Because if you live in Ontario, a place like this is probably only a day-trip away. If that.
- Transit: You’ll probably want a car, though you could bike it from nearby when the roads are clear, or bike/bus your way there (Druham Transit buses, like GO and TTC buses, have bike racks).
- Cost: There’s a fee to park. Otherwise it’s free.
- Crowds: Small when we’ve been. I understand weekends can get busier with cross-country skiiers and dog walkers.
- Attractions: A quiet parcel of forest in the midst of the Greater Toronto Area. Creeks, ponds, and interesting topography make for a good walk through the woods. It’s also good for photography, birding, cross-country skiing, and kids love it.
- Accessibility: The paths are dirt, and while the ones closest to the car park are flat, they get pretty steep. We went once with wet ground and it got quite muddy.
- Conservation Note: Stay on the paths. There are lots of foot paths and spurs to follow. In winter, once the ground is frozen and everything is covered in snow, ranging away from the path isn’t likely to trample sensitive plants and their roots, but there are new risks like snow making holes and slopes look flat and solid.
- Click here for map.
Getting out can be hard to do when the snow falls. Our bodies just aren’t built for it. We don’t often think about it this way, but without our brains we’d never be able to enjoy winter. No other tropical animal lights fires (let alone central heating) and covers itself with fibres and furs to keep warm where water will freeze solid.
The natural inclination – for grown-ups, anyway – might be to hide out and stay cozy. After all, isn’t that what nature does too, during these dark months? But while hibernating is nice for a bit, winter around here lasts too long to avoid. And avoiding it would mean missing out on its particular beauty.
It also means giving up the sunlight, fresh air, and sounds of nature that provide people with significant mental health boosts – something that most of us northerners could use to help us through those long winter nights. Ice and snow turn the green world of the rest of the year into another planet entirely. Lakes and streams become glassy playgrounds. Bare branches let sunlight pour through to fields of snow that make once-dense forest walkable.
Of course, living in the city it’s easy to miss this. Being sprayed by slush along a busy street is hardly magical. But most cities in Ontario have nestled within them, or are nestled among parks and conservation areas where it’s easy to get lost in the season. Some, like High Park, and the Rouge National Urban Park are well known. Others, not so much.
Heber Down is just east of Toronto in Whitby. We featured the city’s Thickson’s Woods in spring, noting that even Whitby – which has a reputation for soulless suburban sprawl – has some remarkable green jewels. Heber Down is one of them.
A bowl-shaped parcel of land, all paths lead down to the creeks and ponds at its heart. The steep hills of the north end signify the old shore of Lake Iroquois, the enormous glacial lake that predated nearby Lake Ontario and flowed south to New York’s Hudson River before the St. Lawrence was freed from ice. It is also studded with broad cement pilings, relics of the rail bridge that use to cross both the valley and Devil’s Den gulley (where horse thieves used to hole up in the dark of night).
In the warm months, filled with oaks, maples, hickories, and black walnuts, this feels like the very edge of the southern deciduous forest of Eastern North America. In winter, evergreens and brilliant red dogwoods shine.
It’s quiet here, and while the parking lot can be busy, the trails seldom are. Foot bridges and fallen trees cross the creeks here and there, and taking small side-trails leads to spots where the curve of a stream or eroded riverbanks draw one’s curiosity.
Heber Down Conservation Area isn’t huge, but the varied topography, creeks, and ponds provide lots to see. And there are a couple of hills that look like they would make for great sledding.
Chances are, there’s a place like this close to where you live, work, go to school, or are visiting for one reason or another. It’s easy to say “I’ll try in spring.” But even in the midst of the cold, there’s something about the sound of birds, the fresh smell of cedars and burbling water, and the sun on your face that reminds one that all seasons are ephemeral -and that though the earth too needs rest, it never completely stops.