Article 2: I’ve Known Rivers

Toronto Department

When you look at the job boards you hope for something unexpected, something creaturely, alive. As far as I know there is still no job where you walk out totally naked in the morning with the birds. But Matt and Leland’s job comes close to that freedom in our city. They are two handsome guys with masters degrees whose job, for the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, is to put on wading boots and walk into the creeks and rivers of Toronto. And when these waters are moving too fast to walk into, their job requires throwing ropes and weights across them like cowboys wrangling rivers.

“Sometimes you’ll be in the river and there will be large fish swimming around you. I had one run into my shins. It hurt actually,” says Matt. Leland: “I was at Don East once where salmon jump up the weir. There were 30 or 40. I guess they were taking a breather from getting ready to jump up the 3 foot weir. You’re standing there metering and they come in behind your boots and just sit there, because there is a bit of an eddie, and they just relax back in there. When you move they all scatter.”
After visiting 800 unique sites, Matt and Leland have stood in pretty much every waterway between Mississauga and Agax, in all nine watersheds of the TRCA jurisdiction, from the smallest creeks -- “we’ve gauged something a foot by a foot” -- to the widest points of Toronto rivers.

I’ve seen their office and it's a watchtower control room above a dam at the G Lord Ross Reservoir. The reservoir collects water behind the dam during storms, which keeps the river system below at a safe volume; otherwise, low-lying land near the West Don could flood, like the neighborhood of Hogg’s Hollow, destroying property and endangering people. So they are serious about watching over the dam; one guy in the control room stopped me from taking a picture of the dam’s ancient-looking computer panel, due to terrorism worries.

But today, as Matt and Leland are out on the road preparing for a river rope-toss, they are joshing each other like sports bros. “The other day one guy couldn’t get it across the river,” says Matt, referring to the rope and five-pound weight they have to throw across rivers. How many times did it not go over? “I lost count. He was chirping me, I was chirping him, but it was probably like 15 to 20 times. He was getting weaker and weaker with each throw.” Leland is going to try the throw today, and assures Matt it’ll be no sweat. “There’s a lot of pressure now,” says Matt.

They arrive at today's site, their pickup truck hops the curb behind the Miller Tavern at York Mills and Yonge and drives through the grass to the West Don river. This spot is parkland now, and this river, like all of Toronto’s water, has become on one hand a backup stormwater sewer but also a picaresque water feature, a boon to real estate values. But before its waters were narrowed, there was a saw mill at this site where the river supplied the economic heart of the area. Later on, a group of eight “Serbian gypsy” families lived here offering fortune telling to passing motorists on Yonge Street. According to an article in the Globe from June 1st, 1920, the camp’s river-side location provided access to the river for cooking, bathing, and drinking water. The reporter observed children, apparently “too numerous to count” swimming in the Don. They swim with their clothes on, he noted, “jumping into the water and then waiting for the sun to dry them.”

Nobody swims this river anymore, and today not even Leland and Matt are going in despite being ready with hipwaders. It’s a dry, sunny day, yet the river is stormwater muddy and running high on its banks, moving much too swift to stand in. This is what they expected: their office at the reservoir six km upstream is in full control of the river today. “There was a big rain a few days ago, and the reservoir went up 3 metres,” Leland says, “Now we’ve opened the dam to let out some water.” They are here to make sure that they are aren’t letting out too much. Even though they aren’t going in, Leland and Matt still put on lifejackets, they are aware of the danger of just standing beside the rivers. “I’ve been in a few spots where I’ve been like, shit, this isn’t safe, let’s do this later,” says Leland. They’ve done swift-water rescue training, thrown day in and out of raging water. “They’d throw Matt in and he’d be tearing down the river. I’d have to go in and get him.” That would be dicey today; I see a concrete weir with a big drop just a few metres downstream.

It’s time to wrangle this river. They need to get their thick rope over it so they can then attach a depth-probe-boat to the rope and pull the probe back and forth across the river. Matt finds a bridge to the other and shows up 15 metres across. Leland warms up his arm for the first throw. He heaves the weight with rope attached. But the throw is a miss, a couple metres short. The weight is slowly pulled out of the river. Throw two is aloft...a miss, close. “I’m feeling good. Next one will be better.” Things are regathered, he steadies his aim and throw three arcs across the river, until the rope catches something and stops halfway, splashing in. Attempt four is close, Matt reaches, dives, and yells No! as it slips from him into the river. Matt gathers a bundle of green plants to snag the rope and at attempt five he goes down reaching with it, but the throw is too far. The rope has been repeatedly pulled out of the water and recoiled. Leland looks sheepishly over at Matt. Matt looks skeptically over at Leland. “You’ve got no faith eh?” Leland says. Matt is a hero and buoys him up: “No you’ve got it now.” And Leland finds his groove, for attempt 6 arcs beautifully high over the river, and Matt flings his ragged bundle into the water and victoriously grabs it. Maybe river-rope toss will catch on.

In goes the three-foot long yellow plastic probe with a saucer-shaped radio. They tie another set of ropes on each end of the probe and pull it back and forth across the river. The scene is sweet: a brown river, a warm sun, green plants, orange rope, a yellow probe, a really great job. The probe’s radio waves bounce along the riverbed and measure it. A laptop on the ground in the weeds picks up data in colored bands, getting the precise shape of the river. Since a rivers’ shape changes all the time, monitoring is an ongoing process. If a river should change too much, flood risks need to be reassessed. Matt and Leland have to continuously know the rivers to keep track of these infinitely wild and changing things. “Downstream there’s houses, and a playground, in a floodplain. One big rain and...” Lelands voice trails off, and at that moment a pink pool noodle floats by on the river, a vision of the backyard apocalypses that river monitoring continues to prevent, and evidence of suburban gypsy kids still playing by the river.

-- David Stokes