This piece was inspired by “A Place of Cultural Memory” – Jane Fairburn’s letter to the TRCA, Feb 2018, and by my longtime love of the Scarborough Bluffs and the Lake Ontario shoreline in general.
Ten years ago, a public forum was held by Waterfront Toronto to discuss plans, in conjunction with the TRCA, for Lake Ontario Park. One statement in particular from that presentation sticks in my mind:
- provide generous wilds and ecological infrastructure for the city, as well as unusual experiences of nature
- make visible the Canadian imperative for the protection and development of ecological assets”
On the Family Day weekend, my partner and I enjoyed the unseasonably warm weather by taking several walks on the shores of Lake Ontario, where the TRCA has been pushing ahead with the Scarborough Waterfront Plan, part of the larger Waterfront Toronto project. These are my reflections on two of those walks.
At the Guild
The gate at the bottom of Galloway Road stands open, leading into the east end of the Guild Inn property. Beyond the temporary parking area for construction vehicles, now empty, several signs greet us. On the satellite image map mounted on a construction fence, two entrances are shown as open (notably not the one we just entered), with open trails shown only on the table lands at the top. A nearby yellow warning sign cautions against taking a path: DANGER Do Not Enter Pathway Closed Due to Wash Out. We saw the same signage taking walks in other locations – Gates Gully/Doris McCarthy Trail, the trail from Hill Crescent down to Sylvan Park – we know that trying to fight the natural waterflow and erosion is futile, the folly of humans with big machines and even bigger plans.
Like others, we ignore the signs saying that the entrance we used was not officially ‘open’, and walk down the paved access road from the Guild grounds to the lake…well, sort of to the lake. As we reach what was once the mouth of Galloway ravine, we are greeted by a choice, left or right, east or west, down one of the new graveled shoreline roads created by the TRCA, like the paved road which now fills the ravine.
The road provides access for the machinery required to build the Waterfront Trail that the TRCA is constructing along the shoreline. It also gives access to families and couples joining us, in spite of the TRCA signage warning that the road is not open. Others arrive down the old ravine trail.
And yet…access to what? This used to be a beach, didn’t it? There used to be sand, smooth-pebbled bits, driftwood, waterfowl, birds, even the occasional deer, coyote and fox. You could paddle in the water, skip stones, swim. Now, that shoreline is ‘armourstone’, a wall of limestone blocks, interrupted by finger-shaped ‘headlands’ jutting out into the lake. You can’t get to the water.
Having lived in the area for 25 years, I have vivid memories of a very different bluffs shoreline – not just here in the Guild, where a ribbon of beach meandered along the lake, but all the way west to the man-made harbour at Bluffers Park, and beyond that, below the towering Cathedral Bluffs behind the St Augustine Seminary. The continuing stretch below Fishleigh Drive, the ravine behind the Harrison Properties near the bottom of Birchmount Avenue, and below the Hunt Club, was steep, and its contours changed with water levels, storms and seasons, in a natural cycle of ebb and flow. It was an unique marine and terrestrial habitat for myriad creatures, now displaced, even extirpated. It was also a beautiful place, wild and untamed, and in many places, inaccessible except by water.
Almost all of the shoreline west of the Guild is now hardscaped, manmade. Much of the shore east as well.
We clamber up the armourstone blocks that now wall the Guild shoreline and look both ways: armourstone headlands and a walled shore as far as the eye can see. Lake Ontario is completely inaccessible for kilometres. Grey, opaque waves break on the rocks. There are no water birds, no birds at all in fact. So much for a beachfront nature walk.
We move west from the headland at the base of the road and find a jumbled mess of broken concrete sewer outflow pipes littering the shallows. A remnant of the old beach is riddled with demolition waste: hunks of concrete, cinder blocks, re-bar. As we approach the place where last year’s rains washed out the road above, we see the TRCA’s remedy: a mountain of armourstone dumped over the edge of the road to fill the landslide. We begin to climb. Reaching the top, we survey their handiwork. Nothing remains of the natural beach shoreline that existed for millenia. Only waves smashing on hewn rocks.
Sobered and defeated in our desire to enjoy the lakefront, we climb back up the road and go home, still determined to find what used to be here, further east, tomorrow.
East Point Beach to the Grey Abbey Ravine
The next day, we venture further east to the bottom of Beechgrove Drive, where we park across the road from the Highland Creek Sewage Treatment Plant in the public lot. We are greeted with birdsong: Cardinals and Chickadees chirp and whistle from the trees. We walk through the woods down to the beach. It is narrower than the last time we were here, as the record high lake levels and unusual spring/summer storm season of 2017 have taken their toll. We also see the effects of normal seasonal wind and water erosion on the bluff face, where slides have exposed the hundreds of Bank Swallow nest holes from last year. We look at one another, both wondering if the migratory birds will return to these longtime colonies again this year, or if construction efforts on the shoreline will drive them away.
