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Student athletes clean up the Don Valley trails

Removing "enough auto parts to build a team bus"

The next time you walk, bike or run along the Don Valley forest trails, you might want to thank a student athlete from the University of Toronto mountain bike team.

Over the past 12 years, they've organized an annual Don Valley forest trail clean-up day which, so far, has succeeded in removing 24,000 pounds of litter from the forest floor.

On May 24th, they’ll be rolling up their sleeves again and invite Torontonians to join forces with them. Writer Jelena Damjanovic talked to David Wright, director of development logistics, University Advancement, and head coach of the Varsity mountain bike team.

Who are the U of T mountain bikers and what’s your role?
The Varsity mountain bike team is composed of undergraduate and graduate student athletes from across the University. The team is fully co-ed and participates in the University Cup race series each fall. The team has won numerous provincial titles and members have gone on to provincial, national and Olympic competitions.

Aside from being successful on the race course the team has also been at the top of the list in terms of academics by consistently being one of the Varsity teams with the most A-average team members. My role as volunteer head coach is to try to help make their student/athletic experiences at U of T outstanding.

How did the idea for a Don Valley forest trail clean-up day come about?
photo showing students in forest with giant pile of trashThe urban forest along the Don Valley is a natural gem in the centre of the city. At first, the trails within this urban forest were being considered for closure by the City of Toronto. The team occasionally trains on the trails and were surprised in the 1990’s to hear they may lose access to them. There were environmental concerns due to trail erosion and damage to the forest, which had been designated as an Environmentally Significant Area (ESA).

U of T students took the lead and became some of the first to collaborate with the City of Toronto with the aim of becoming informed and to try and address concerns. Later, this led to helping with sustainable trail building (and closure of environmentally damaging trails), inspired academic work with focus on environment, membership with Toronto’s Task Force to Bring Back the Don and the ongoing annual trail clean-up. Since that time, mountain bikers and trail users of all types (runners, dog walkers and local community members) have worked with the City to help protect, improve and keep the trails open.

What have been some of the results and side-effects of this engagement?
Last year volunteers helped remove over 2000 pounds of litter from the Don Valley forested ravines (weighed and removed by the City of Toronto). The team later took 100 grade 5 students from the Thorncliffe Park public school for a nature walk into the Valley. The outdoor education program at Thorncliffe Public School is outstanding and hopes to change what little outdoor exposure these children get. The U of T squad invited the school to the trail clean-up event in the past and is hoping to see some of these children and their families at this year’s event.

Thorncliffe Public school is the largest public school in North America (1,500 students) and currently has 21 portable classrooms on their small playground. The 87 per cent of students are from high density / low income areas and are new immigrants to Canada. My experience at Thorncliffe Park public school was really heartwarming. The kids are keen to learn and care. Many of these children are coming from countries where worrying about war and survival are the priority and caring about the natural environment is not. We need to introduce these kids to nature, to help nurture that bond, so they can help look after the environment in the future. The Don Valley is an excellent classroom to do just that.

What’s been the most interesting or unusual thing the team came across during a clean-up?
Well, with 24,000 pounds of “stuff” to choose from I’d say the volunteers have removed enough auto parts to build a team bus, but a 250-pound bank/office safe we pulled out of the woods has to be the one of the most intriguing items. I am sure there is an interesting story behind how it arrived there.

How can potential volunteers get involved?
Just show up! Volunteers will be meeting on Saturday, May 24, at E.T. Seton Park (entrance is off 71 Thorncliffe Park Drive) at 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. The wearing of long pants and a pair of boots are recommended. The team will supply gloves, garbage bags, a free BBQ and drinks to all volunteers.

This year MBNA CANADA has supported the event and donated a mountain bike as a draw prize.