MY HUMBER RIVER
FROM JUNE/JULY 2018 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
LAYOUT BY Christine Peters
ART ASSISTANCE BY Natasha Sasic
WE USED TO TAKE TRIPS
All my songs are true... especially the aulde ones that involve the Humber River. When I was a young boy, my quest for adventure always led to that stream. Everything good was North for me. Space, freedom, animals, no adults, the opportunity to build things. Build our own civilization! Collect things and make fire. Feed yourself. It was 1979 and I was 12. Christopher was the only person I found in grade school who really wanted to do this. He became my best friend, and that was no trite thing for a kid. It started out of necessity. I needed to do this but I couldn't do it alone. The goal? NORTH.
ESSO gas station maps were the only guide and a lack of roads indicated areas of interest. I had a tiny brown ten-speed for girls that my father found in the garbage and fixed up, and Christopher had a banana seat thing that was very rock and roll at the time. My bike, though, had the down-curled handlebars that were very Olympic and serious.
Chris stayed over so we could get an early start. Up Islington towards the country. Every bit of green was exciting and felt like freedom. Steeles Ave. was the end of Toronto and it actually was countryside on the other side of the street. It was the first band of freedom to push through and believe me, with our bicycles, it hurt. They squeaked and came unchained and after hours and hours every sidewalk curb felt like a cliff. After some river and fields we hit Woodbridge, the most Italian place in Canada, smaller at the time. Some random navigation through the new cement-lion-accented-driveway neighbourhoods, breaking to a huge hill towards FREEEEEEEDOOOOMMMMM!!!!
There were the remains of a farm down there and we went there for lunch. Burned out with ancient box springs in the grass and a giant crap-pile. The Humber was out back so we went for a swim. Pretty steep muddy banks so we floated a big fat log to grab on to. Nice cool muddy swim. When I came up to grab the log, staring at me was a spider that was only slightly sub-tarantula.
Pump pump pump pump pump pump pump pump. The road grinds and hills are hard so you learn every single one. Red-winged Blackbirds. A Red-tailed Hawk. It's the grass that sticks with me. The earth under it, the smells. Hills.
Chris and I yelled at each other every once in a while. The goal was Kleinburg: I'd been there and was well aware of and love the Group of 7. I knew that it looked out on a valley that was a rough approximation of the north they depicted so well. We were starving when we hit Kleinberg - a strange, clean, fakey small town. It had a GEM SHOP!!!! A place filled with tones and fossils. Insane! I bought a slice of moss agate.
We ditched our bikes behind Tom Thomson's reconstructed cabin just down he hill in the brush and headed out to find a permanent camp. PERMANENT. It did feel like the north. Cedars, fields and the river. Up here it was kind of skinny and snaky. We trucked across it, shoes in hand, and across another field. Here things got interesting. We were alone with no roads. There was a forest that wrapped around a hump of the Humber and we went in. It was swampy - no one would go there or want to go there. So we went there with glee.
... AND there we mounded up the earth and made it dry
... and there we made fire
... and there we made shelter
That was our first trip. On the next one my bike was broken, so we decided we would walk; that seemed like a challenge also. One wants to be a superhero after all. It was agonizing. Nearing Toronto, legs aching as we walked through a field, we saw a slow-moving train of flatbed railcars. We jumped on and rode it into Etobicoke. It's not as easy to get off a slow-moving train as you might think. We got home around midnight; moaning, destroyed 12-year-olds. Over that year we made that camp nicer, fought the swamp, swam in the river and made tea from plants we found. My parents were fantastically blasé about it. I love them for that. They let us do this. These were the most important things in my life.
THE ICE FLOE
I went to a uniformed Catholic High School in Rexdale, which I hated profoundly. My only respite was that around back of that slit-windowed 1960/'70s architectural monument to boredom was the Humber valley. It was, fantastically, somewhat un-parkized down there. It was the grounds of the Adolescent "Mental" Centre, a mysterious collection of equally '70s modern buildings. Around and through that mental centre there was a big hill down into the valley where the small road became gravel. Here there were cedars, and where there are cedars, there's privacy and you can disappear. So here, invisible, I made a camp right on the bank, with a small fire pit and a sitting log. I'd go there on the way home, every lunch hour and every gym class I skipped out on.
Spring break-up on the Humber, 1981. Two-and-a-half-foot thick slabs of ice crushing away hunks of earth and roots. You could feel it through your boots. So, on my way home after prison, I'm sitting there thinking I need to do something. I wanted to feel this. Feel the power of the river grinding at my feet. Just then a slab, bigger than my bedroom, presented itself to me, presented a challenge, just laid it out in front of me. It said "step aboard." So I did. Life is about experience... intensity... right?
This is deep, powerful winter water. I had made some considerations; it looked like this floe was heading towards the other bank, which had easy jump off points, but my side was clay cliffs. It was moving faster than I thought, but I had my walking stick (one should always carry a walking stick). It was amazing. I could feel the power. The floe cruised in the direction I was hoping, slightly away from the cliffs, but it was immediately apparent that the other bank was not going to happen: my floe was headed for the centre. The seriousness descended like a cool cloak - time to think - I have a problem. You die if you jump-off. Elimination. So time slowed down down down.
