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The Little Paddle that just grew and grew

In 1993, Leaside’s Adele Freeman was on staff at what is now the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, and really didn’t know what she was getting into when she was urged by Metro Councillor Joan King to organize a paddling event on the Don.

I was also a member of the Don Watershed Task Force with Adele and Joan, and certainly didn’t anticipate that this event would still be going strong 21 years later.

In fact, if you were intending to participate in the Manulife Paddle the Don event on Sunday, May 4, you’ve probably missed the boat. It was 75 percent sold out its first day and there are now 600 paddlers registered.

This unique wilderness experience in the heart of the city is also basically a Leasider’s experience, as the Don River, including tributary Burke Brooke, borders the neighbourhood on three sides.

You may wonder how there is enough water in the Don to make paddling possible, unless, of course, Mother Nature provides an epic rainfall. The solution?  Open the gates at the G. Ross Lord Dam further up the river at 4:30 a.m., and the additional water arrives at the launch site in Ernest Thompson Seton Park on Leaside’s eastern boundary at around 7:30 a.m. You might want to go down the Broadway hill to actually see the water rise. It’s quite the sight. Later in the day the river goes back to its normal depth.

From 8:30 to noon, a continuous parade of boats depart the launch site. Assistants dressed in hip-waders steady them so that paddlers and passengers don’t fall out. The water is high enough for paddling, but the stern paddler needs to steer around the rocks. I remember when former East York Mayor Michael Prue had as his bow paddler someone who didn’t recognize the signs of rocks. After his group’s first thudding crash, and a near swim, they got their act together.

There are also three portages on the route. At each one there are Toronto and Region Conservation Authority staff members, Wilderness Canoe Association members, Search and Rescue staff and officers from the Toronto Police Marine Unit available to make sure the paddlers don’t go over the weir.

If you want to watch, it’s probably not a good idea to be at the congested launch site. Staff at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority suggest the Pottery Rd. bridge or Riverdale Park as two ideal spots.

At 10 a.m., the corresponding hour-long  Manulife Walk the Don Event starts at Evergreen Brick Works at 550 Bayview, just south of Governor’s Bridge, and ends where the river makes its right turn into the Keating Channel at Lake Ontario.

Why are these events happening?  Because they’re fun, and raise awareness of the vital importance of the Don River.

The first few years, the paddle was just that – a fun experience. Then, seeing its popularity, it also became a fundraiser for TRCA projects. The goal for this year is to raise $100,000. That money is earmarked for a Stormwater Management Program and a Tree Canopy Program in the Don watershed, especially needed after the devastation caused by December’s ice storm.