A subway rumbles by loudly on a bridge overhead as we push off into the water in our rented yellow canoe. We dip our paddles into the Humber River. Above us on another bridge, cars rush by on Bloor Street but within a few short minutes of paddling, the loudest sounds we hear are marsh birds cooing.

IMAG2776I’ve canoed in Northern Ontario – Algonquin, Temagami, Killarney. Majestic places with windswept trees and old growth forests. This is my first time paddling in Toronto and it’s extraordinary. (Want to help further protect urban river valleys like the Humber? Take action here.)

True, instead of rocky islands with paint-worthy evergreens, the CN tower watches over us. But there is something magical about escaping into this river oasis in the middle of an urban space. It was a short subway ride to get here – I can’t say the same about those canoe trips in northern Ontario.

On this summer day, the Humber River’s current is gentle. It’s a quiet and easy paddle. We start our canoe ride a few steps away from Old Mill subway station and turn the canoe around near the Queensway Bridge. It’s not a long paddle but it’s peaceful and satisfying.

On either side of the river, tall trees provide much-appreciated shade, their branches wave in the light breeze. Soon we’re in a marsh, greeted by lily pads, white flowers as delicate as origami. We stop paddling and let the current carry us through the green and white wonderland. A heron takes flight. Ducks, geese and a swan glide past us.

IMAG2798We leave the marsh and continue to paddle along the river. We pass a few other people in canoes and kayaks. Everyone we see smiles ear to ear, as if they can’t quite believe their good luck to be in this beautiful green space.

For a long time, I’ve loved Toronto’s ravines and valleys. I’ve learned that each offers unique treasures. In Sherwood Park, I love the smell of the pine needle-covered forest floor. In Taddle Creek, I linger near the tall grasses where red-winged blackbirds gather. Cycling beside the Don, it’s the meadow of wildflowers near the Bloor Street Viaduct that calls to me. In Cedervale Ravine, the bright red sumac bushes brighten up the greyest days. In the city’s lush ravines, I can breathe easier.

Despite my adoration for urban river valleys, today is my first time actually on an urban river. And the experience brings my appreciation of our ravines and waterways to new heights.

As we paddle, I think about the journey of the water that fills this river, how it travelled from headwaters far above the city and flowed through springs and creeks to this river, and how just south of here it flows into Lake Ontario.

It’s easy to forget how precious water is when we can just turn on a tap. But here in this quiet place, as a heron watches over our canoe, the importance of protecting our water sources can’t be ignored.

Paddling on the river, I’m grateful at the steps being taken to protect urban river valleys. Proposed revisions to Ontario’s Greenbelt Act will offer river valleys like this one strengthened protection by adding them to the Greenbelt’s protective fold.

As we enter another marsh, we realize we’re not alone. Along the shore, four white egrets pose on a branch. Two turtles sunbathe and in the cutest scene of the adventure, baby ducks paddle by with their mother. A space like this deserves all the protection it can get.

You can help. Take action here to tell Ontario to strengthen and protect Ontario’s Greenbelt.

(Want to have your own canoe adventure? Toronto Adventures offers canoe rentals from May to October. Details here.)