What's Up With the Humber River?

Walk, bike, or boat along the Humber River and the environment might seem natural and thriving. But appearances can be deceiving. Humans have shaped this environment and our impacts have taken their toll on the Lower Humber.

This exhibition explores the history and environmental health of the Lower Humber River. 2019 was the 20th anniversary of the Humber's designation as a Heritage River by the Canadian Heritage Rivers System. Its designation was based on the River's cultural and recreational value, not its ecology. Yet, I believe that how humans have acted on the environment has had a huge impact on the River's cultural and recreational importance.

This exhibition will take you through the impact that thousands of years of human habitation has had on the Humber before focusing on its condition today. It will inform you of the River's ecology, and serve as a call to action to address the issues the Humber currently faces.

Thank you for taking the time to learn about the Humber River and for considering what ways you can make changes to help improve its condition.

This map shows the extent of the Humber River. You can see that the Lower Humber is surrounded by urban Toronto. Courtesy of Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA).


First woolly mammoths and giant beavers, then caribou and bison, lived here more than 10,000 years ago. As the landscape changed humans arrived, and their cultivation of the land beginning 4,000 years ago attracted turkeys, raccoons, and passenger pigeons, among other animals. Over the years Toronto's modern animal populations came, while others, like the passenger pigeon, where hunted to extinction.

“Eastern Grey Squirrel” by Joe deSousa, licensed under CC0 1.0.

The Humber River is a wildlife corridor. Familiar native animals, such as raccoons and eastern grey squirrels, share the area with other wildlife.

Some species that abandoned the area years ago are returning as the habitat regenerates. The ring-necked snake, considered locally extinct several decades ago, was recently found by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) at King's Mill Park.

“Raccoon (procyon lotor)” by Dawn Beattie, licensed under CC BY 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/pics4dawn/10773528176/.

"Brown rat in mid-stream" by Sciadopitys, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/40183553@N02/6144777954/.

Non-native species also live along the Humber River. The Virginia opossum came to Toronto from the United States fairly recently. They have made themselves at home in our ravines, feeding on garbage and almost anything else they can find.

Invasive animal species that plague this area include the brown rat and the house mouse, both introduced by European settlers.

"Virginia opossum" by Greg Schetcher, licensed under CC BY 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/gregthebusker/17319007675/in/photolist-9bU3zM-uyS2wN-soqrAB.


After the last ice age, the first plants to populate this area were those that, like alder and grasses, thrived in sandy, dune-like environments. By 10,000 BCE, spruce trees appeared and not long after pine trees and balsam fir followed. Ash, oak, beech, hemlock, elm, and maple have grown here for 8,000 years. Remnants of black oak savannah still persist from pre-settlement times.

Nearby Lambton Woods and Lambton Park are biodiversity hotspots. Sugar maple, eastern hemlock, and white birch grow on the slopes, giving way to lowland forests of balsam poplar, tamarack, and yellow birch on the floodplain in the southern part of the park. Invasive species like garlic mustard are altering the forest habitat, threatening the biodiversity of this area.

Poor Grade for Forest Cover

Forest cover was rated "poor" by the TRCA in their 2018 Humber River watershed report card. Forest cover cleans our air and water, helps reduce erosion and flooding, helps water soak into the ground, keeps the River cooler, and provides shade and habitat for wildlife. The TRCA calls for an increase in tree populations along the Humber River to support a healthier River.

When the City of Toronto replants trees along the Humber River, they consider species that are tolerant of air pollution, poor soil, and road salt. Among tree species native to the Humber River Valley, there are a few that are tolerant to these pollutants, meaning the area's historic biodiversity is diminished.

Invasive species such as dog strangling vine, garlic mustard, giant hogweed, and Japanese knotweed are threatening this region. Be aware of the species you plant in your yard, as many invasive plants get into the Humber Watershed by being introduced in gardens. Support initiatives to remove invasive species, but be careful! These plants can be dangerous to our skin and can spread even more when not removed properly. Consult the TRCA and local groups to get involved in cleaning up invasive plants.

Aquatic Species

The American Eel (native species), a prized food source, is an endangered species. The population has declined greatly since the 1980's due to over-fishing and in-stream barriers that prevent migration into the waterways where they spend their adult lives.

American eel (Anguilla rostrate) by Clinton & Charles Robertson, licensed under CC BY 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dad_and_clint/4015394951/in/faves-163347192@N02/.

The Atlantic salmon of Lake Ontario (native species) were once the largest freshwater population of this type of fish in the world. A staple in Indigenous peoples' and settlers' diets, their number declined as settlement increased. By the end of the 1800's, their populations was locally extinct due to overfishing and environmental degradation. In 2011 Atlantic Salmon restoration to the Humber began with the stocking of 100,000 fry.

