• wetlands, toronto skyline, tommy thompson park

    The Toronto skyline as seen from the shores of Tommy Thompson Park in Lake Ontario. (Photo: Jill Heinerth/Can Geo)

The wind was blowing strong on Cherry Beach in Toronto’s Portlands as I prepared to embark on an urban water adventure with my husband, Robert McClellan. We dragged our inflatable kayaks down the sloping beach and launched toward Tommy Thompson Park, a five-kilometre-long human-made peninsula that extends into Lake Ontario just east of downtown.

The park, built on construction debris and dredged sediments formerly used for shipping and industrial activities, began its transformation into an urban wilderness oasis starting in 1970s. But on this day, our sights were set on the park’s newly reclaimed wetlands, which are currently in development and sit atop a 10-hectare former waste disposal site.

Swans glide through the wetlands at Tommy Thompson Park. (Photo: Jill Heinerth)

The wetland project is a partnership between Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) and Coca-Cola as part of the soft-drink giant’s pledge to safely return back to nature an equivalent amount of water used for the production of its various products by 2020.

The conditions in the reclaimed wetland area were ecologically poor as a result of contaminated sediments from channel dredging. By covering low quality soils with productive natural cover, and conducting general habitat remediation, the area is now a marsh ecosystem resplendent with fish, birds and other wildlife. Wetlands all over the world are threatened, and yet they are one of the most important ecosystems. By protecting and creating these wetlands, annual floodwater can be stored, and nutrients and carbon can be absorbed back into the environment, contributing to the overall health of the ecosystem. Every acre of wetland replenishes up to one million litres of water that would have otherwise been lost due to diversion if the land had been developed or left as a disposal site.

Once completed in 2019, the project at Tommy Thompson Park will provide more than one billion litres per year of water replenishment, in addition to restoring aquatic habitat and providing a beautiful wetland park for the community to enjoy. Pedestrian trails, nature lookouts, and a recreation area with visitor services such as classrooms, exhibits and washrooms are also being developed, supported by Canada 150 grants.

Photo: Jill Heinerth

We beached our kayaks in a small cove where water-smoothed bricks and tumbled concrete, remnants of the area’s industrial past, peeked out of the sand. I climbed over a giant limestone slab to a nature trail and got a glimpse of the replenished wetland. A large mother swan and her four young swam in a quiet pond surrounded by marsh grasses and wildflowers. Fish were plentiful. Terns and turtles nested on a spit. Robust and productive vegetation filled the area, filtering water and providing habitat for animals and humans alike. The public has yet to fully discover this wild place, but nature has already moved in.How to get there 

Related: Learn more about Underwater Canada, Jill Heinerth's latest project