Urban Paddling: Paddle The Don

Every year, Paddle The Don feels like the unofficial kick-off to summer. It’s always the first weekend in May – close to Cassandra’s birthday – and we often get lucky with warm, sunny weather.

Paddle The Don is a once-a-year opportunity to paddle the section of Toronto’s Don River between Eglinton and Bayview Avenues. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) floods the river a few days before the event to raise water levels, and signs and volunteers are placed throughout that section of the river to help paddlers navigate 12 hazards ranging from weirs and rapids to sharp turns and shallow water.

While you can likely paddle the Don River south of Bayview at other times, we don’t recommend attempting the upper portion of the river outside of the Paddle The Don event.

According to the TRCA, Paddle The Don helps raise money to “conserve the natural system and provides opportunities to educate and engage the public on the importance of protecting the watersheds that make up this remarkable area.”

We love participating in this event for many reasons, but mostly we enjoy seeing the city of Toronto and its various landmarks – from the CN Tower to some of our favourite nature spots like Crothers Woods – from the vantage point of the Don River

How to register for Paddle The Don

Registration for Paddle The Don usually opens in March, and it fills up quickly, so we recommend registering your boat as soon as you can. The cost is typically $100 per individual boat, or you can take the corporate challenge and register two boats for $1,200 (includes boat rentals and recognition of your company’s participation). The TRCA also encourages you to fundraise on top of the registration fee, but it’s not required. If the event is full, you can add your name to a waitlist in case additional spots open up.

When you register, you’re given a launch time and you should plan to arrive at the launch site around that time to ensure that there aren’t too many paddlers getting on the water at the same time.

Pro tip: Sign up for the mailing list to be notified when registration is going to open.

Parking and Paddle The Don launch site

In past years, we parked at Ernest Thompson Seton Park, near Eglinton Avenue and Don Mills Road, which is also where you launch your boat. However, due to construction, this year we parked at the Ontario Science Centre and portaged our canoe down to the park. They also had shuttles from the parking lot for people and canoes. Everything is clearly marked with signs and there are always plenty of volunteers around to answer questions.

When you get to the park, you should check in at the registration tent, where they’ll give you a wristband, ask you to sign a waiver, and offer you some free swag. It’s usually a “Paddle The Don” hat, but one year we also received a waterproof phone bag.

Paddle The Don registration tent
Paddle The Don registration tent

This is your last chance to go to the washroom before you get on the water, so I recommend using the port-o-potties after you register and before you get in the canoe line because the line moves pretty quickly. Thanks to the conscientiousness of paddlers and conservationists, the facilities are always squeaky clean.

Sometimes they have complimentary coffee at the launch site as well, which is really appreciated for those early-morning launch times.

Paddle The Don river route, from the launch site to the landing party
Paddle The Don river route, from the launch site to the landing party

Getting on the Don River

You can’t just drop your boat in the water anywhere on the river banks – there is a launch spot where volunteers help you get on the water safely. This can feel a little annoying to experienced paddlers like us, but it’s important to remember that most people who participate in Paddle The Don are definitely not experienced. Also, the river flows at its swiftest at the launch site, which means it can be challenging to launch your boat safely if you’re not used to moving water.

The volunteers also won’t let you launch your boat unless you have the required safety equipment, including that everyone in your boat is wearing a PFD. Kids under a certain age are required to wear helmets as well.

As soon as you get on the water and the volunteers release your boat, there is a sharp right turn in the river. Unfortunately, this is where we usually see inexperienced paddlers tip their boat and dump into the Don River. Luckily, the river is pretty shallow so they can wade to the banks to get back in their boats.

Is Paddle The Don safe?

The Paddle The Don event is designed to remove as much risk as possible from paddling the river. They do an amazing job. As long as you pay attention to the signs and listen to the volunteers shouting at you, you should be able to safely navigate the hazards of the river.

A small rapid on the Don River during Paddle The Don
A small rapid on the Don River during Paddle The Don

At each portage, volunteers are on the river banks (and sometimes even in the water) to help you get out of your boat, haul it out of the water, and get back in. The only thing you have to be able to do is portage your boat.

That being said, the banks of the Don River are steep and slippery at this time of year. Last year, even with all my paddling experience and the help of volunteers, I slipped into the river from a steep bank while trying to get into our canoe and accidentally pushed a young Scout waist-deep in the water along with me. Oops!

The other major hazard is the sheer number of inexperienced paddlers in the water with you, especially through sharp turns, fast-moving water, and rapids. On the top half of the river, it’s quite common to see people losing control of their boats and paddles. We’ve helped other boaters turn around when they’re going backwards down the river, retrieve paddles running away from their owners, and unstuck beached boats that just couldn’t avoid shallow sections of the river.

The Paddle The Don landing party

After paddling about 9km, you’ll reach the end of the Paddle The Don route. Volunteers help you and your boat out of the water, and from there you can find the landing party at Corktown Common. We recommend leaving your canoe at the bottom of the stairs rather than portaging it all the way up to the park because the landing party can be quite busy. Your boat will be fine there – just make sure it’s well enough away from the piles of rental boats.

Leave your canoe here before entering the Paddle The Don landing party
Leave your canoe here before entering the Paddle The Don landing party

At the landing party, you’ll find food, tables, live music, and tents where you can learn more about conservation or other paddling events, like Paddle The Rouge. (They used to have a beer tent at the landing party, but it was conspicuously missing from the 2019 event. Oh well!)

Paddle The Don landing party
Paddle The Don landing party

After grabbing a burger and a can of pop, we portaged our canoe to the canoe corral at the base of Bayview Avenue and hopped on the next shuttle bus. These buses take you from the landing party back up to the launch site parking lot so you can retrieve your car and drive all the way back down to load your canoe.

Spotting the shuttle bus from the canoe corral
Spotting the shuttle bus from the canoe corral

One of the coolest parts of Paddle The Don is driving down the Don Valley Parkway and seeing other paddlers as they make their way down the river where you just paddled. I drive the DVP almost every day and never see any boats in the water, so it’s a unique sight to be sure.

Paddlers on the Don River
Paddlers on the Don River

If you have any questions about Paddle The Don, leave them in the comments and we’ll do our best to answer them. We’re not affiliated with the event, but we’ve participated for more than 10 years running and consider ourselves experts at this point.

We hope you have the opportunity to participate someday. It’s a unique urban paddling experience worth doing, if you can get in.

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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.

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