Like too few great mountains, Mount Mitchell was named after a stubborn preacher. Elisha Mitchell was an ornery man—it took a certain kind of uncompromising mulishness to measure mountains, especially in those early days of vertical exploration. Sir George Everest, for one, was renowned on two continents for his stubbornness. I imagine the pursuit of trigonometry will test a person’s obstinacy, much like the pursuit of the Almighty will test his patience for the unknowable. Perhaps that’s why the Reverend Mitchell found his avocations at high altitudes—whether mapping peaks or communing with God, his determination knew almost no limit. Almost.
In 1835—by then a seasoned geographer and surveyor already in his forties, and also a Presbyterian minister—Elisha Mitchell spotted a peak above the clouds in the eastern Appalachians and estimated it was the highest in the land. He spent the next nine years measuring and re-measuring it, between his Sunday sermons, until he was satisfied the mountain had no equal in the young United States of America. Even the venerable Mount Washington, named for the near-mythical Founding Father, fell in its figurative shadow.
Such a towering blasphemy, even one rooted in mathematical proofs, offended the orthodoxy. A wiry senator named Thomas Clingman—later General Clingman of the Confederate States Army and the defeat at the Battle of Goldsborough Bridge—disputed Mitchell’s claim to have measured the mountain so accurately. Clingman fancied himself an amateur geographer (he had once been a student of Mitchell’s) and dismissed his teacher’s discovery. The two men fought a war of words via the newspapers until Mitchell punted and went back to his mountain, at the notably stubborn age of 63, to measure it again.
And there he died—felled by a sudden gust of wind, perhaps, or simply a loose rock, which caused him to tumble from the top of a cataract and plunge desperately earthward. But his stubbornness lives on at the highest of altitudes—indeed, the highest in all Appalachia, as later science confirmed—as the mountain was given his name.
And in stubbornness of one kind or other, we continue to climb it.
The Trail Run: A late-winter ascent of Mount Mitchell via the Mt. Mitchell Trail 18km (11.2 miles) round-trip
Elevation gain: 3700ft
Summit temperature: -6C (-15 wind chill)
Time: 4 hours
Nearest town: Asheville, North Carolina
With a twist: Due to winter closures on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I ran the mountain in reverse—from top to bottom, and then back up. The Parkway was open as far as the State Park, where a paved road leads to a summit observation tower. This, in hindsight, was much more enjoyable—once I started to climb, I was already warmed up from the descent.
Drive a fun car: The access route along the Blue Ridge Parkway is perhaps even more exhilarating than the mountain hike, especially at dawn on a cold, clear day, with a car that handles curves nicely. Check for road closures in winter.
My wife and I often refer to High Park as our backyard. Among the amenities we lack, living in a typical west-end apartment—700 square feet of compartmentalized hobbit holes on the second floor of a detached brick house; dinner parties of 5, max, if one of you doesn’t mind sitting on the IKEA footstool with a plate on your knees—is a patch of wildness to call our own. Perhaps with a Japanese maple tree. Organic marjoram. Heirloom tomatoes that grow large and fecund beyond the emaciating constrictions of dollar-store clay pots; healthy and natural instead of skinny and leaning to the southeast from the balcony, pitiably seeking warmth from a Toronto morning sun.
We both grew up with backyards. Hers, in rural Nova Scotia, was an enormous grassy hill reaching down to the grey sea, perpetually washed by salty winds that blew children sideways and deposited on the laundry the yearning aroma of a distant sea-storm.
Mine, in suburban south Texas, was half an acre of twisted Mountain Cedar–achingly resilient against the white, brutish sunlight of August–and foot-tall fire-ant hills whose perforation at the whip of a doomed lawnmower blade or at the curious poke of a ten-year-old unleashed a throng of six million six-legged red demons, to the apparent delight of all parties involved.
One of the sacrifices I made to downtown city life is the backyard. I want to live in an electrifying hub of cultural, economic and artistic energy with millions of other people, but occasionally I’m anxious if I can’t escape into the (imagined) limitlessness of the childhood backyard, with all the mental freedom it engenders. I believe that was one reason we created parks: we needed some space in our cities to be calm, to be unformed.
I started trail-running in High Park about two years ago because pavement makes my feet cry and most gyms are dank, florescent-lit human zoos that smell of tears, peroxide and vanity, and the last thing I want while releasing my anxious energy into the urban cosmos is to look at myself in a twelve-sided mirror as I grunt at a dumbbell.
As a child my backyard was large enough to contain me and my need to run around in circles shrieking with senseless ecstasy as I splashed mud up my calves and trampled my mother’s rhubarb.
As an adult who still delights in mud and trampling as a way to push back against the constrictions of the city, I simply need a larger yard, preferably one that feels wild, where I can occasionally belt out a line of AC/DC lyrics, forgetting for a second that I’m not actually alone in the real wild, and startle the hell out of a hoodied dog walker as she scoops up terrier shit.
To provide forage to cattle was the founding objective of Boston Common, the oldest (colonial) park in North America, where for two hundred years residents shared the land to graze cows—and hang pirates and Quakers—before overfeeding and the Industrial Revolution began to transform the park from a cow pasture into a human sanctuary. Still, even as a suburban cattle range the Common was from its very beginning a place of compromise between the facility of town life and the tranquility of living wildly, by one’s own means and creativity.
“You can neither lie to a neighbourhood park, nor reason with it,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” She was arguing that the chemistry of urban planning alone cannot make a good park; its uncommonness is what defines its utility: “[I]n real life only diverse surroundings have the practical power of inducing a natural, continuing flow of life and use.”
