by Alan Li
Peter Heinz is a retired entrepreneur who now focuses his time on educating the public about Toronto’s ravine lands. Peter leads ravine tours at Toronto Botanical Garden and also trains volunteers as tour guides. Peter has been generously teaching LUNA members about Wilket Creek and was kind enough to sit down for an interview.
When did you first become aware of Toronto’s ravines?
My public school was next to a ravine and I was the one who would bring the pollywogs (tadpoles) up to the classroom or find grasshoppers to feed to the praying mantis. That was the Don Valley ravine located in Sherwood Park. And my first camping experience, as a Cub Scout, was also in a ravine along the West Don River.
I don’t travel much; I just prefer to walk the ravines.
Have you always explored the outdoors and been curious to look under logs and rocks?
Yes, as a child there was a ravine close to where I lived. That’s where all the kids played. We knew what poison ivy looked like from an early age and which woodpecker lived in which hole - we knew all the sounds around us.
I know people who’ve lived in Toronto all their lives and have never set foot in a ravine. Why do you think this is?
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, ravines were perceived to be dangerous places. We were told as kids not to go into the ravines because there were wild animals and people down there who would attack you. There were many reasons we were given.
Now when I lead a ravine walk, you’ll often have someone attend who’s lived for decades in a house overlooking a ravine, but they’ve never come down for look. They think they’ll be confronted by the homeless or run into drug dealers.
Back in the year 2000 when I volunteered with the Toronto Heart Health Partnership Walking Initiative; we created walking maps to get people out onto the trails, but we never used the word ravines because it was a negative. We called these places valleys.
Fortunately, over the last twenty years, the word ravines has become acceptable, and we no longer have to apologize for calling these places what they really are.
As someone who regularly walks the trails of Wilket Creek, I’m sure you’ve observed many changes, both large and small. What’s one change that really stands out for you?
All the improvements to the trails. That includes the bridges and access to the ravine itself. It’s now a much more refreshing place to go where you can connect with nature, as are most of Toronto’s ravines. There are still a few places where improvements are needed, but the work is being done. The city is also working on better connecting the ravines.
The ravines are Toronto’s backyard wilderness and they’re vulnerable to disturbance. What can people do to avoid negatively impacting these natural areas?
Staying on the trails is important because if you wander off and create a small path, it will eventually become a wider path, which eventually becomes an eroded path. That will change the structure of the ravine.
Also, please don’t dump waste into the ravines. It’s illegal now, but unfortunately some people haven’t gotten the message and they’re still dumping their trash and yard waste. Discarded shrubbery and yard scraps may be adding species into the ravines that shouldn’t be there.
What has the response been to the ravine tours offered at Toronto Botanical Garden?
The response has been excellent. Last year we had close to 600 people attend and many were tourists. Toronto has a valuable asset that they’re just starting to realize, and that’s our ravines. A ravine to someone living in Toronto is often a nuisance because it requires driving down, around, and over a bridge to get past them. But for visitors who are exploring the ravines, they love it.
One of my projects with the Don Council, which took ten years, was to put up signage across the entire watershed. It was about creating awareness. You can start off at the Oak Ridges Moraine and head right down to the lake, and every time you cross a river or creek you’ll see a sign which identifies it.
What’s the message that you hope sticks with people who’ve attended one of the ravine tours?
You hope that these people now have an appreciation for something that’s there, always has been there, and always will be there. But now, they can be part of it, and be part of the efforts to protect the ravines for future generations.
If you’re interested in learning about Wilket Creek, the best way is to attend one of the many free ravine tours at Toronto Botanical Garden.
Please follow this link to sign up: https://torontobotanicalgarden.ca/explore/tours/weekly-free-summer-garden-tours/