TORONTO, December 1, 2016 - In the wilderness jewel of Tommy Thompson Park, a five-kilometre peninsula jutting across the water from Toronto’s city skyline, clients of CAMH’s Partial Hospital Program (PHP) pause on a forest path.
They close their eyes and take in the sounds of autumn leaves rustling, the feel of the wind off the lake, the smell of earth not yet frozen by the Canadian winter. The group takes a path less travelled through the woods, winding through a dense green carpet of horsetail grass, set against white birch, red dogwood, wild grasses and poplar.
Our guide, Raja Raudsepp of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, asks the participants for one word to describe this place. Their responses: “Calm.” “Natural.” “Still.”
Let’s join Raja, CAMH Recreation Therapist Craig Currah, PHP clients Emily and Scott, and recreation therapy student Kelciya on their journey. Let’s open our eyes to this great partnership between CAMH, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and the natural world to enrich the recovery journey of our clients. Bundle up! It’s late November, but the sun is peeking out just in time for our trip.
Wildlife paradise (from left:) Craig, Kelciya and Emily examine the shell of a red-eared slider, a turtle species that finds it home in the park’s wetlands. Also known as the Leslie Street Spit, the park is a man-made peninsula that has evolved into a wildlife paradise over the past 50-plus years. Its meadows, forests and aquatic habitats are home to a wide variety of plants and animals, including species at risk.
Beautiful and edible: The white flowers of Queen Anne’s Lace, a wild relative of the carrot, turn to a delicate dry-brown seed head in fall. The mature seeds are edible.
So close but so far away: The city skyline is the backdrop for a raft that acts as a safe nesting haven for Terns in warmer weather. With binoculars, Kelciya and Emily also spotted beavers constructing a lodge nearby. “This summer I saw butterflies here, many different kinds of birds and wildlife that I would never see in the city,” says Kelciya. “We are so close to the city buildings and downtown but this is a natural world here. This is my fourth time at the park with the PHP group. It is a great program to support recovery.”
Flora and fauna: Sumac burns red-orange in the late fall. At right, a beaver has been busy cutting wood for a lodge.
On the waterfront (from left): Scott, Raja, Craig and Kelciya gather to take a closer look at wild birds on the waterfront in a small bay. Craig notes that CAMH clients have gone on to complete a Nature Ambassador Training Program to continue as stewards of Toronto’s greenspaces. “Besides being a great experience, our clients can also put the ambassador designation on their resume,” Craig says. He incorporates the natural world into many PHP client programs year-round. CAMH’s PHP program specializes in care for clients who have experienced psychosis but do not currently require inpatient care, or who have transitioned from inpatient programs. It’s a key part of CAMH’s Complex Care and Recovery program.
Birds of a feather: Trumpeter Swans, in foreground, flock together with Mallard duck pairs and Northern Pintails. The white-breasted pintails are visiting Toronto this winter from their summer home as far north as the Arctic. “This is my first time to the park,” says Scott. “It’s an amazing place. With her knowledge of the wildlife here, Raja really brought it alive for us.”
The road less travelled. “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost
Variegated forest: The mottled bark of an older Birch tree is framed by red Dogwood branches and a green carpet of Horsetail Grass. The park is typically open to the public on weekends. Raja has brought the CAMH group here on a special visit during the week, to experience this urban wilderness on a solo excursion. “Focusing our attention on the natural world helps us understand ourselves,” says Raja. She brings groups here in all seasons and leads tours in parks and greenspaces across Toronto in a program funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
Stewards of an urban wilderness: The ground near one of the newer wetlands is not yet frozen and the team plants several new native meadow plants to help green the area for next year.
The little tug that could: Scott and Raja survey a channel that bisects the park – Ports Toronto Tug “Iron Guppy” is steaming through. In the background, large Cormorant nests fill a row of trees. The park is an important nesting station for aquatic birds such as Cormorants and a way-station for migrating birds of all species.
We made it! The group is greeted by our driver, Gabe, and the CAMH Gifts of Light minivan. We’ve seen the natural beauty of Tommy Thompson Park. The wind off the lake is starting to settle in our bones, so Craig opens a thermos of home-made hot chocolate while Gabe turns up the heat in the van. Raja shares another sensory experience with the group: she has brought along furs of some mammals native to the park including mink, beaver, squirrel and raccoon. There will be more trips this winter, including a snow-shoeing excursion. The group bids Raja thanks and farewell, and heads back to the warmth of CAMH’s Queen Street site -- after a beautiful November afternoon, on the road less travelled.
*Note: Clients’ names have been changed for this article at their request.