Don River, Crossings and Expeditions

by gm

Anita Lahey



A worker honey bee from the abandoned apiary
in the cottage backyard of famed naturalist
Charles Sauriol motors over the riverbank and plunges
into a wall of black swallowwort. One more
newfangled post-industrial invader. (It straitjackets
trees and strangles dogs.) Bring this mighty forager
a blossom all native and nectar-y, bring it
a highrise of goldenrod, an eighteenth-century
bustle of milkweed. On the double. (Where
is the ghost of Elizabeth Simcoe
when you need her?)



A skate blade loops
and swirls, unwinding clarity,
movement, joy. When the divide
between water and air is cold-packed
and unmistakable, forces and states
of being may unite. An ancient

corn cob, a dropped
fishing spear, rings fanning
from a cupped palm. Ripples
of a circumspect gaze. Undercurrents
of hoeing, hewing, humming.



Do giant slushy pops still exist
or have these plastic Slurpee cups
the size of watering cans been rolling
in brush by the skunk cabbage
at the Todmorden Mills wildflower preserve
housing ants, rain, mosquitoes
and spiders since 1982?



The official, thirtyish, bristled chin, wades in,
angling for a grip on the fourth
body this season. Maybe the poor
chump’s better off, you know? His black
boot, a slime-slick rock, careening and fingers
flung through reedy air. Steady, okay,
wait—two hands holding zippo, nada
Was there a splash? His walkie-talkie’s
gone under to join what fell and sank
with buddy from the bridge. Up there,
his partner awaits confirmation,
gloved fingers on the railing, round
black speaker at her ear. Give her
a Luminous Veil. Give her a single
malt, neat. Give her a moment
alone with this feat of engineering
and its larger-than-life legacy.
She wants a word.



Capt. Hugh Richardson’s rages and bellows,
caught on a putrid 1834 wind, rising
from the deck of his grounded
vessel at the mouth—
The destroying cancer! Destructive industry!
still fury and eddy with gull screeches
over the head of a repatriated wood duck
traversing the greasy pools
of Keating Channel. (The captain
curses the Don’s impassable silt,
not the tanneries, abattoirs,
paper mills, flour mills, lumber mills,
lantern factories and cattle fields
from which it cascaded.)



That particular night heron spent
two motionless hours perched on a post
poking through the surface near a crack
in the concrete that encases the lower bank.
Its grey-blue bill trained on water, head feathers
ever-so-slightly rearranged by the breeze. Mourners
in the hundreds were drifting downriver
aboard kayak, canoe, rowboat, raft, reenacting
the Funeral for the Don. The chief keener,
mid-wail, erect in the bow, spotted
the stock-still bird. Fell
mute. The heron’s intentions
were clear. People stared. Some leaned
so far over to peer (like the bird)
directly into the stink, their
vessels began to list.



Sauriol’s memories waft downstream
from the Forks, interrupting the flow
on the DVP. Nostrils lift,
ears twitch. Vehicles (not
canoes) bob and sway: 

the scent of the balm of Gilead—
the sweet tremolo of a saw-whet owl—
the sad trilling of American toads, so plaintive—
dozens of eastern bluebirds dropped
from a sky as blue as their wings— 



A Rob Ford bobblehead is wedged
in the Y of a staghorn sumac branch
near a patch of graffiti—I be creepin’
while you sleepin’—on the underside
of the Dundas Street bridge. The sumac
were planted along the once-bleak bank
by sweat-streaked, jean-clad champions
of native species. How long before a
high wind or passing cyclist knocks
the doll free? Its painted-on eyes,
the rerouted shore: now you
see it, now you don’t.



A dusty labourer from the brickworks,
dragging on a smoke; a boy
felling a cedar for his latest
ingenious lean-to; an afterschool
trio hugging armloads of trilliums;
buddy, down on his luck, come
all the way from Nova Scotia to erect
a sheet-metal shack on the Flats.
This ghostly gang follows the river’s
forgotten, curlicue shoreline, seen
only by owls and bats, reminiscing,
foraging, speculating on what’s
yet to float their way, or
surge on by.



Taylor regards the clump
of promising valley clay in his palm.

From the protective shade of oaks,
Simcoe turns his gaze on a stand of pine,
sees masts for ships of war.

Davies takes a pig for a country walk.
Gooderham inspects his windmill’s lazily turning blades.
Scadding lays a celery trench, mulches
a bed for tender asparagus shoots.

Gardiner scales a backyard fence to scramble
down the valley. He scrapes his ankles
on raspberry canes, tramples
asters, maps out where
to blast the hill and shove
the river over.



I don’t know what to tell you
about life along the Don. It troubles me
to imagine its wild, abundant, free-
flowing past, and how the forms of survival
I was taught to practice have left it
like a dirty, sodden rag. The year I was 22
I crossed it twice a day, sometimes more,
by bicycle, subway, streetcar. On foot,
a friend at my side. We were
cub reporters, I’d taken a call, heard
news meant only for me. He unpeeled
me from my desk to walk me home.
I might have looked down as we crossed,
vaguely noted the familiar, brown trickle
in its trench. I didn’t think of the Don
as a waterway, a succession of histories,
an altered form. The valley was
forbidding, unknowable; to live on
its eastern flank was to score
an arresting view. That morning
I crossed the river one kind of person;
I returned used-up, hollow, littered
with debris, dismal as the Don
but still moving, this way
and that, without
apparent design, braced
for my own Improvement Plan. I was due
to be channelled and dredged.



An empty mickey, lid tight, bobs
and meanders, sunlight pooling
in its thick, clear glass.

A corroded nine-volt settles in silt,
kicking up a tiny, temporary, unseen cloud.

The blackbirds’ conk-la-rees
ricochet from willow to willow
skipping over a log so tattered and forlorn
it can never have stood and splayed
into branches and offshoots,
bright green leaves.



Ah, here she is, Elizabeth Simcoe’s ghost—
she’s commandeered an abandoned canoe—
Canada geese are splashing and bathing—
she’s giddy with swamp gases,
summoning loons.



A Tyee noses upstream, dodging
cigarette butts, coffee cup lids, Styrofoam
crumbs and shards of iPhone
packaging through waters
too warm and up, at intermittent
weirs, precisely, scientifically
angled ladders.

This singleminded chief of all
salmon no way no how voyageured
from the Pacific to this concoction
of road salt and fertilizer, storm sewer
outflow and emptied toilet tanks
propelled by its own fins. No sir. It was
caught, flown over mountains and prairies,
poured into lake water, transformed
into sport for eager anglers.

Ladies and gentlemen of the post-glacial,
post-agrarian, post-Victorian, post-pastoral,
post-industrial, post-landfill, post-
ladies and gents of the new-and-improved,
Better-Homes-and-Gardens era of Don River
restoration, please allow me to further describe
the journey undertaken by this pink-scaled
fish of all fishes. This fish

was not game. This Tyee cruised
Lake Ontario’s murk, steering clear
of hooks and bait. It smelled
river. Through the port land’s rumbles
and slicks, eroded soil grit and driveway sealer
aroma, through beer cans and algae, rainwater
spiked with goose shit, this fish
heard the Don’s muted
cough and reeled

in its current. It swims hard and sure—
it belongs here now, it has thrown itself
on the mercy of these ragged, panting waters—
it aims for the source.