into a "Trail Closed" sign, and were diverted down Westney Rd to the shore of Lake Ontario. We would encounter similar signs along the entire stretch of Westney Rd until we come to the shores of Lake Ontario.  A frustrating start, however while the hot, loud, busy, sidewalk made us unenthusiastic about the day's walk that lay ahead of us, but it turned out our fears were completely unfounded! We spent the morning walking along the Waterfront Trail, which follows the shore of Lake Ontario, and the afternoon following Highland Creek through a beautiful treed valley. At times there was no indication at all that we were crossing Canada's largest city.


As we ventured down the Waterfront Trail countless people were also out walking along the coast of Lake Ontario.  Families also filled the beaches - in a socially distant manner - or floated in the streams in inflatable boats or fished in the shade of trees along the shoreline. 

As we approached Lake Ontario we managed to pick up a trail that followed Duffins Creek and took us around a small marsh. As we walked the oak and hemlock lined trail between the creek and a housing development we heard an Eastern Wood-pewee calling in the woods, and saw Mourning Doves, American Robins, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the backyards.


In a shrubby stretch of trail we watched Gray Catbirds, Northern Cardinals, Baltimore Orioles, Chipping Sparrows, European Starlings, and small flocks of American Goldfinches busily going about their business.

When we reached the estuarine pond at the edge of lake Ontario we were delighted to see a family of Mute Swans, the grey fuzzy cygnets bobbing along after the adults. On a nearby log a row of Double-crested Cormorants sunned themselves. Overhead a Common Tern zipped by, wheeled, and plunged into the water, emerging triumphantly with a small silver fish in its bill.

As the paved trail turned and took us along the shoreline of Lake Ontario, we saw Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows, Cedar Waxwings, Ring-billed Gulls, a Belted Kingfisher, a Wood Duck, an Osprey, a flock of Black-capped Chickadees, and a large group of Tree Swallows foraging for insects above the water. So many bird species in our first few kilometers!

A particular highlight of this section of trail was seeing "birdhouse row", which consisted of a line of brightly coloured bird houses installed behind a row houses.

The path was fairly busy with joggers and cyclists, and the small, crescent shaped pebble beaches were occupied by families out enjoying the summer day. It was heartening to see people of many different cultural backgrounds enjoying the outdoors, and smiling at each other as they passed on the trail.

As we walked around the Pickering Nuclear Power Generating Station we passed many areas dedicated to habitat restoration and shoreline naturalization. Old fields were planted with wildflowers to encourage butterflies and other pollinators. Swallow nest boxes had been installed. One area had been planted with thousands of trees.

As part of Ontario Power Generation's commitment to protecting and enhancing Ontario's biodiversity, they also installed a Motus Tracking Tower at the site, which we discovered as we hiked past. There are over 350 of these automated radio telemetry towers installed across the Western Hemisphere to help track the movement of migrating birds that have been outfitted with radio tags.

On the hill with the radio tracking tower, which was fenced off and posted with signs suggesting there were armed responders guarding it, we spotted a suspicious looking deer. It was completely hidden by grass, with only its head sticking up to look at us. It stared at us for a while, and then appeared to walk off, still completely hidden by the knee high grass and moving in a disjointed, jerky, robotic looking fashion. A while later we came across a small robot behind the fence that looked like a mini tank and moved across the ground like a Rumba. We decided to move on without taking photos. The Eastern Kingbird perched on a snag, and the Turkey Vultures circling overhead appeared real enough.  We are both always amazed how every time we come to a "secured region" we actually feel less secure and more self conscious. 

After passing the nuclear power station we skirted around Frenchman's Bay, at one point walking along a full beach front. On the way around we passed through the Nautical Village of Pickering. This consisted of the Frenchman's Bay Yacht Club, and a downtown stretch of quaint and high end shops selling ice cream, pasties, and coffee, and offering natural health care, yoga, and pilates.


Lots of people were out paddling outriggers, kayaks, and inflatable rafts in the bay. There were also lots of Mute and Trumpeter Swans, some with babies, as well as Common Terns flying overhead, a single Common Goldeneye swimming in the bay, and a Double-crested Cormorant on a piling.  While there is no doubt that this is a beautiful region the size of the houses - which often looked twice as big as the older homes around them - made it appear as though money was replacing the region's community.

Lake Ontario was a smooth, clear, blue expanse on this calm summer day, and every so often a cool breeze wafted inland from it. We took a break on the grassy lawn under the shade of the weeping willows of the Rotary Frenchman's Bay West Park. It felt very peaceful.


When we reached Rouge National Urban Park we crossed a long metal trestle bridge over the mouth of the Rouge River. Ring-billed Gulls and Canada Geese were hanging out on the sandbar below, and many people were out fishing along the banks of the river.

