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Sometimes you just need more vacation.

This has just been one of those summers. There have been unforeseen stresses that – for a family already at capacity – left us a bit exhausted.

We are lucky; we got a vacation. The kids, their grandpa (my dad) and I spent a week in Muskoka while poor Papi was stuck at work. But when we got home, we knew we needed more. We missed the beauty of the forest, the sound of the wind in the trees, the springy feel of a forest trail underfoot.

Where in Toronto could we find something similar? We didn’t need to look far; we found one of the most beautiful forests in the lower Don Valley – Crothers Woods.

Crothers Woods

TRAILHEAD AT REDWAY RD. ENTRANCE. PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

To be clear, Crothers Woods is not the same as being in a forest in the Muskokas. In fact, they are in different ecozones: Muskokan forests are in the Ontario Shield ecozone, whereas Crothers Woods is in the Mixedwood Plains ecozone – a remnant of Carolinian Forest – to be exact.

Such academic details don’t really matter to almost three-year-old Lucas. He smiled up at the leaves rustling in the wind and tromped down the forest path in search of good rocks for his collection. A walk in the woods in Toronto gave him as much delight as a walk in the woods in Muskoka.

A secret slice of “vacation” in the midst of the city

Crothers Woods is a hidden gem: The forest blankets both sides of the Don River, from Pottery Road in the south to Leaside Bridge in the north. In 1995, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority designated the site as an Environmentally Significant Area due to its diverse, mature and relatively undisturbed forest.

A walk (or mountain bike ride) along the 10 kilometres of trails takes you through forest that includes trees like bitternut hickory, black walnut, butternut (a provincially endangered tree species), eastern hemlock and sugar maple — some still adorned with taps from old maple syrup operations. Closer to the forest floor you can find species such as bloodroot, jack-in-the-pulpit, mayapple, white trillium and trout lily.

On our walk we were delighted to find purple flowering raspberry, a native shrub related to the more familiar red raspberry but lacking those nasty thorns!

Crothers Woods

PURPLE FLOWERING RASPBERRY. PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

To our delight we also found the familiar late summer pods of milkweed, a plant that is essential for Monarch butterflies (and was happily not yet crowded out by the dog strangling vine, something I’ve discussed previously).

CROTHERS WOODS

MILKWEED. PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

A more unwelcome find was poison ivy:

Crothers Woods

POISON IVY. PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

“Leaves of three let it be!” Ray was quick to remind me.

The kids wanted to have a picnic by the water and we found a lovely bridge spanning the Don River.

Crothers Woods

BRIDGE OVER THE DON. PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

The spot was idyllic, offering not only a great view, but also rocks for Lucas to throw into the water.

Crother's Woods

IS THIS TORONTO? PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

At a pond near the river, we marvelled at a Belted King Fisher and delighted in darting ebony jewelwing damsel flies and white tailed dragonflies.

Small Seeds make “Big Twees”

On our way out, while Lucas picked up rocks, his older brother Ray stumbled upon something special – an acorn. Lucas was enthralled. It looked a bit like a rock, but inside it held all the information needed to make an oak tree:

Crothers Woods

LUCAS AND ACORN. PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

We all looked up with wonder at the parent tree.

Crothers Woods

LARGE OAK TREE IN CROTHERS WOODS. PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

“Big twee!” said Lucas.

Crothers Woods has a lot of big trees. Indeed, many of the trees here are more than a century old, and walking though parts of this forest gives you an idea of what the area was like before European settlement.

Our experience with the “big twee” – and its small seed – reminded me of the experience that started this Wild City column.

The Earth Day inspired seeds that we planted back in March are now providing local and organic food for our family (at least the seedlings we donated to “Green Thumb Grandpa” are.) The tomato and cucumber plants are, in fact, escaping the roof of a 6-foot high green house!

Crothers Woods and Earth Day plantings

OUR EARTH DAY SEEDLINGS ARE PRODUCING FRUIT!

Deborah M. Buehler is an ecologist, an editor and a writer in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter. See her earlier columns for Wild City here.

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