Helen Mills explores Toronto’s past through its lost waterways
Helen Mills would like Toronto’s Lost River Walks participants to come away with two things: a new awareness of the waters that flow unseen beneath their feet, and a commitment to turn off the tap when they brush their teeth.
“We tell the fascinating story of the city when it was a place of deep ravines, babbling brooks and primordial forest,” says Mills (BA 1973 Woodsworth). “But we also try to get people to appreciate their intimate connections to our water systems and empower them with simple conservation strategies.”
Since Mills helped launch the Lost River Walks in 1995, close to 15,000 people have taken the guided hikes jointly run by the Toronto Green Community and the Toronto Field Naturalists. The walks follow underground creeks and streams through various city neighbourhoods. “I consider this a very eccentric interest of mine, so I’ve been flabbergasted to see how many people are engaged with it,” says Mills, who studied philosophy at U of T.
Born in South Africa, Mills and her family moved to Calgary when she was 15, and then to Toronto three years later. She was intrigued by the oddities of the street grid, and her curiosity intensified while working as a courier after graduation. But the sudden dead-end streets and snaking roads remained a mystery to her. Then she took a course at U of T in the 1980s that examined the city’s physical geography. “I finally understood that these little distortions are symptomatic of rivers and creeks that were there before,” says Mills, who owns an organic gardening service and a courier business that support her full-time environmental activism.
Mills and other Toronto Green Community members have been mapping the city’s underground waterways for 14 years. Most of the maps are available at www.lostrivers.ca – including one of Taddle Creek, which once flowed through the St. George campus. In 1859 the creek was dammed just east of University College to create McCaul’s Pond. It was covered over in 1883 when nearby population growth caused the pond to become dangerously contaminated.
The creation of a sewer system rescued the city from repeated cholera outbreaks, but many of Toronto’s rivers and creeks were buried in the process. “It’s a story of heroic engineering and public health, but it’s also a very sad story from the perspective of nature,” says Mills. “We have a lot more understanding now of how things can be done better – I like to call that heroic ecological engineering.”