Cottonwood Flats [PDF] in the Don Valley is no stranger to industrial degradation. Before being used as a snow dump by the city, the site was home to a series of mills and factories beginning more than 200 years ago (here’s an interactive map of Cottonwood Flats, Crothers Woods, and adjacent areas). I remember tooling around the trails on my bike and navigating around the big sloppy pile of dirty ice and garbage that still towered overhead in the middle of the valley floor as late as June some years. Recognizing that it’s not really a good idea to use a site that drains directly into the Don River as a dumping ground, the city finally ended its use as a snow dump in 2009. It has since been renaturalizing and there is supposed to be a new management plan that I haven’t been able to find online.
As you can see from the picture above, Cottonwood Flats in winter is very much a reflection of Toronto itself at this time of year: flat, barren, and relentlessly brown. With the DVP just across the way, the Bayview Extension at the top of the hill, and two railways nearby, there’s no mistaking this for a bit of pristine wilderness in the middle of nowhere. At first glance it seems like little more than an overgrown field beside a noisy highway, but the site’s edges, especially along the river, are filled with winding paths that carry you to a variety of interesting nooks and crannies. In the last few years, it’s also grown to be a much more popular destination for cyclists, families, and especially dog walkers. I’ve seen more people on my two recent visits this winter than I ever used to during the summer. Read below the fold for the first of two short galleries (or second of three, if you include the one from a couple of weeks ago) looking at a few of the interesting sights.