I infer she delivered even more from that statement; by its very nature a city park must be a bit different, a bit wild. Like fire ants or an ocean wind. Like the gallows’ justice. Like an unrestrained heirloom tomato (I dare to dream).
High Park Trail Run, Route 1: The 20K Criss-Cross
In which the writer asks, How far can he run on High Park’s trails and hills without covering the same ground twice, relying only on his mental map and his heavy-metal iPod mix, and without regurgitating any gummy bears?
20.3 kilometres and 1125 feet of elevation gain entirely within a city park of just under 400 acres. Some shrieking. One zoo. No mirrors. Recommended for grown-up Torontonians in need of a childlike backyard just wild enough for the city.
Very quietly, almost without notice amid the roar of traffic on the 401, the Government of Canada is setting up a national park in our horizon-stretching, sky-piercing mega-city.
When it’s finally ready, visitors will be able to stroll, hike, cycle or run from Rouge Beach in Scarborough to the Goodwood Conservation Area in Glasgow, a crow-flying distance of some 25 kilometres, during which they will follow the meandering channels, ponds and ravines of the Rouge River and its squiggly tributaries—around, over, under or through the Toronto Zoo, several commuter and freight rail lines, highways 401 and 407, acres of private farmland, several golf and country clubs—from Lake Ontario to the Oak Ridges Moraine, via a network of trails, paths, windy roads, bridges and underpasses that might make any regular visitor to Banff snicker with pity and choke on his protein bar.
But we’re talking about a metropolitan area of some 6 million inhabitants, smaller in size than Jasper, containing—with the rest of its urbanity—a national park. That’s a lofty ambition, and one worth exploring.
For the time being, Rouge Park sits diminutively on about 40 square kilometres of a delicate riverine ecosystem, created by the Province in 1995 to protect an extension of the Greenbelt—a network of wetlands and aquifers that provides much of the drinking water to southern Ontario’s 13 million residents—amid the sprawl of amalgamated Toronto and the suburban townships of Pickering and Markham. In 2011, the Federal Government committed $143.7-million to a ten-year process of establishing a national park in Rouge. The House of Commons passed the Rouge National Urban Park Act on January 26, 2015, and in July, an additional 21 square kilometres in the township of Uxbridge were added to the survey.
In total, the Rouge initiative will consist of 79 square kilometres of land belonging to Toronto, Pickering, Markham, Uxbridge, York Region, Durham Region, the Province of Ontario, and myriad public and private interests.
At present, evidence of Parks Canada in Rouge is limited to a small information cabin, located next to the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre, and an adjacent demo oTENTik. But it’s all coming, said the pair of contract Parks Canada employees when I visited their hut on November 1, the last day of their season. They showed me a map (not yet published) of the eventual park complete with dotted lines promising a contiguous trail network linking the existing park with the proposed additions to the north.
In other words, an ultra-distance, mixed-surface, cross-country trail within a protected area of land, just twenty minutes (in Sunday-morning non-traffic) from downtown Toronto: an urban, off-season trail-runner’s dream.
Rouge Park Trail Run, Route 1: Glen Rouge Campground to Woodland & Back (21.6km)
Rouge Park on a typical Toronto autumn Sunday seems to wake slowly, like the city itself. Just after dawn—on the morning following the end of daylight savings—there are already a dozen cars in the Glen Rouge Campground / Mast Trailhead parking lot off Kingston Road, but few souls are seen. [Download Trail Map]
For today’s discovery run—it’s my first visit to Rouge—I head north with an iPod, a folded trail map, a baggie of sliced grapefruit, and a handful of gummy bears—along the series of connected trails called Mast, Vista and Cedar, following the Little Rouge Creek ravine over several hills and through a canopy of fall-coloured oak, maple and walnut trees. (There’s a great organization—called 10,000 Trees for the Rouge—devoted to tree planting and arboreal conservation in the park.)
Arriving at Meadowvale Road near the zoo, and out of trail for the moment, I head south to Old Finch Avenue, west to Reesor Road, and then north to Steeles Avenue (mostly on a gravel surface beside the roads), crossing two sets of railroad tracks. At Steeles, I meet up with Little Rouge Creek again and follow the Woodland Trail south to its dead-end at the CN rail tracks.
Once again I’m out of trail, and to continue southward to connect back with the rest of the trail network, I have to run for about a kilometre alongside the tracks (pausing my music to listen for trains) to the Plug Hat Road bridge. After a bit of a scramble up the slope, I’m back on a road for about a click to meet up with the Cedar Trail.
By now, other weekend warriors abound on the trails; I’m overtaken by a high-school cross-country team out for practice, and all of us are stepping around couples, families, dog walkers and others enjoying a Sunday stroll with their smartphones poised to Instagram the lingering fall colours.
I return to the Glen Rouge Campground roughly the same way as I ran outbound, except I take the Orchard Trail down the eastern bank of the creek to Celebration Forest, meet up with the Mast Trail once more, and after a few last uphill climbs (the Mast Trail is the hilliest section of the entire run) I bear west at the fork to follow the trail along the Rouge River back to the parking lot.
Finish! A little more than half a marathon, a little more than two hours, on a perfect autumn morning in a national park in the city of Toronto. Time to eat pie.
Got tips for Rouge Park Trail Running, I’d love to hear them. Email or Tweet at me, or something.
On the Vista Trail in Rouge National Park
The Rouge River flows into Lake Ontario
Power lines on the Woodland Trail
(No, not part of the trail)
A railroad crossing on Reesor Road
Agricultural reserve along Plug Hat Road
Pedestrian bridge over the Rouge
Running past the Toronto Zoo
A train passes the Mast Trail
Uphill section of the Vista Trail
Little Rouge Creek passes under Steeles Avenue
Beare Hill Road connects the Vista & Orchard Trails