Dear Readers, I don’t know what you would do on a wet and windy night in Toronto, but I would hazard that taking a three-mile walk through an urban environmental park in search of beavers probably wouldn’t be at the top of the list. But that’s exactly what my husband and I did with our friend D on Tuesday night. It hasn’t stopped raining properly for about the past week, but we missed out on the beaver spotting last year, so nothing was going to stop us this year.
The Evergreen Brickworks (previously known as the Don Valley Brickworks) opened in 1889, when local entrepreneur John Taylor noticed that the soil was good quality clay, ideal for making bricks. A quarry was set up to the north of the site, and the brickworks themselves were built at the south end. The bricks were used to build a variety of local landmarks, including Casa Loma (a remarkable castle-like home that included an oven large enough to cook two oxen and three bowling lanes), the Ontario legislature and Osgoode Hall, home to the Law School.
The site was mostly quarried out by the 1980s, and then the battle began. It was purchased by a company who wanted to use it for housing, but as it was on a floodplain it was decided that it wasn’t suitable, and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority had to buy it back at a vastly increased price because it was now zoned as residential. But by 1994, restoration of the site had begun, with the quarry filled in, three new ponds created, and paths which link it to the Beltline trail.
The buildings of the brick works themselves have been largely preserved and are used for everything from the regular farmers’ market to children’s events. There’s even a garden centre, but of course at 10 p.m. at night, in the rain, it was closed.
And so we found ourselves walking down to the brickworks . There’s something magical about stomping through a completely deserted forest, the moon a hazy disc through the low cloud, listening out for rustling in the undergrowth or the hooting of an owl. Our friend D has seen beavers here several times, and there’s evidence of their activity everywhere – gnawed tree stumps, piles of branches in the ponds. He was disappointed that we didn’t see an actual beaver, but sometimes it’s enough just to know that they’re there and living their lives so close to the centre of town. The brickworks have a really impressive list of animals of all kinds that have been spotted, and if I lived in Toronto I think I’d be making a pilgrimage every week, binoculars and field guide in hand.
Apparently the beaver family currently in the pond is the first that’s stayed for the winter – often beavers visit just to top up on food, but don’t make the place their home. However, this year a pair of young adults and their kit did stay put, and the rangers are interested to see what will happen next.
Sadly, the ponds have also become a dumping ground for unwanted goldfish and terrapins. D says that some of the goldfish are now enormous, but I suppose they’ll provide food for the herons, such as the great blue heron ( Ardea herodias) below.
The terrapins will be competing with native turtles, but as the pond is also home to the native snapping turtle they might have met their match (in the UK they have no competition at all).
And so, after walking around in the rain for a couple of hours we finally headed back, serenaded by the sounds of running water (including the drips from our kagoules) and the haunting cries of some mysterious animal off in the distance. D did say that he’d seen coyotes a couple of times, and they are definitely coming into the city more often, probably as their usual homes are being disturbed. Apparently the secret with a coyote is to make yourself look big and scary, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard any stories of humans being bothered by the animals (though I suspect that pets might be in a bit more danger). Still, at least no one’s spotted any mountain lions or bears at the Brickworks. Yet.
A well-cooked bowling lane might be like an enormous rasher of streaky bacon, I guess.