Exploring Toronto’s Green Heart in High Park

EVERY CITY NEEDS A GREAT PARK. It’s hard to imagine the world’s urban centres without their iconic parks – Manhattan’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the Bois du Boulogne in Paris, Montreal’s Mount Royal Park, Berlin’s Tiergarten, Stanley Park in Vancouver, Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyoen, London’s Hyde Park. They began life as land for farming or grazing, as royal game preserves or private farms, but by the time nearly every city dweller was living in townhomes or tenements and green space became precious, public parks provided recreation and escape in all seasons. As many of us discovered during the pandemic, they still do today.

Except for a handful of public squares and garrison yards – a few of which doubled as cemeteries – Toronto was never designed to have a grand public park, and it still lacks anything like one downtown. High Park is in the city’s west end – nearly four hundred acres with Bloor Street and two subway stops at its northern end, the Queensway, railways tracks and the lakeshore at its southern border, with prosperous residential neighbourhoods on the eastern and western sides.

High Park Road Gate

The park began as a bequest to the city by John Howard, an architect, engineer and surveyor who owned a 160 acre sheep farm past the western boundary of Toronto. He lived here with his wife Jemima in a Regency style cottage, Colborne Lodge. (Howard’s mistress Mary Williams lived elsewhere.) In 1875 the Howards agreed to give 120 acres of his property to the city, in exchange for an annual pension of $1200 and the right to live at Colborne Lodge until their deaths. An additional condition was that the new parkland be called High Park, and that no alcohol could be served within its perimeter. At the time the park could only be reached from the city by boat or railway.

Colborne Lodge

Colborne Lodge still stands and is usually open to the public as a museum and historical house – at least when pandemic lockdowns aren’t in place. It still contains most of the Howards’ furniture and many of John Howard’s watercolour paintings of the city and life in the park in the 19th century. The park also contains the Howards: their tomb is just a short walk across the road from Colborne Lodge – a stone cairn topped with a Masonic cross on the edge of a ridge by one of the park’s many ravines, protected by an iron fence that once surrounded St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Howard Family tomb

Ecologically, the park’s centerpiece are the acres of Oak Savannah forest on its northeastern quarter. It’s a precious artifact of the woodlands that once covered the area, and is carefully managed by the park’s conservationists, with dead trees allowed to decay and periodical controlled burns of the undergrowth to mimic natural cycles of regeneration that promote growth of the oak forest.

Howard Park Avenue and the Savannah forest

Right in the middle of the Savannah forest sits the High Park Nature Centre, formerly the home of the Forest School, a facility built for children – usually poor kids – with health conditions like heart problems, or suffering from exposure to cholera or tuberculosis. The building was finished in 1932, replacing the tents and wooden platforms where teachers held classes since 1914. Today the Nature Centre hosts programs that use the park to educate people of all ages about the park’s plants and animals and its regeneration and sustainability operations.

High Park Nature Centre

Like any public park that’s been open for a century and a half, High Park is a space that exists in the vast middle ground between wilderness and playground. Some of the paths through the Savannah forest are well-traveled, the earth between the older trees packed flat, the underbrush controlled. No surprise that it’s a very popular part of the park all year round, a short distance from a subway station. (I came across hammocks strung between trees here – little day camps set up by locals who use the park like a backyard.)

In the Savannah Forest

Like any public park this size, High Park has all the usual amenities – tennis courts and pools, playgrounds, baseball diamonds, picnic areas and concessions stands. But it’s big enough that you can spend most of a day there and almost never leave the trails through the woodland areas. This is my favorite part of the park, and the good news is that it’s getting bigger all the time.

When I had small children, the park was basically three or four areas – the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground, High Park Zoo, the picnic areas and the Grenadier Restaurant. Today my High Park is a network of trails that differ in character immensely, from the forest glades of the Savannah to the paved paths by the Duck Ponds and the lower part of Grenadier Pond to the wilder trails in the northwest part of the park by Wendigo Creek. For other people it might be the bike trails, the pool and the sports facilities. You can call High Park a success by the way it has managed to serve all of these uses despite nearly perpetual budget crises.

Duck Ponds

As a photographer, I’ve come to cherish the park for its ability to transform itself season by season. The Duck Ponds were once one of the most manicured areas in the park, but this summer they looked more like the forest at the edge of a northern lake. In a single day you can travel from the paved pathways between careful landscaping in the Hillside Garden area to the thickly overgrown hiking trails along the West Ravine.

On the east side of Colborne Lodge Drive the park is cut through by Spring Creek, which feeds the Duck Ponds at the southern edge. On the west side Wendigo Creek is the waterway, a buried creek that emerges just below where Bloor Street was built over a deep ravine. It travels through thick woods to form a pond that opens into Grenadier Pond, which pretty much fills the whole southwestern quarter of the park.

