Humber River

Location: Greater Toronto Area
Region: Central
Character: Heritage River
Length/Size: 100 km

Humber River
By The Canadian Heritage Rivers System

Wild in the City

The 100 km Humber River has its headwaters in the ancient rock of the Niagara Escarpment and the glacial hills of the Oak Ridges Moraine. It flows placidly through a rich mosaic of Carolinean forests and meadows, past farms and abandoned mills, before meandering through the largest urban area in Canada, metropolitan Toronto. Here, the Humber is in the backyard of more than three million people, a unique river that flows through the most densely populated area of Canada but still retains many of its natural and cultural values.

The river is being protected and restored as a vibrant ecosystem with the help of many individuals, groups and agencies who share a common vision of a healthy Humber. A unique system of greenways along its course maintains the spirit of the historic Toronto Carrying Place Trail, and provides an urban oasis. Brook trout still thrive in its clear headwaters. Its wetlands still ring with the choruses of birds and frogs. The Humber shows us that, with a caring attitude, we can have development, and a diverse, vibrant river.

The Humber River, located in southern Ontario between Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario, flows through the Greater Toronto Area, the most urbanized centre in Canada. From its sources in the Town of Caledon and the Townships of Adjala-Tosorontio and Mono, to its mouth at Lake Ontario in the Cities of Toronto and Etobicoke, the main branch of the Humber travels 100 km through a variety of natural habitats in both rural and urban landscapes. The Humber watershed has provided a home for many in the past 12,000 years, first for Aboriginal peoples and later for European explorers and settlers. Today, approximately 500,000 people of many different cultures live in the Humber watershed and many more travel to the watershed for work and recreational purposes. Due to its outstanding human heritage and recreational values and the contribution it has made to the development of Canada, the Humber River was officially designated a Canadian Heritage River at a plaque unveiling ceremony in Toronto on September 24, 1999.

The Humber River watershed has undergone many changes, especially in the past 100 years. When environmental problems became increasingly prevalent in the 1940s, due mainly to the extensive deforestation of the Humber watershed, the Humber Valley Conservation Authority was established. On October 14 and 15, 1954 Hurricane Hazel struck the Toronto area, centred over the Humber watershed, and caused the worst documented flooding the region had ever experienced. This tropical storm caused devastating loss of life and property damage and resulted in the establishment of Canadass first flood warning system, the beginning of flood plain regulation and management in Canada, and the formation of the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (now known as the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA)) in 1957.

As part of its watershed planning responsibilities, the TRCA formed the Humber Watershed Task Force in 1994. This Task Force developed Legacy: A Strategy For A Healthy Humber to guide the management of the Humber River. In 1997, the Humber Watershed Alliance was established with a mandate to implement, at a community level, the recommendations contained in Legacy. The Alliance facilitates large watershed projects that will protect, regenerate and celebrate the Humber watershed, educate watershed residents, obtain financial resources, and prioritize spending. The Alliance is a multi-stakeholder organization whose members include representatives from watershed residents, interest groups, business associations, agency staff, and elected representatives.

Encompassing 908 square kilometres in total, the Humber watershed is the largest in the Toronto region. The watershed flows through a number of significant physiographic areas, namely the ancient rock of the Niagara Escarpment, the rolling hills and kettle lakes of the Oak Ridges Moraine, the high-quality agricultural lands of the South Slope and Peel Plain, and the ancient Lake Iroquois shoreline. Throughout its journey, the Humber River drops over 350 metres in elevation to enter Lake Ontario at Humber Bay.

The Humber River system spans four regional municipalities or counties and ten local municipalities and is bounded to the west by the Etobicoke Creek, Mimico Creek and Credit River watersheds, and to the east by the Don River and Rouge River watersheds. Each of these watersheds drain into Lake Ontario. To the north, the Humber watershed is bounded by the Nottawasaga River watershed, which drains into Georgian Bay (Lake Huron), and the Holland River watershed, which drains into Lake Simcoe.

The land uses in the Humber watershed vary dramatically, from century farms located on the Peel Plain, to low density residential areas on the Oak Ridges Moraine in the Town of Caledon, to the dense residential and industrial development found in Brampton, Mississauga, Toronto and Vaughan. Today, approximately 45% of the watershed is urban or urbanizing (especially in the municipalities of Aurora, Brampton, Richmond Hill, and Vaughan) and 55% of the watershed is rural. A significant amount (approximately 46%) of the land base remains in agricultural use for livestock and cash crops on the Oak Ridges Moraine, South Slope, and Peel Plain in the Towns of Caledon and Vaughan and in King Township.

Natural Heritage
Being located in a transition zone between the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest Region in the north and the Carolinian or Deciduous Forest Region in the south, the Humber contains a variety of species common to both regions. Geological processes such as glaciation, erosion, flooding, and deposition have also contributed to the natural heritage value of the Humber River watershed. Some of the most notable natural heritage features found within the Humber River watershed include:

Oak Ridges Moraine (ORM) - the ORM complex, one of Ontario's most outstanding physiographic features, was formed about 13,000 years ago when two converging lobes of ice receded, depositing sand and gravel on the bedrock between them. The ORM, which spans the Humber via The Town of Caledon, King Township and the Town of Richmond Hill, comprises over a quarter of the area of the watershed and forms the headwaters of the Humber River.

