Mimico Creek

Story Teller Norm Roselen about

The death and rebirth of Mimico Creek

The Mimico Creek meanders unremarkably from north of Pearson International Airport for about 30 km in a generally south-east direction through west Toronto to empty into Lake Ontario at Humber Bay Park. It's small, unremarkable, hardly noticed, a mere slip of a stream, easily fordable.

It is also a completely urban waterway and that means it has problems. It's crisscrossed by busy roads and highways, flanked by apartment buildings, suburbs, three golf courses, schools, parking lots, baseball diamonds and redirected by concrete spillways. These all affect the quality of the water and its corresponding valley. Yet, it thrives for the most part.

It is in fact an oasis of park land, walking trails and bridges with an assortment of animals, birds and fish living in its reach. There are even a few deer. All this despite the continuous urban onslaught and a history of industrial pollution dating back to the 1950's when I saw it die.

In 1951 my family moved to a suburban neighbourhood not far from the Mimico Creek and south of the main thoroughfare called the Queensway in the then township of Etobicoke. There were still a few farms and orchards around though by the mid 50's they were all gone, converted to expanses of standard three bedroom, yellow and red brick bungalows. There were no parks or community centres within miles except for the Mimico Creek saved from the bulldozer by the fact that it was a flood plain.

For us boys, ages 10 to 13, the creek was a fine place to play. It was close by, a short walk past various low, flat-topped factories to a line of trees that hid a narrow dirt path leading to adventure.

We did whatever we wanted. No supervision. No rules. We dug forts in the escarpment, swam naked in BAP (bare-assed pond), made camp fires, climbed the railway trestle and caught poison ivy. I spied on huge sleek fish, pike I guess, prowling through the shallows and cattails at the mouth. In the winter we foolishly skated on it and occasionally fell through.

In the spring it became a torrent, rapids replacing summertime riffles. In late April under a grey, sunless sky, fish briefly filled the swollen creek as they ran upriver from Lake Ontario. Dozens of men, loud with accents and earnest joy, used dip nets to fill bushel baskets with slim, silvery, five-inch long smelts, and a few big, fat, scary-looking suckers. It was practical fun to be sure. My mom cleaned, breaded and fried the smelt my dad and I caught and we kept some suckers alive for a while in the basement laundry tub before they too met their fate.

One mid-summer day the world of adults intruded. A friend and I ran across two men who had moved into the creek valley under the Queen Elizabeth Highway overpass. Cars rumbled overhead and smoke drifted up from a fire under a large pot. We weren't bold but they were friendly and we spoke to them. “Who are you?”

Frank, somewhere in his 40's, the more easy-going one, said “I'm a hobo.” And then added “Not a tramp” as if that should be important. He explained how he borrowed vegetables from local backyards, late at night, for his big pot of soup. The other one, in his early 20s, seemed more intriguing. He stood away from us, was quiet and morose. He wore battledress and had a bad limp. Frank explained that he had been wounded in the Korean War and was being treated at Sunnybrook Hospital.

Our second visit was interrupted by my mother. Well, that's not quite it. How about a charging grey-haired bull moose, splashing right down the middle of the creek, arms pumping back and forth, fury unleashed. She was surrounded by an entourage of boys who having heard of our new found friends had told her where we went. Her English may not have been very good but there was sure a lot of it directed at the two men. As she led me home by the ear, not the first time, she let me know that I would be taught a lesson.

As I got older and into high school my visits to the creek tailed off. But on one almost final visit, everything changed. The colour of the creek bed was no longer grey shale with patches of green seaweed. It was transmuted to a bright yellow and rotting fish littered the banks. It was dead. Maybe I should have been shocked and angry but I was just stunned. I went home and tried to forget but I couldn't get it out of my mind and decided to look again the next day.

This time I walked upstream along the wide plain on the east side of the creek until the yellow stopped. The west side was steep, a cliff maybe 20 or 30 feet high that ran down to the water. A thin yellow line of almost fluorescent liquid trickled down from the top, crawling over and around rock layers, finally marking where the die-off began.

Looking up, I could see the outline of a building and so I clawed my way to the top where I found a small pipe, an inch or so across, extending from the building to the edge of the drop-off. A poisonous effluent dripped from the end of the pipe and made its way to the creek below. The villain was a new metal plating factory, a consumer of dangerous chemicals, that it was so thoughtlessly defecating into the natural world.

I had no clue about what to do. Pollution was common then and it would seem that the factory guys, whoever they were, knew best. I did nothing and question myself about that to this day.

When I googled the topic recently I found that there was a huge amount of industrial pollution in that area. All kinds of toxins, heavy metals and chemicals have been found and remedial action has been taken. At least we are aren't so forgiving now.

Today there are better regulations and enforcement. The poisoning of my youth is long gone and from what I can see on Youtube the creek continues to improve thanks to the actions of vigilant citizens and local government. Its mouth, on Lake Ontario, is now flanked by the man-made Humber Bay Park and a public pathway runs along its side for a good part of its length. There are even plans to remove the concrete channels that don't work well and restore the natural water flow. This gives me hope that we can, through our collective efforts, do better.