Saturday, September 12, 2009

On the Waterfront: Oshawa to Toronto

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, one week ago I took my bicycle out to Oshawa and embarked on what ended up a five-municipality, forty-two-kilometer journey along the Waterfront Trail and its environs. It's the sort of trip, I think, that a normal person wouldn't do, at least all in one go. That much riding really takes it out of you, unless you're someone like Val Dodge, who appears to have such endurance that he may actually be some kind of cyborg.

Nevertheless, it was a pleasant ride, and with the aid of the photos I took along the way, keep reading for an impression of what it's like to cycle in the cool breezes along the shore of Lake Ontario, and to dodge traffic under the burning sun away from the shore of Lake Ontario.

First, of course, I had to get out there. Exhibition GO Station and Oshawa GO Station are 53.7 kilometers apart as the train rolls. In this photo, a westbound train lingers for an unusually long time - I realized later it was because of the number of people alighting for the Canadian National Exhibition - while I wait for my own eastbound train, which was delayed for ten minutes because of the volume of people boarding further down the line who were bound for the Canadian National Exhibition. It was a relatively cool morning, and I had hopes that my ride back from Oshawa would not be under a blazing sky.

Oshawa GO is the end of the line for GO trains - literally, as I found out. It would soon return the way it came, with the two engines pushing their train west to Aldershot in Burlington, more than one hundred kilometers away. I know there are some people who could manage that kind of distance on a bicycle without any problems, but I am manifestly not one of them. At 11:20 AM, I mounted my bike and pedalled away.

From Oshawa GO, I had a few kilometers of road-riding ahead of me before I could join the Waterfront Trail. Leaving the station, I pulled west on Oshawa's Bloor Street West - Durham Regional Road 22 - and separated from the lanes of Highway 401 by a few meters of grassy shoulder and a chain link fence, with only a rough gravel shoulder along the road itself, my only real desire was that I wouldn't ride over a particularly sharp stone or a broken bottle.

The City of Oshawa ended far sooner than I'd expected, based on the 2008 Waterfront Trail map I used to plan my route, and I found myself cycling into the wonderful world of Whitby while still on that gravel shoulder. In Oshawa and Whitby both, much of the land south of the 401 seems to have been given over to industries or sprawling power centres like the one where Victoria Street East and Thickson Road South meet, and the speed of the vehicles and the nature of the infrastructure both told me that bicycles weren't particularly welcome there. Cycling south along Thickson, I passed through quiet and thankfully poorly-trafficked industrial zones before I swung west, onto the Trail, and left civilization behind.

There was a tranquility there that's almost impossible to find in cities. Whitby's waterfront has been left almost entirely undeveloped, and as a result there's no distant droning of cars, no rumble of industry, nothing but the wind through the grass and the chitters of the local wildlife. I passed a handful of people along this section of the trail, mostly walking dogs, but not many. A historical marker I encountered along the route told me that before the Second World War, this part of the waterfront had been "the location of choice for a federal airport, dirigible terminal base, and an airdrome," and that an airstrip had in fact been built there during the war. I couldn't see any trace of it ever having been there while I passed through.

I was wrong about leaving civilization entirely behind, though. It may have been an odd, distant smell that made me first notice it - I can't quite remember - but what I at first hoped was a pile of crushed cars in the distance appears instead to be a landfill. This sharp contrast between nature and development along the Trail wasn't the last.

Further west, in Heydenshore Kiwanis Park, this old building was fenced off and seemed left to rot. I'm not sure what it ever was or will be, but I think its presence brings an extra touch of history and charm to the trail. Only a couple of kilometers remained before the separated trail ended, and I was once again thankful for my riding gloves. Bicycling in mixed traffic makes me intensely nervous. I have no idea how all the idiot cyclists in Toronto can ride along on heavily-trafficked routes with no helmet and earbuds in their ears and have no fear.

The route of the Trail had me rejoin Victoria Street, now Victoria Street West. Beyond Gordon Street the intensity of development in Whitby begins to drop off, and it doesn't pick up again until well into Ajax. Much of this is due to the presence of the Lynde Creek conservation area between the two municipalities. When I set out I didn't expect to find so much wilderness, let alone pass through it. I rode on the gravel shoulder again, but other cyclists I observed weren't so considerate; I watched two ride past on the road itself going faster than I could easily manage, but slow enough to create a knot of grumbling traffic behind them.

Lake Ridge Road is the boundary between Whitby and Ajax, and it's where Victoria Street West ends and Bayly Street East begins. The beat-up sign welcomes travellers to "Ajax By the Lake." For a good while, though, all I saw was more gravel shoulders and the fringes of sprawling suburbia, though this barn has managed to hang on at the intersection of Bayly and Shoal Point - ten years ago, though, it was probably deep in farmland, and ten years from now the suburbs will likely have plowed it all over.

Ajax's waterfront, like Whitby's, has for the most part been preserved as parkland. The centerpiece of it is Veterans' Point Gardens, at the foot of Harwood Avenue. In keeping with the town's namesake, HMS Ajax, the gardens' design has naval echoes, built around a mast flying the flags of Canada, Ontario, and Ajax itself. At the "bow" of the gardens, I found a deployment map of the Battle of the River Plate, the first significant naval engagement of the Second World War. In retrospect, I could have taken far more photos there than I actually did. This is also the general area from which I took the photograph I posted on September 5.

