Urban Paddling: Canoeing the Humber River in Toronto

When spring appears in Toronto in early April, it can be tempting for the backcountry enthusiast to continue hibernating until the season finally changes up north – much, much later. However, spring is actually the best time to paddle the Greater Toronto Area’s creeks and rivers because these waterways are often too shallow to paddle later in the year.

Our first paddle of the year tends to be the Rouge River or Paddle The Don, but we decided to change it up this year and head west to the Humber River instead. Just a few weeks before, we hiked a section of the Humber River and saw huge boulders of ice piled up on shore 10 feet high, so yesterday we crossed our fingers and hoped that they had melted.

Our first stop was Brian’s aunt’s house in East York, where we leave our canoe for the winter. To store the canoe, we simply put it upside-down on some cinder blocks in her backyard.

Ready to go canoeing on the Humber River in Toronto

We need the space in our teeny tiny townhouse garage in the winter, plus it gives us an excuse to visit a truly lovely woman more than we might otherwise. (In fact, when we lived in an apartment with no storage space, we stored our canoe there all the time and loved visiting her even more often.)

From there, we drove to the northern end of King’s Mill Park, which is just south of Old Mill subway station. Pro tip: Don’t park in The Old Mill Hotel lot north of Bloor – there is plenty of free parking in the park right next to the river.

Unfortunately, as soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we could see there was still a tremendous amount of ice on the shore.

A field of icy boulders on the shore of the Humber River in Toronto

We encountered another pair of paddlers who were just putting their canoe back on the top of their car after a few unsuccessful attempts to reach the water. They were covered in mud and warned us that the banks of the river were too high, the ice was too unstable to walk on, and the mud was too deep.

Ankle-deep mud on the shore of the Humber River in TorontoWe decided to investigate for ourselves, of course, but after spending some time walking up and down the shore, we realized they were right.

We couldn’t get into the Humber River here without risking slipping on the ice or falling into the cold water.

Luckily we had recently been chatting back and forth with Toronto Adventures on Instagram, and they mentioned a map on their website with alternative access points to the river.

You can find it on the Humber River Rentals page of their website, but it’s also embedded here:

We referenced the map and found the closest boat ramp location just a few kilometers’ drive away. Pro tip: Punch “Humber Valley Road” into your favourite map app to find the spot.

Finally paddling on the Humber River in TorontoIt was completely free of ice and provided easy access to the water. We found Torontonians there happily enjoying the warm day by walking their dogs and fishing on the river with their kids.

From there, we were on the water in just a few minutes, heading south down the Humber River toward Humber Bay and Lake Ontario.

The water was high, but the current was non-existent, so we were able to take it slow and enjoy the scenery. It’s just over 2km from the boat ramp to Lake Ontario.

True to the Toronto Adventures map, we found a number of quiet, secluded marshes on our way down the river.

Wood ducks in a marsh on the Humber River in Toronto

While many city folk tend to head north to see wildlife close-up, Toronto’s waterways and wetlands are some of the best places to see all kinds of animals.

Mallard ducks nesting on the Humber River in Toronto

We saw countless songbirds, Canada geese, three species of ducks (mallards, wood ducks, and buffleheads), a couple of swans, a red-tailed hawk, a beaver, and even a raccoon! Every so often, we also saw bubbles and swirls of sediment just below the surface, evidence of fish moving through the water.

Canada geese taking flight on the Humber River in Toronto

A pristine white swan gathering food and grooming on the Humber River in Toronto

Maple tree buds on the Humber River in Toronto

Everywhere we looked, we saw life.

A raccoon on the Humber River in Toronto

A red-tailed hawk takes flight on the Humber River in Toronto

A small beaver swims away on the Humber River in Toronto

We also saw plenty of city life, of course, ranging from multi-million dollar Swansea mansions to high-rise apartment and condo buildings, cars and trucks stuck in traffic, TTC buses and streetcars, GO and VIA Rail trains, and bicyclists.

Muskoka chairs and steep stairs leading to a Swansea mansion up on the cliff of the Humber River in Toronto

A passing GO train crosses the Queensway Bridge on the Humber River in Toronto

Once we passed under the Queensway Bridge and the Gardiner Expressway, we could see the Humber Bay Bridge and Lake Ontario (well, sort of – the lake was quite foggy, so you could only see a few hundred metres out).

The Humber Bay Bridge looking south to Lake Ontario on the Humber River in Toronto

The bridge was busy with Torontonians enjoying the first warm spring day of the year, on foot and on bike. The lake was calm, so we paddled past the bridge to view the downtown skyline from our canoe.

The downtown Toronto skyline from the mouth of the Humber River on Lake Ontario in Toronto

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Cassandra Jowett is a marketer who works at a software startup in Toronto. Her love of the great outdoors first started at the base of the Rocky Mountains when her parents took her camping as a baby. It blossomed as an adult when Brian began taking her canoe tripping in the Ontario backcountry.


Add Your Comment
    • Joric Maglanque
    • April 29, 2019

    Whoa! I did this around the same time (April 6, in my case). The icefields was worse in my case because I biked down from the Humber River Trail (I was coming from Willowdale, North York) and encountered them on the north end of Etienne Brule Park. I hike-a-biked over the ice until I found a small island a few feet from the banks (which was super muddy). Once my packraft was in the water and my bike strapped down, it was great. I saw many of the same wildlife and sights as you did (e.g., nice homes and decks). I took out at Sunnyside Beach.

    • Albert Koke
    • February 1, 2020

    Great article, thx! And enjoying your website. My (adult) kids and I ran this April 28th last spring but put in at a park near Finch, finishing at Sunnyside. A gloriously sunny day, Water levels were great and ice was completely gone of course. With a lunch stop it was about a 5 hour trip. We’re looking forward to making this an annual expedition.

      • Brian Jackson
      • February 2, 2020

      That’s wonderful Albert! We should try putting in a bit further north so we can enjoy more of the river as well. Happy paddling.

    • Rick Zelinsky
    • June 25, 2020

    Just bought a canoe today. Gonna head out to the Humber on the weekend. Thanks for the tips.

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