The waves roll in to the beach, which is scattered with driftwood and the occasional piece of other flotsam, generally plastics. I wish I had brought a bag to collect the few bits of trash we encounter. Maybe next time. There are flotillas of waterfowl on the water: Common and Hooded Mergansers feeding. We walk, and walk, and walk. More Bank Swallow nest holes, more ducks, a Red Shouldered Hawk wheels out of a tree, hunting.
The beach narrows, then widens as we round the curving shore and view the long approach west to Grey Abbey. We encounter a photographer using a tripod, waiting for the perfect wave to splash onto a large rock just offshore. A few others are walking dogs, or simply walking. We stop to talk about the beauty of the beach, and a couple from Pickering laments the development of the lakeside nearer their home. They come here to remember what they used to love about their waterfront.
The air is fresh, tinged with lake scent from the clear water washing the beach, and the earthy smell of spring from the land. The sand under our feet is natural and irregular, varying from pebbles to fine creamy grains. Occasionally a rivulet tinged with clay meanders down to the lake from the bluff. We startle a pair of Common Mergansers, who slip into the water from the beach edge and paddle toward the flock floating offshore.
It’s a long walk to Grey Abbey, but it is so peaceful and inspiring that we hardly notice. We pause at the ravine, treelined and with a stream of spring runoff crossing the beach, which is wide and inviting here. There’s a majestic bluff face just to the east of Grey Abbey, riddled with Bank Swallow nest holes. I try to picture what this would look like if the TRCA Waterfront Plan’s spiral ramp was constructed, and I just can’t do it. It’s too depressing. It makes me angry. What will happen to that swallow colony when the big machines roll in? How many mature trees will be lost? How much beach will be sacrified for the sake of the ramp?
As we near the end of the undisturbed beach west of Grey Abbey, we encounter more armourstone, like yesterday. There’s another area where a slide has been filled with rock, probably twice as high as the one at the Guild. From here west the shore is all armourstone ‘revetments’. This is where our beach walk ends.
On the way back we take more pictures and reflect on the unspoiled beauty of East Point and Grey Abbey. We meet some more walkers and all agree that it is lovely just the way it is. Approaching our starting point, we encounter a family with two small children and encourage them to continue westward around the curve to where the beach widens and we saw the hawk.
Climbing back up to the trails atop the bluffs at Beechgrove, I resolve to write this reflection, in the hope that I can inspire others to value a natural, historic waterfront. Truly a place of cultural memory.
The vast majority of the Toronto shoreline is developed, not just as harbour sea walls, docks, piers and and marinas, but also as miles of public beaches, parks and boardwalks. Taking into account the lakeside development that the TRCA has already started from Victoria Park Avenue (RC Harris Water Filtration plant) to east of Morningside Avenue (near Grey Abbey), there are close to 9 kilometres (5 miles) of Lake Ontario shoreline already hardened in the aggressive pursuit of a fully accessible continuous hardscaped shoreline corridor – the Waterfront Trail – not to mention the preservation of mostly private property atop the bluffs.
There is also an appalling lack of completion and no evidence of promised results. The TRCA has almost completed the process of hardening the shoreline for the entire length of this area, and has completed precisely none of the Waterfront Trail. None. There is no more publicly accessible waterfront trail east of Victoria Park Avenue than there was when the TRCA started this project over 10 years and unknown millions of dollars ago.
In fact, there are areas, one in particular near the Fishleigh ravine, where the TRCA’s shoreline road has been buried by slides, and is still under constant threat from the natural erosion processes on the bluffs above. The TRCA’s Fishleigh Extension Project, a costly attempt to preserve and rebuild sewer and water infrastructure for houses built too close to the edge of the bluffs in the first place, is a futile fool’s errand, a colossal waste of money and effort, and will destroy the natural bluff there.
As Albert Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The TRCA keeps doing the same thing, never finishing, and then starting more. They don’t even wait for results.
Isn’t it finally time to stop this insanity?
Clearly, there is no shortage of access to Lake Ontario, but there is a shocking lack of natural, undeveloped shoreline, given what was here before. The TRCA must be held to account for what it has already started and left unfinished, before taking aim at the last mile of natural beach shoreline in the City of Toronto.
Written By: Catherine Bacque
Photos By: Catherine Bacque