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Sensing the Past

Canada #23 Fort York

When we first saw the historic buildings of Fort York surrounded by the skyscrapers of downtown Toronto, the early 19th century defenses seemed out of place. It made more sense when we discovered that the city, originally named York, was founded here.

The first garrison was built on this site in 1793 by the British Army, in response to border hostilities with American forces. In 1811 it was fortified with the addition of the defensive wall and circular gun battery.

In 1812, the United States declared war on Canada and in 1813 the American Army and Navy attacked York. Much of the fort was destroyed at this time, but it was soon rebuilt by the British. In August 1814, a second American attack was unsuccessful. The war between Canada and the United States finally ended in December 1814 but Fort York remained an active military site until the 1930s.

Today the fort is a living history museum, with displays, exhibitions and re-enactments which heightened all of our senses.

We saw both the officers’ quarters and the enlisted men’s barracks. In the barracks soldiers, who were often accompanied by their families, lived side by side, eating and sleeping together.

In contrast, the officers dined in luxury with fine china, silverware and crystal. Probably even more precious in this building was the luxury of space.

Like the soldiers of the Guard’s Artillery Detachment, we covered our ears with our hands as the Cohorn mortar field gun was fired at midday.

We heeded the call of the Fort York Drums as they marched onto the parade ground. Wearing the uniform of the Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry, the fifers and drummers played military tunes which would have been both familiar and comforting to 19th century soldiers.

We followed the scent of baking to the kitchen of the Officers’ Mess, where freshly baked gingerbread was cooling on the table.

While she shared the biscuits, the cook explained how these traditional treats are as popular now as they would have been in the early 1800s – there are never any left at the end of the day!

As we rested our hands on the kitchen table, we wondered about those who lived and worked here 200 years ago; who lifted the latch on the fortified gate, watched over the cooking in the open fireplace or dipped rainwater from the barrel with a bucket.

While we had time to wander in contemplation, we sensed we were surrounded by more than just those modern buildings outside the wall. The spirits of people from times long past were all around us.

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Welcome to 1867!

Canada #22 Black Creek Pioneer Village

In a quiet place far from Toronto’s bustling CBD, a little cemetery sits beside a mill pond. On an overcast day the pond mirrors its surroundings in a perfect reflection.

In the middle of the cemetery is a memorial to the Stong family, who migrated from Pennsylvania in 1800 to start a new life in Ontario. Daniel Stong and his wife Elizabeth both lie at rest here in the cemetery.

On the other side of the pond is a flour mill, dating from 1842 and nearby is a whole village of mid-19th century buildings. Of all these old buildings, the only ones original to the site are those which Daniel and Elizabeth built.

Black Creek Pioneer Village, in the Toronto suburb of North York, has grown around the Stong family farm as historic buildings from elsewhere in Ontario have been added to the collection. Some have been moved here complete, while others have been reconstructed after being carefully dismantled at their original sites.

Many of the old buildings are 19th century stores where, like the original occupants, modern artisans practise traditional crafts. They are passing their knowledge onto a new generation keen to keep the old skills alive.

Others are small museums, with their tools of the trade left as if the crafters will return for a new day. The village is a time capsule, set in 1867.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, chickens wander where they please and sheep and goats graze in the field near the barn Daniel Stong built in 1825.

Two farm houses sit side by side next to the mill pond. The first, a simple three room log cabin, was built by Daniel and Elizabeth in 1816. Here they raised eight children before moving in 1832 to a new, two storey home next door. Their second home is much grander, evidence of their hard work and resulting prosperity. Elizabeth must have been delighted with her beautiful new home after living for 16 years in the cabin. It became a hen house and storage shed.  

Daniel died in 1868, one year after the time in which the pioneer village is set. If he returned now the little stores, the peaceful mill pond and his 19th century neighbours going about their daily tasks might all look quite familiar.

I wonder what would he think if he stepped beyond its boundaries into 21st century Toronto?

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Hello Toronto!

Canada #21 Toronto

The subway journey from our suburban Airbnb to Toronto’s CBD was not long but the difference in outlook was amazing. In High Park, a few people were out walking or enjoying the summer weather on their front verandahs.

At Union Station in the city centre, we were engulfed by a bustling crowd all intent on their own agenda. Unlike most of those people, on our first day in Toronto, we had no particular destination. We spent the day exploring.

From Union Station, we headed south along Bay Street towards Lake Ontario. At Harbour Square Park, we watched the ferries coming and going, taking passengers over the water to Toronto Islands.

Our plan to walk some way along the lake shore was dashed by the horrified look on the face of the lady in the Tourist Information van. “Oh no. Don’t go there,” she said with an expression which told us it wasn’t a good idea. She directed us back along Bay Street with a right turn onto Front Street, assuring us this was a safer and more interesting route. She was right! There was a lot to see along Front Street.

We didn’t have to read the name on this building; the images on the sides gave away its purpose. The Hockey Hall of Fame, first opened in 1943, moved to Front Street in 1993. The building dates from 1885 and was originally head office for the Bank of Montreal.