When we walked under the bridge, to our delight we discovered that the corrugated metal underside was full of Cliff Swallow nests. A whole row of mud cup nests festooned each edge of the bridge, many of which had youngsters looking hopefully out the doorways. A steady steam of adults brought food to the nestlings amidst a great amount of excited chatter. A few of the mud nests had been lined with grasses and were being used by Houses Finches.  As we watched and photographed the birds of the area we chatted to a few people who were clearly curious as to why two people were in heavy backpacks in a beach region on a beautiful.  We were stunned when amid these conversations two Parks Canada staff walked up and waved in their usual polite and courteous fashion.  What shocked us however was not their presence but the fact that they looked like military officers, complete with bullet proof vests and side arms.  While their demeanour was of course friendly to everyone, it nonetheless was unsettling to see park wardens so heavily armed. 


As we continued onward we found ourselves on the Pan Am Trail. It took us past the West Rouge Canoe Club, which featured some colourful street art, and then out into an exposed section of trail that was busy with Tree and Bank Swallows. The skies above the lake and crescent pebble beaches were thick with swallows hunting for insects. Nest boxes along the trail offered fantastic opportunities to watch Tree Swallows feeding their young.


A little farther along we passed a tall mud cliff which was riddled with holes. We noticed that the darker areas of the cliff, which looked moist and soft, had burrows that were being used by Bank Swallows. The lighter, hard baked parts of the cliff had larger burrows that were being used mostly by European Starlings.


The shoreline in this stretch was artificially shaped into crescents to help prevent shoreline erosion, and quite a few of the inlets acted as Canada Goose nurseries, with large families paddling around in the shallows. In one of the inlets we spotted a Trumpeter Swan with a numbered yellow tag on its wing. It is likely this bird was banded as part of the Ontario Trumpeter Swan Restoration Project, which was begun by Harry Lumsden in the 1980's. Trumpeter Swans, which are the largest extant waterfowl in the world, had been hunted nearly to extinction in the 1800's, and extirpated from Ontario. Thanks to this Citizen Science, volunteer run project, there are around 900 of the swans in Ontario.

Shortly after leaving Rouge National Urban Park, the Great Trail deviated from the Waterfront Trail and headed northward along the Highland Creek. As we made our way from the Lower Highland Creek Park, to the Colonel Danforth Park, to Morningside Park we followed a beautiful treed valley. The hills rising steeply on either side of us cut out the sounds of the city, providing the sense that we were deeply immersed in nature. The wide, shallow, creek, with its rocky bottom ran cool and clear beside us. Mature trees towered high above us, providing much appreciated shade.


We followed the paved, winding trail along the valley, stopping to talk to a couple of cyclists along the way. Earlier we had chatted to a couple who had biked from Toronto to Halifax one summer, and were highly in favour of adventure. The cyclists gave us some good advice on campgrounds and trails in the area, and pointed out a spot where we could see deer.


As we continued on the Pan Am trail section of the Great Trail took us away from the shorelines of Lake Ontario along a local waterway and through shaded parks through the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus.  Once again we were surprised at how even in such a developed region, the green spaces had been so well maintained to ensure that you felt as though you were not in such a large city! Despite the benefits of coastal breezes and shaded pathways, around 4:30 pm we took a break under a lovely hemlock stand as the late afternoon heat picked up.

It felt like 36°C today, and the heat took its toll, even though we had indulged in a day of slack packing. We aren't courageous enough to attempt stealth camping in the city of Toronto, and don't think it would be responsible to stay in the city during the pandemic anyway. As a result, we left the majority of our gear and weight in Ajax this morning, and returned here on the GO train in the evening.

When we emerged from the relative cool of the shaded park and found ourselves first walking along a busy street, and then walking along a shadeless stretch of pathway known locally as the Gatineau Hydro Corridor Trail, as a result we decided to call it quits for the day. We walked down to the Eglinton GO station to head back east - a first for us.  Indeed it is an odd thing to spend a day (6 or 7 hours) trekking in one direction only to take a train back 10 or 15 minutes along the route you have just ventured.  Whether it was the heat of the day, the speed of the train, or the fact that we were returning eastward to our starting point - today felt as though we had covered little ground. 

It has been a day of surprises. We saw so many birds, and so much natural beauty in the heart of Toronto - proof once again that when you watch your backyard, regardless of where it is, or step out of your door that nature can be found anywhere!  The restoration and naturalization projects of Durham, Ajax, Pickering and Scarborough were impressive. It was another reminder to challenge our own expectations and explore our own neighbourhoods and communities.  

See you on the trail!

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