Desperate Leap by Taomeister, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/taomeister/10399781806/in/faves-163347192@N02/.

The Sea Lamprey (invasive species) was first recorded in Lake Ontario in the 1830's. It is a major predator and contributed to the collapse of the Atlantic salmon population. Today the TRCA has cages along the Old Mill dam that trap the Sea Lampreys, allowing population controls to be undertaken.

Sea Lamprey from the Cheboygan River Trap Site by Kate Bartelt, licensed under CC BY 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmidwest/15013963908/in/faves-163347192@N02/.

An interesting note: The TRCA uses Benthic invertebrates (worms, insects, crustaceans, and mollusks) to monitor the heath of the Humber River as these animals are very sensitive to changes in their environment.


Single-use plastic ends up in the Humber. It never biodegrades but breaks down into smaller pieces, called microplastics. The highest concentration of microplastics in the Great Lakes is found in Humber Bay. Benthic invertebrates eat the microplastic, moving it up the food chain. Microplastics leach toxins into the environment and can kill those animals that eat them.

Single-use plastic is plastic that is used only once before it is thrown away or recycled. Plastics break down into microplastics and pollute the Humber River.

Chloride Pollution

High levels of chloride are an increasing problem in the Lower Humber. Almost 50% of samples collected by the TRCA were above the recommended level of less than 120 mg/L. Increased use of road salt is the salinity of water and impacts the growth, reproduction rates, and behaviour of aquatic species.

How do we use the Humber River?

Cycling and walking along the Humber River Trail, 2018.

Automobiles in the Humber River. Photo by John Boyd on July 16, 1927. Courtesy of Archives of Ontario, C 7-2-0-6-9.

Constance Tizzard and friend crossing the Humber River, c. 1916. Courtesy of Montgomery's Inn Archives, Museums and Heritage Services, City of Toronto.

Jogger on the Humber River Trail, 2018.

Victor and Lillian Willoughby in the "Victrilla" on the Humber River, 1915. Courtesy of Montgomery's Inn Archives Museums and Heritage Services, City of Toronto.

Kayaking on the Humber River, 2018.

They are skating on thin ice, literally. Photo by Jeff Goode, 1973. Courtesy of the Toronto Star Photographic Archive.

Swimming, south of Bloor Street, c. 1930's. Courtesy of Montgomery's Inn Archives, Museums and Heritage Services, City of Toronto.

Pauline Johnson poem performed by Cheri Maracle at Walk the 6 West event on the Humber River, August 5, 2017. Courtesy of Jack Gibney.

Heath Alder. 1902. Photo by Geraldine Moodie, professional Canadian photographer. Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

Picnicking on the Humber River near the Old Mill bridge, 2018.

A campfire is their kitchen and this tent is home. The Barry family camped along the Humber River when Ontario Housing Corp. rejected their request for housing in September 1975. They were eventually given temporary accommodation while OHC reviewed their case. Photo by Harold Barkley. Courtesy of the Toronto Star Photographic Archive.

Fishing in the Humber River, c. 1950's. Courtesy of Montgomery's Inn Archives, Museums and Heritage Services, City of Toronto.

Golfing at the Lambton Golf and Country Club on the Humber River, 2018.

How Can We Help the Humber River?

1. Use less salt on sidewalks and driveways and explore green options for dealing with icy conditions.

2. Reduce use of singe-use plastics and make sure to sort and put them in the correct bin.

Use the Blue and Black bins to sort your recycling and garbage when you are on the Humber River Trail and at home.

3. Join the TRCA and other groups for tree plantings or park clean-ups.

4. Read other suggestions in the exhibition brochure and do what you can to help!

Courtesy of Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA).

We are all in this together. The Lower Humber River is completely urban and all of our actions have an impact! How will you help protect this environment?

Exhibition curated by Kate Campbell, Master of Museum Studies and Master of Information Graduate, 2019.

This exhibition was originally created as a temporary physical exhibit shown at Lambton House from January to July 2019.

I would like to thank the following organizations for their assistance related to the content and presentation of this exhibition, including the loan of photos and maps:

• Archives of Ontario

• Baldwin Collection of Canadiana, Toronto Public Library

• City of Toronto Museums and Heritage Services

• City of Toronto Natural Environment and Community Programs

• Don’t Mess With the Don Community Group

• Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Office of the Surveyor General

• Montgomery’s Inn Archives, Museums and Heritage Services, City of Toronto

• Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto Libraries

• Toronto and Region Conservation Authority

• Toronto Star Photograph Archive

Thank you also to the Heritage York Board, including my supervisors for this internship Joy Cohnstaedt and Mireille Macia, for your support and direction with this project, and to Alexandra and Lauren from Montgomery's Inn for all your assistance with photographs.