The Humber at this point is moving me and my vehicle east towards the Islington/Finch bridge (this does not exist anymore). I can see it ahead of me, and people start gathering at the edge. I was aware of them but it didn't concern me for some reason. I don't think I waved for help because it was apparent that under that bridge was a massive crush of these chunks of ice and I was potentially doomed. With my walking stick I got down on all fours, bracing for the tumult under the bridge.
The water began churning more, and I think I looked up to see 8 or so bus-waiters looking right at me as I went under the bridge. Chunks in front of me were colliding and pushing each other up and out of the water, smashing into pieces. Right between my splayed knees, my floe split and half of it surged up under my left. I shanked to the right and rose to ride it out, grabbing the edge at a few points.
Somehow I came out the other side and the water smoothed out. It looked like I was headed towards a bank. It looked pretty sure. I was crushed up beside another floe that was pushing mine towards one shore as mine was pushing it to the opposite. I jumped across to it and almost skidded over the other side. My right leg went in to the water - it was insanely cold. The collision put me on a hopeful course and I was inspired to stand up with utter confidence.
My new car took me home. The jump to the bank was far too easy and I was alive. I looked at the river and felt SO HAPPY. SO GLAD!! Also kind of cocky. I headed home west towards Islington through a field. A pheasant crowed. A crow cawed. The grass waved. I was very alive in the most romantic, cheesy way you would expect. I could hear sirens and considered they might be for me so I cut up through a hemlock grove beside a church and walked south along Islington to my parents, house. Our driveway. The breezeway. The side door. My father was making dinner, my mother was downstairs and the news was on. "A boy was spotted going down the Humber River on an ice floe." Cut to people pointing from the bridge to where I was "last spotted." My Parents called the police. 11 PM news. "He was found safely at home." I like how blasé the police were about it.
DEVIL'S CREEK FOSSILS
My brother John and I named this creek. Not terribly imaginative - but it stank, ran brown, and smelled septic. Also, I almost got beat up there once by the school tough-boy. At that point I had changed schools enough that I'd learned that the fight was worse than a bolt. Why bother? Plus I was slight, effeminate and not born with any predilection towards such activities... ALSO, I'd learned by this point that acceptance in the broader social sphere was not as interesting as the world I'd built for myself. Being the outsider has great advantages. So I breakneck ran and left my knapsack in the Buckthorn and Burdock at the top of the cliff. In that bag were a hammer, chisels, pill bottles and newspaper for wrapping fossils. See, Toronto is built on a 450-million-year-old sea and the intricate delicate remains of the creatures that lived there. Giant straight-shelled squid-type creatures, corals, shells and trilobite bugs. This Humber tributary flows over grey slate and shale that perfectly preserves the rippled silty bottom of a half-billion-year-old sea. This is not light stuff! I went back and got my bag with the evening's haul. Eventually, after years of meticulously searching these cliffs and enlisting other neighbourhood kids by preaching the amazingness of Paleontology, my little brother John came up to me with a little ball between his thumb and forefinger. "What's this?" It was a Flexycalymene meeki. A perfect trilobite. I felt as elevated as the first time the Rheostatics brought a crowd to its feet. Johnny and I argued about the ownership of that ancient sea bug, but it went into my "museum," which at this point took up most of our basement and had a guest book and donation box. Once you find something, you find more. Thank you, little curly blonde-haired Johnny.
THE CANOE TRIP
I wanted to go to Algonquin Park but my dad couldn't. All I did was badger him about it constantly. We had this sleek red canoe. My dad come up with the idea that we should take it down to Rowntree Mills Park, put it in the water and head to Lake Ontario. So early that morning, he drove down there, parked the car at the lake, and then took the bus back up. We slurped a raw egg for fortification and portaged the canoe down to the park. Little brother Johnny was with us too. It was hell. Most of the Humber is less than five inches deep, with countless little mini-dams. We ended up walking, dragging the canoe down the river. The only time it got to real paddling was right at the end, near midnight. It was interesting though - worth doing.
Christopher. On a cold road, somewhere in the south of Ontario. There's a crackle in the air as they're putting up the very last telephone pole. Now I'm standing here, where my grandfather stood and he chopped wood. When I was a young boy, we used to take trips. On a bike for girls with my best friend Chris. From the big town to the countryside. We used to take trips. We used to take trips. Now I'm standing here, where we used to stand, hand in hand, in a land that was so big. Can you believe it, in it? Can you believe it, in it? Do you believe in it? There's a mouth on a phone somewhere across the ocean blue. And I know it's you, Christopher. (Ocean Blue). With your tie-dyed sails. (Ocean Blue). On a cold road, somewhere in the south of Ontario. There's a crackle in the air as they're putting up the very last telephone pole. Now I'm standing here, where my grandfather stood and he chopped wood. When I was a young boy, we used to take trips. On a bike for girls with my best friend Chris. From the big town to the countryside. We used to take trips. We used to take trips. Now I'm standing here, where we used to stand, hand in hand, in a land that was so big. Can you believe it, in it? Can you believe it, in it? Do you believe in it? There's a mouth on a phone somewhere across the ocean blue. And I know it's you, Christopher. (Ocean Blue). With your tie-dyed sails. (Ocean Blue).