Accidental Wilderness: The Leslie Street Spit

There is a hidden natural world in the unlikeliest of places - in the heart of Canada’s largest city.
Available on CBC Gem

Accidental Wilderness: The Leslie Street Spit

Nature of Things

In the middle of Canada’s largest city, a natural wilderness is thriving in the unlikeliest of places.

Accidental Wilderness: The Leslie Street Spit, a documentary from The Nature of Things, tells the surprising story of the Leslie Street Spit — a remarkably rich wilderness located a few short kilometres from the heart of Toronto. Here, the distinction between city and wilderness disappears: a coyote roams freely in a cottonwood forest while in the distance, the CN Tower looms on the cityscape.

“The Spit,” or Tommy Thompson Park as it’s officially called, was initially conceived of as a breakwater to protect Toronto’s bustling shoreline. To build it, construction waste was dumped into Lake Ontario starting in 1959, eventually creating a five-kilometre concrete peninsula. Soon, the heaps of rubble gave way to plants and wild animals proving that, when given the chance, nature can take root anywhere.

The peninsula is home to five distinct ecosystems where a dizzying array of animal life has established itself. Coyotes, cottontails and snakes lurk in the brush while turtles, beavers, mink and muskrat swim in the Spit’s many waterways. The park is also home or a vital stopover for over 320 bird species. Most fascinating is how various species have used the Spit — its rubble of concrete and bricks, beaches shot through with rebar and abandoned ceramic — to their own ends.

The Spit has partly taken shape through the gentle hand of human caretakers. In Accidental Wilderness: The Leslie Street Spit, these devoted individuals guide us through the wild terrain.

Behavioural ecologist Gail Fraser and conservationist Diego Corrales take us into the teeming cormorant colony, while urban wildlife researcher Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux introduces us to the Spit’s resident Blanding’s turtles. Community co-ordinator, Emily Rondel, uncovers coyotes with a group of visitors and school children are introduced to the magic of the Spit for the first time.

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We follow their observations in the park, how they manage animal populations and the land, as well as the important research they carry out to gain more insight into this ‘unnatural natural space.’

All kinds of Torontonians love the Spit and visit year-round. Hobby naturalists, cyclists, university researchers, sailors – even school children on field trips – each bring their own opinions about this special piece of Toronto. However they view the space, the passion of these urbanites highlights the importance of urban wildernesses, now more than ever, as encroachment from city development pushes ‘the wild’ further and further away from the downtown core.

Watch Accidental Wilderness: The Leslie Street Spit on The Nature of Things.