My secret sanity spot in a pandemic

May 18, 2020

We have a lab. Labs like to swim. We have a cottage. When the ice melts on our neighbour’s pond, our dog swims there. But in obedience to the instructions of public health authorities, we have stayed away from our cottage this spring.

My therapist meets me Friday mornings at 10 a.m. in a lowrise office building at Spadina and Bloor streets. The pandemic has closed her office.

This confluence of factors led me this spring to discover a lovely, wild place in Toronto. Circumstance can be the engine of discovery.

My therapist and I speak these days by phone, so I can be anywhere. Speaking from my house, which I tried once, didn’t feel entirely private. The shore of Lake Ontario felt like a therapeutic place. My plan: walk the dog. Then call my therapist. Driving to the lake, I heard Clara Hughes, the Olympian, say on CBC Radio that nature has kept her sane during the lockdown.

We drove to the Cherry Beach parking lot. To enforce social distancing the City of Toronto had closed the parking lot. The entrance bristled with police cars. I turned east on Unwin Avenue. I have always loved this stretch. I have written often about the Richard L. Hearn Thermal Generating Station, built as a coal-fired power plant on the waterfront. Several times larger than the Eaton Centre, the Hearn has sat abandoned for generations, its smokestack, the height of First Canadian Place, quiet but for a flashing light to warn aircraft.

Near the Hearn I turned onto Regatta Road. I parked next to a Smart car. A man sat in the driver’s seat with a poodle next to him, rolling a joint. He lowered his window.

“Can we park here?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “The cops can’t stop us. It’s a road.”

The dog and I went to the lake. The stones washed smooth by the tide are mixed with chunks of old brick and cement, also worn smooth by the water. Gnarled trees cling to the bank. Coco splashed in the freezing water.

Between the beach and the vast artificial turf expanse of Cherry Beach Soccer Field the Martin Goodman Trail traverses a strip of woods. Cyclists and runners zip by, but they should stop, because on these strange hills and berms unfolds a remarkable micro-environment. It’s an accidental wilderness, a largely unplanned forest of cottonwood and Norway maple trees. In recent years the city has planted other trees: white pine, white spruce, redosier dogwood, Kentucky coffee trees and white oak. The trees are all thriving. Garlic mustard abounds. Footpaths meander amidst the lush foliage. We explored as catkins from the poplars drizzled down onto the spruces. Birds chirped. One comes upon the occasional abandoned camping place where someone has left a sleeping bag or a suitcase or empty soup cans by the cinders of a campfire. This makes the spot feel not entirely wholesome and thus genuinely wild.

I dried the dog and put her in the back of the car. At 10 a.m., I called my therapist. I was ready to work.