At Berczy Park we came across this fanciful fountain, where 27 dogs pay homage to a golden bone. Later we found out there is also one cat and wished we’d known to look for it.

Just beyond Berczy Park is the original Flatiron building. Constructed in 1892, 10 years before its more famous cousin in New York, it was head office for the Gooderham and Worts Distillery for 60 years. Today,  commercial offices and a popular pub fill the building. The rear façade of the Flatiron is decorated with a large trompe l’oeil mural, a mirror image of the building opposite.

Further along Front Street is St Lawrence Market. Farmers have sold their fresh produce on this site since 1803 and the current building dates from 1848. Voted the world’s best food market by National Geographic in 2012, there are 120 speciality stores selling locally sourced fresh foods. The market is open every Tuesday to Saturday.

Our final stop in this direction was the historic Distillery District, founded by the same family who built the Flatiron building. The first building on the site was a windmill constructed in 1832. The Gooderham and Worts whiskey distillery soon followed and, by the 1860s, was the largest distillery in the world. Production continued until 1990. In 2001, the abandoned buildings were repurposed as boutique shops, restaurants and residences surrounded by gardens, sculptures and artworks. The district hosts a vibrant series of cultural events and festivals throughout the year.

We retraced our steps along Front Street back to Union Station and continued on in the other direction to CN Tower. At 553.3 metres high, the communications and observation tower is visible from anywhere. Up close, its height is daunting and tourists braving the Edge Walk outside the observation deck look like tiny insects.

The Rogers Centre, a multi-purpose stadium and home of Toronto’s major league baseball team the Toronto Blue Jays, is nearby. This day the stadium was quiet but when a home game is played more than 30,000 people come to cheer on their team.

Leaving Front Street, we walked along York Street to our final destination. Nathan Philips Square, where the old and new City Halls sit side by side, is one of the most photographed parts of the city. Toronto City Council operated in the old City Hall from 1899 before moving across the forecourt to the new building in 1966.

Three Freedom Arches dedicated to Canadians who have fought for freedom for all span the reflecting pool. The TORONTO sign is flanked at one end by a maple leaf commemorating the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation and at the other by a traditional medicine wheel acknowledging First Nations peoples.

We were glad we talked to the lady in her information van at Harbour Square Park. She really did send us in the right direction!

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From the Sea to the Sky

Canada #11 Sea to Sky Gondola

We were amazed by the statistics connected to the Sea to Sky Gondola near Squamish on the Sea to Sky Highway.

For a start, it’s located between the third highest waterfall in British Columbia and the second largest granite monolith in the world. At Shannon Falls, water tumbling over the cliff edge drops 335 metres to the ground while, on the Stawamus Chief, rock climbers aiming to reach the 700 metre high summit resemble ants as they cling to the sheer granite wall.

Then there’s the gondola. As its name implies, the ride begins just 35 metres above sea level, at the northern end of Howe Sound. After a ten minute journey covering 1920 metres from Basecamp to the Summit Lodge, the gondola ride ends high on a rocky outcrop in the mountains, 885 metres above sea level.

From our shiny, green gondola we could see right around – up the mountains of the Coast Range and down to the blue waters of Howe Sound.

At the Summit Lodge, the sight from the viewing deck of the snow-capped Tantalus Mountain Range across the water was magnificent.

The Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge, named after one of two nearby peaks, stretches for 100 metres over one of many narrow gorges between the ridges.

We stopped several times on the way across to the Spirit Viewing Platform as the scenery demanded our attention. Perched on the edge of the granite ridge, the platform offers grand views of both Sky Pilot and Co-Pilot Mountains. The rugged peaks were white with snow and dense forests of maples, cedars and Douglas firs covered the steep slopes.

The Spirit Trail, one of many walks in the mountains, begins at this platform.

The 400 metre circuit took us on a journey back to the days of the Squamish First Nation. From the information boards along the track we learned about the first people’s connection to the land and their use of the abundant natural resources in the forests. For them, the trees were the source of many household items. To us, they were simply beautiful.

With another glorious view at every turn, birdsong filling the air and the lush green of the forest surrounding us, we forgot about statistics.

The wonders of nature had taken their place in our thoughts.

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A Castle With No King

Canada #8 Craigdorrach Castle, Victoria BC

When Robert and Joan Dunsmuir began construction of their palatial mansion in 1887, they probably didn’t intend it to be known as a castle. But with its prominent position high above the city of Victoria, its imposing towers and ornamented gables, Craigdorrach Castle seems the perfect name for this imposing building.

Originally from Scotland, Robert Dunsmuir had several successful businesses in the second half of the nineteenth century. The fortune he made through coal, railways, shipping and timber was reflected in the lavish interior of the castle, including intricately detailed woodwork, beautiful stained glass windows and the latest modern conveniences of the time.

From the rooms on the fourth floor, including the tower high in the roof of the castle, the family enjoyed expansive views across Victoria and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympus Mountains in Washington State, USA.