Niagara Escarpment - the main branch of the Humber flows from the Niagara Escarpment which has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve by United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The Humber Marshes - located at the mouth of the Humber in Toronto, this provincially significant wetland remains an important nesting area for birds such as the Great Blue Heron and American Coot, and contains rare plant species such as White Sassafras and White Dog's Tooth Violet.

High Park - located in the City of Toronto, High Park contains remnant prairie habitat, including over 50 hectares of one of the last Black Oak Savannah habitats in southern Ontario.

Bird Banding - in High Park in 1905, James Henry Fleming banded a robin, the first wild bird in Canada to be marked with a numbered and recorded band.

Brook Trout - The high quality aquatic habitat in the Humber supports more than 50 species of fish. The presence of Brook Trout in the headwaters of the Humber is indicative of high quality cold water habitat.

Red-Shouldered Hawk - the presence of the nationally vulnerable Red-Shouldered Hawk in the Humber watershed is indicative of the Humber's high quality forest and wetland habitats.

Human Heritage
The Humber River has a long history of human settlement along its banks. As revealed by extensive archaeological evidence, native settlement in the Humber watershed came in three waves. The earliest settlers were the Palaeo-Indians who lived in the area from 10,000 to 7,000 BC and survived mainly by hunting large game. The second wave of native settlers, the people of the Archaic period, resided in the Humber region between 7,000 and 1,000 BC and began to adopt seasonal migration patterns to take advantage of available plants, fish and game. The third wave of native settlement was the Woodland period. The Woodland period saw the introduction of the bow and arrow and the growing of crops which allowed for larger, more permanent villages. The Woodland period was also characterized by movement of native groups into and out of the watershed mainly via the historic overland route (now known as the Toronto Carrying-Place Trail) which linked Lake Ontario to the upper Great Lakes and the north.

Etienne Brule was the first European to encounter the Humber River and to travel the ancient Toronto Carrying-Place Trail. Brule passed through the watershed in 1615, on a mission from Samuel de Champlain to build alliances with native peoples. The Toronto Carrying-Place Trail became a convenient shortcut to the upper Great Lakes for traders, explorers, and missionaries. Due to its historical importance, the Toronto Carrying-Place Trail has been designated as nationally significant by the Federal Historic Sites and Monuments Board.

The French occupied the Humber region until 1793, with prominent French trader and native language interpreter Jean-Baptiste Rousseau being the first European to take up permanent residence on the Humber. Rousseau piloted Lieutenant Governor Simcoe's ship into Toronto Bay to officially begin the British era of settlement in 1793. Settlement of the Toronto region remained scattered until after the war of 1812 when immigration from Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere in Europe increased. By 1830, villages were starting to be established near mills and major roads and more widespread development began.

Some other notable residents, explorers, missionaries and military individuals whose careers and works are strongly associated with the Humber River include, Fathers Jean de Brebeuf and Joseph Chaumonot (1641), Father Louis Hennepin (1678), Rene-Robert Cavelier de La Salle (1680), the Eaton Family, and Janet and Pierre Berton.

Today, many communities throughout the Humber watershed still reflect evidence of the early history of the Humber. For example, the Seed-Barker archaeological site near Woodbridge reveals the history of Aboriginal settlement in the mid sixteenth century and is investigated by high school students from around the world each year as part of the outdoor educational program at Boyd Field Centre; the King Railway Station, built in 1853 by the Northern Railway, is the oldest surviving railway station in Canada; Eaton Hall, built by the Eaton family who founded the Eatons department stores, now forms the heart of Seneca College in Toronto; and the former home of Robert and Signe McMichael now houses one of the largest permanent displays of works by Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven and their contemporaries at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

The Humber watershed contains an extensive greenspace system throughout the Greater Toronto Area with about 11% (approximately 9949 hectares) of the watershed being public land. Many uses such as camping, fishing, canoeing, picnicking, hiking, swimming, cross- country skiing, nature appreciation, and environmental education rely on the Humber River.

Albion Hills Conservation Area - opened in 1954, Albion Hills was the first Conservation Area in Ontario. Since then, six million visitors have enjoyed the natural, cultural, recreational and educational opportunities at Albion Hills.

Kortright Centre for Conservation - Kortright is Canada's largest environmental conservation facility, named in honour of Dr. Francis H. Kortright who is one of Canada's leading authorities on birds and waterfowl.

Woodbridge Fair - this traditional fair is one of the oldest in Ontario and celebrates the history of the town of Woodbridge. (

Kleinburg Binder Twine Festival - a traditional festival that takes place on the first Saturday after Labour Day each year.

River Boating - canoeists can paddle the lower Humber River and many other locations depending on the time of year.

Fishing - the Humber is a popular location for fishing. Fourteen of the top 50 angling locations in the Greater Toronto Area are found in the watershed of the Main and East branches of the Humber River.