Wendigo Creek

This part of the park was acquired from the Chapman family, who ran an ice-making operation on the ponds for fifty years before selling Grenadier Pond to the city in 1930. When I was a boy the grounds by Grenadier and Wendigo Pond were mostly lawns rolling down to the water’s concrete banks. Re-naturalization of parkland and especially flood zones has been official city greenspace policy for several decades, though, and like the other waterways and green spaces I’ve visited here during lockdown, lawns have given way to brush and trees, while the edges of the ponds have been allowed to fill in with reeds and rushes to improve water quality and restore habitat for migratory birds and other animals.

By Wendigo Pond

I’m not sure if you need a camera to enjoy a forest hike but it sure helps. With a nice lens like my Pentacon 50mm I can’t help but seek out the small things – like the pollinators all over the blooms from late spring to early fall, or the other signs of abundant life lurking nearly everywhere, from mushrooms near the forest floor to the textures on the bark of the older trees. I wandered the same paths several times this summer, and the wildflowers and insect life were different every time from May to September.

Re-naturalization has made this seasonal tapestry of flowers and insect life more abundant. It’s also brought back bird life to the park; areas once dominated by gulls and Canada geese and the odd swan are now the summer home to wood ducks, mergansers, mallards, grebes, herons, terns and kingfishers. I am not a bird photographer – I lack both the equipment and the patience – but they’re hard to miss once you know where to look; on my last visit a big Night-Heron sat in the branches of a tree over the banks of Grenadier Pond, barely visible as it lazily scouted the water below.

The park has never lacked for animal life, despite constant human presence. There are the usual inhabitants, here long before the Howards – the amphibians, snakes and reptiles, the beavers, rabbits, foxes, coyotes, groundhogs, chipmunks, bats, raccoons and squirrels. And then there are the more exotic inhabitants of the High Park Zoo, which began as a deer pen in the 1890s. Today it’s home to buffalo, llamas, Highland cattle, yaks, peacocks, wallabies, reindeer, Mouflon and Barbary sheep, a family of capybaras that made a famous escape attempt in 2016, and a pair of emus with an inordinate interest in visitors.

The landscape of the park is full of variation, from the flat clearings and picnic areas by Bloor Street to the deep ravines running though the southern parts of the park. The highest point is Bear Mound, inconspicuously hiding behind the parking lots by the Grenadier Restaurant. It’s supposed to be a First Nations burial ground, one of many in and around the park. While it’s hard to find evidence that the Algonquin, Mississauga, Huron-Wendat, Seneca or other local tribes had settlements in the park, they definitely used it for hunting and probably burials, as evidenced by graves that match the funerary practices of the “Red Paint People,” found by the northwest edge of the park in 1921.

Bear Mound – Highest point in High Park

What we do know is that the park was heavily used by Torontonians by the time the city expanded out past it, spreading the city boundary west past the Humber River to Etobicoke. The Hillside Gardens, with their grass lawns, formal landscaping and meandering paved paths, are what I remember the park looking like when I was a boy. Previous to that, however, the Hillside Gardens were a popular tobogganing hill, clear of trees and nearly as popular as ice skating and hockey games on the frozen pond.

Hillside Gardens to Grenadier Pond

Lockdown – and perpetual budget cuts – have been tough on this part of the park. The fountains and water features in the Hillside Gardens have been dry for several summers now, and the city closed the park to visitors during the spring blooming of the cherry blossoms by the pond in 2020, in favour of “online viewing” of the trees. Hopefully the increased use of the park, by citizens locked down and desperate for fresh air and relaxation, will increase pressure to give green space like High Park a priority it’s been denied for too long.

I’ve been coming to the park with my cameras for decades now, starting when I lived just a few blocks away. It’s never less than rewarding, giving me at least a photo or two worth looking at every time. I used to think it never changed, but the last few years have shattered that notion, especially now that I’ve taken to the hiking trails in the areas that have been allowed to re-naturalize, creating a whole new park that I don’t remember from my many childhood visits.

Grenadier Pond looking north

That change is clearest by Grenadier Pond, whose banks have become wilder every year. The shores were once edged by fishermen standing on the concrete apron pulling catfish, carp and perch out of the dark water. Today they have to hunt to find a clear spot, while the city is encouraging them to fish from the new platform they’ve built over the water by the Hillside Gardens. In the meantime the condos are rising to the south and the north, the city growing denser all the time, on the way to making High Park even more of an oasis for citizens in need of a place to walk and breathe.

Grenadier Pond looking west

Photos and story © 2021 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved

(To read more behind the scenes detail – and see more photos – click on the link here.)