Robert Dunsmuir never enjoyed the final result of his prosperity; he died in 1890 before the house was completed. Joan lived there with three of her daughters and two grandchildren until her death in 1908. Then the castle became a military hospital before being used as the site of Victoria College, the forerunner of the University of Victoria. After a third reincarnation as the Victoria Conservatory of Music, the castle was preserved as a museum.

First opening to the public in 1969, Craigdorrach Castle is now a Designated National House Historic Site. Every year, more than 140,000 people come to see the castle, experiencing for themselves the luxurious surroundings Robert Dunsmuir never did.

For the Love of Flowers

Canada #4 Butchart Gardens

I wonder if, when Jennie Butchart first began designing her garden in 1906, she imagined how many people would come to visit in the future. Her work was the start of what would become the famous Butchart Gardens, 22 hectares of floral beauty visited by one million people every year.

Jennie’s first project was the Japanese Garden, complete with a red torii gate and traditional stone lanterns. Arched bridges span a series of ornamental lakes, and Japanese maples provide shade for beds of delicate Himalayan blue poppies.

The Sunken Garden was designed to fill the abandoned quarry which had once provided limestone to the family’s cement factory. A switchback path leads down into the garden, continuing on between raised beds of seasonal blooms, flowering trees and neatly manicured lawns.

At the furthest end of the Sunken Garden, the Ross Fountain performs a dazzling display of dancing water, at times reaching a height of 21 metres.

In contrast to the order of the Sunken Garden, the Rose Garden is almost riotous in its abundance. Fragrant blooms in every colour fill archways and spill out onto the paths. Arbors draped with climbing roses and oversized hanging baskets beckon visitors, who stop time and again to take more photos.

The Italian Garden and Star Pond are more formal in style, with trimmed hedges, waterlily ponds and ornamental fountains. Fuschias, clustered like ballerinas waiting in the wings, dangle from more hanging baskets.

Shaded seats with beautiful views are provided here for those enjoying a treat from the Gelataria.

In any season, the gardens are busy with people who’ve come to marvel at the beauty created by Jennie Butchart.

I think she’d be pleased to know how much joy her vision still brings, more than 100 years after she planted her first roses.

 

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A Change of Plans

Canada #3 Victoria

At the start, it wasn’t going to be a long walk! From the waterfront in downtown Victoria to Fisherman’s Wharf along the David Foster Harbour Pathway was just one kilometre.

We could have taken a relaxing carriage ride past the elegant buildings on Belleville Street but we were glad we didn’t.

We would have missed seeing the continual arrival and departure of the Harbour Air seaplanes. We marvelled at the skill of the pilots and the lightness with which these tiny aircraft landed on the water.

We wouldn’t have come across the Friendship Bell, symbol of a 30 year bond between the citizens of Morioka, Japan and Victoria.

We wouldn’t have seen these beautiful waterlilies, serenely floating in a water garden along the front of an apartment building.

When we arrived at Fisherman’s Wharf, the cafés, boutiques and tourist shops were all bustling with people enjoying the fine summer weather. We admired the colourful float homes lined up against the jetties and wondered about the lifestyle of the inhabitants. The queues at the cafés were long and the tables were full, so we decided to continue further along the path.

We passed the Canadian Coast Guard and the Victoria Harbour Heliport before arriving at Ogden Point, part of the traditional lands of the Lekwungen peoples. Ogden Point is the busiest cruise ship port in Canada; each year more than 400,000 passengers start their visit to Victoria here.

Ogden Point Breakwater, a 762 metre long concrete wall jutting out into the calm waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, is decorated with Na’Tsa’Maht – The Unity Wall. The mural painted by Salish Nations artists depicts the stories, past and present, of the local First Nations peoples.

After trekking out to the Ogden Point Breakwater Lighthouse and back, it was time for a rest at the Breakwater Café Bistro Bar. We enjoyed steaming hot chocolates served with a view of the snow-capped Olympic Mountains across the water in Washington State.

Continuing along Dallas Road to Holland Point Park, we joined the Waterfront Trail which passes through the park to the Shoreline Trail. Both tracks were lined with delicate pink flowers growing wild on the edge of the cliff. Huge piles of driftwood washed up by the ocean lay in stacks along the shore below.

At Douglas Street we left the Waterfront Trail, stopping first at the Mile Zero Monument which marks the start of the Trans-Canada Highway.

Nearby we paid our respects at a statue of Terry Fox, the inspirational teenager who, after losing his leg to cancer, started a run across Canada in 1980 to raise awareness and funds for cancer research. He never finished the journey, succumbing to the disease after running 5,373 kilometres in 143 days. Today, his legacy lives on in the Terry Fox Foundation.

Further down Douglas Street we entered Beacon Hill Park, where a giant watering can sprays cooling water from its spout on hot days. The ducks at Goodacre Lake didn’t need a hot day to take to the water – they were all bottoms up in search of tasty morsels.

We walked past a local school with a famous name and an intriguing place in Canadian political history and the Royal BC Museum, on our list for another day.

At last we arrived back where we’d started in downtown Victoria. Our walk may have been much longer than we planned, but we saw a lot more than we expected.

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