Trails - with 175 kilometres of trails, the Humber valley is a popular destination for hikers, equestrians and nature-lovers. Inter-regional trails found in the watershed include the Humber Valley Heritage Trail, the world renowned Bruce Trail, the Great Pine Ridge Equestrian Trail, the Caledon Trailway/Trans Canada Trail, the Oak Ridges Moraine Trail, and the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail.

Visitor Information
Access: The Humber River is the only Canadian Heritage River in Ontario that is accessible by subway. The Humber River watershed is easily accessible via several major highways such as Highways 401, 400, and 407. Many of the Conservation Areas operated by the TRCA provide access to the river for canoeing and water sports as well as hiking and nature appreciation.

Accommodation and Services: The various villages, towns and cities located within the Humber watershed are easily accessible via major travel routes and provide services such as campsites, parks, restaurants, hotels, and motels. Albion Hills Campground is located just 40 minutes northwest of Toronto on Highway 50 in the Town of Caledon and features over 230 campsites, 27 km of nature and mountain biking trails, showers, laundry facilities, playgrounds, a recreation area, an outdoor patio, and a campground store. Indian Line Campground is the closest campground to downtown Toronto and has excellent highway and public transit access to all major Toronto area attractions, over 240 campsites, fishing, showers, laundry facilities, a playground and recreational area, a pool, and a campground store.

Topographic Maps: National Topographic Series maps covering the Humber River at the 1:50 000 scale are: 30M/11 (Toronto), 30M/12 (Brampton), and 30M/13 (Bolton). These may be purchased from any of over 900 authorized map dealers across Canada, the United States and overseas. To find a map dealer in your area contact any of The Centre for Topographic Information's Regional Distribution Centres listed on their website ( Provincial series maps at the 1:100 000 scale may be obtained from the Map Distribution Office, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Queen's Park, Toronto, Ontario, M7A 1W3.

Further Information
Services, Permits and Regulations: Ontario Government licenses and permits are required for fishing and hunting within the Humber watershed. For more information on the provision of licenses and permits, contact Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Aurora District Office, Greater Toronto Area (GTA), 50 Bloomington Road W., R.R. #2, L4G 3G8, (905) 713-7400. Hunting is not permitted at Conservation Areas within TRCA jurisdiction. For matters relating to watershed management and floodplain regulation contact, Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, 5 Shoreham Drive, Downsview, Ontario, M3N 1S4, (416) 661-6600.

Tourist Information: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, 5 Shoreham Drive, Downsview, Ontario, M3N 1S4, (416) 661-6600; or visit: Accommodations Toronto/Tourism Toronto, 207 Queens Quay W., P.O. Box 126, Toronto (City), M5J 1A7, (416)203-2500 or (800)363-1990, website:; Bed and Breakfast Homes of Toronto, P.O. Box 46093, College Station 444 Yonge St., Toronto (City), M5B 2L8, (416) 363-6362, website:; Canadian Tourism Commission, 235 Queen St., Ottawa, K1A 0H6, (613) 954-1900.

Canadian Heritage Rivers System: The Secretary, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0M5, (819) 994-2913; or Adair Ireland-Smith (Ontario Board Member), Managing Director, Ontario Parks, Ministry of Natural Resources, P.O. Box 7000, 300 Water Street, Peterborough, Ontario, K9J 8M5, (705) 755-1702, Fax (705) 755- 1701.

Kayaking the Humber River
By David Richardson

Toronto isn't the area most people would think of when looking for a natural outdoor adventure but there are some hidden gems to be found in the city. Among them are kayaking excursions guided by Toronto Kayak & Canoe Adventures. Whether you're a beginner who has never been in a kayak, a business person who needs to relieve some office stress, or an experienced adventurer who is always looking for a new place to paddle the Humber is worth considering.
Our tour started in King's Mill Park under the Bloor St. Bridge after a short lesson on the basics of kayaking. With about ten people in our group and several more in a second group following us the beginning of the trip was somewhat interesting. With most of the group being new to kayaking there seemed to be a lot of unnecessary zig-zagging, speed changing, and even some paddling backwards while trying to turn around. It didn't take long however for people to figure out their boats. We travelled past the Toronto Humber Yacht Club and a little farther down the river our guide directed us down a small channel towards a pond area that he referred to as Shangri-la. The entrance to Shangri-la was guarded by a very dedicated cormorant sitting on a fence post. No matter how many paddlers floated by him he refused to leave his post.
Once past the guard the guides name for the pond became self-explanatory. A ring of trees blocks out all views of the bustling city and offers plenty of sightings blue and night herons, cranes and abundant wetland life. Floating among the lily pads it's easy to forget that you're in the middle of Canada's biggest city.
Leaving Shangri-la our trip continued down river deeper into the Humber Marshes Park and past several houses along the east shore of the river. Looking up we could see dozens of cormorants and a large stand of trees that were unfortunately showing signs of the cormorant's presence. Arriving at a large shallow pool in the Humber Marshes Park we paused to watch a small deer and let the following group catch up before the return trip.
Although our tour was short, only two hours, kayaking in the heart of a big city and still seeing plenty wildlife is an experience beyond description.