This bridge spans the mouth of Duffins Creek in Ajax. Pay careful attention to that sign; I was the only one who did, it seems, as multiple people passed me on the bridge while riding their bikes. Upon reaching the other end I found the sign there was faded and unreadable, but that doesn't excuse the people who came the same way I did. The big problem is that a lot of bicyclists, it seems, just don't care, and do what they want. The view of the creek was pretty nice, though.

West of Duffins Creek, Ajax ended and Pickering began. The trail wasn't much affected by it, still winding and weaving through the calm nature of the shoreline, and the smell of the seashore was everywhere - I'm not sure what exactly the smell was, but I suspect it was seaweed or algae or something similar. A short while into Pickering, the trail detours a short way north around the perimeter of one of the most important facilities on the north shore of Lake Ontario - Pickering Nuclear Generating Station.

I'd seen it before, in photographs and from a distance, but what's always struck me about Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is how much it does not look like what you'd expect a nuclear power plant to resemble. There are no bold, brash cooling towers dominating its form, and aside from the density of power transmission cables and barbed-wire fences and bilingual signs warning that trespassers will be met by armed responders 24/7. Those domes that look vaguely similar to grain silos house the reactors, six of which are splitting atoms to create clean, zero-carbon energy. Ontario Power Generation has a small billboard at the station's entrance reading "nuclear energy = clean air," and it's right.

The western extent of Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is dominated by the OPG 7 commemorative turbine, which appears rather larger and sharper than its urban cousin, the WindShare Turbine in Toronto's Exhibition grounds. Granted, with a generating capacity of 1.8 megawatts the OPG 7 isn't a silver bullet on its own, but I still believe it's an important sort of symbol. Symbols are, always, key. The accessible land around it, beyond the barrier fence, is a public park owned and operated by Ontario Power Generation.

Just west of the power plant, at Liverpool Street in Pickering's waterfront, the separated trail ends. I proceeded north along Liverpool until I again met Bayly Street, but while the official trail route demanded that I cross the lanes of Bayly, I had no intention of obeying that noise - with my possible choices either to cross busy lanes or ride on the sidewalk, I took a third option. Bayly Street wasn't particularly friendly, and in the end I dismounted and walked on the grassy shoulder for much of it out of sheer safety concerns. There's plenty of room there to install a separated bike lane, but would Pickering actually do this? Somehow, I think no.

At 3:02 PM, after navigating around the only spot of construction I saw along the Waterfront Trail, I crossed a pedestrian bridge spanning the Rouge River and returned to the city of Toronto. It was an energizing milestone at first, until I started cycling along Lawrence Avenue East - passing Starspray Loop, which I posted on September 7 - and realized that compared to Whitby, Ajax, and Pickering, Toronto is massive. My original plan was to cycle all the way back to my apartment near Exhibition GO Station, but as it later turned out, when I crossed the Rouge River I hadn't even hit the halfway point yet.

Taking this into account with my previous long-duration ride, it seems that at my current level of fitness, my endurance lasts for about thirty-five kilometers until pain in my shoulders and the uncomfortableness of the seat makes continuing on a consistently more difficult proposition. A pit stop in Port Union for lunch didn't improve matters much. At first I revised my goal from home to Kennedy subway station, but on reaching West Hill I was coming to realize even that was a stretch. I was beginning to feel like I would collapse and get run over before making it even that far.

I chose the Oshawa-Toronto route because it provided multiple abort modes in the form of GO Transit's Lakeshore East line. Had I run into trouble in Whitby, Ajax, or Pickering, I could simply have walked my bike to the nearest GO station and taken the train the rest of the way home. Deep in Scarborough but still a long way from home, I did exactly that and cut my trip short, ending it at Guildwood GO Station, where I arrived half an hour before the next scheduled train.

Guildwood GO Station in October 2008

Even then, I managed to end my trip on a painful note. Guildwood is a three-platform station; Platform 1 is a side platform, with Platforms 2 and 3 center platforms. The tracks are elevated, so to go from one platform to another, you need to descend a set of stairs, walk through a tunnel running under the tracks, and ascend another staircase. While purchasing my ticket I saw a VIA Rail train stop at Platform 1, and I'm still sure I heard the ticket agent tell me to wait at Platform 2.

So I took my bike, carried it through the tunnel and up the stairs to Platform 2, and hunkered to wait for the train. Right around the scheduled time I heard its whistle pierce the silence, and looked up from my book to see it approaching... approaching, I realized with a wrench, on Platform 1's tracks.

Had someone told me before, I wouldn't have believed that I could move so fast while carrying a bicycle. The staircase down was the first obstacle, and even as I started on the steps I could hear the train pulling into the station itself. I'm not sure exactly what happened other than taking the stairs too fast, but I slipped and fell down quite a few, injuring my toe - I'd feared it broken at first, but this was not the case - and popping the chain off my bike, though I didn't discover this until later.

Still, there was no time to waste. On Saturdays, Lakeshore East trains arrived hourly, and loitered in stations for somewhere around forty-five seconds, if that. I made it to the tunnel, clambered up the next set of stairs fully expecting to see the train doors snap shut in my face, but somehow made it aboard and to a seat before it pulled out.

In total, my ride covered 42.06 kilometers, not counting the distance between Exhibition GO and my apartment. It was greatly worthwhile, I'll still admit, but - I need to work on improving my endurance, above all.

It's the sort of thing everyone should attempt. There are good sights along the trail, and maybe the experience will inspire some thought, now and again. Just make sure you're prepared and drink lots of water. I did that, and even then by the time I made it home I looked like a wreck.

hello ladeez I am going to go fall unconscious now

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