Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — I must admit meeting Lisa Gervais had me feeling slightly uneasy. Sporting somewhat of a Lara Croft adventurous vibe, the passionate founder of the award-winning walking tour company Redwing Institute looked equipped for some serious trekking. Hopefully, I would be able to keep up.
Our Culture & Nature Discovery Walk began at Old Mill Subway Station in Toronto. Within minutes we were heading down a flight of stairs near the station to King’s Mill Park Trail on the Humber River. Immediately Gervais began serving up captivating stories, one after the other. She spoke in detail about the historic Humber River, a waterway that served as one of the most important highways in the region at a time when people used canoes to get around.
Redwing Institute offers discovery walks that provide urban experiences in positive teachings of Aboriginal culture, and it does this with a strong dose of nature. Gervais has brilliantly blended her experience developing creative online engagement with her passion for positive human development, history and the outdoors.
Her efforts have paid off. Redwing Institute, which celebrated its second anniversary in business two days ago, was awarded the 2016 Unique Experience of the Year for Toronto, Ontario from the Luxury Travel Guide. Gervais followed that accomplishment up this year by winning the Bespoke Tour Operator award.
One thing I looked forward to was the opportunity to learn about Indigenous culture. A highlight of our time was when Gervais – who is of Métis heritage – served our group a delightfully refreshing cup of cedar tea and invited us to participate in a smudge purification ceremony (performed to remove negative energy,as well as for centering and healing purposes). Gervais was even kind enough to smudge my iPhone, explaining objects made by humans tend to hold negative energy.
A classroom of stories, lost rivers and culture
Gervais says her goal is for Redwing Institute to be a nature-based source of educational programming that builds character strengths, self-confidence and creativity. One way she does this is by sharing stories about the city and the people who once called it home.
“Stories are a way that we connect as humans, it’s something that we can appreciate from a cross-cultural standpoint,” says Gervais. “Human beings remember stories. We love sharing stories because it’s a way of sharing knowledge and information. One way that we gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of other cultures is through their stories.”
Wise words because her stories are terrific, one of the best things about our discovery walk. Two of my favourite stories came when we arrived outside the Toronto Humber Yacht Club near a large manicured park. We discovered the area had once been the location of a First Nations village. As we crossed the green space and moved along the tour Gervais pointed out several ‘lost rivers’, dry land where water once flowed before the growth of the city altered the natural environment.
Living in the craziness of Toronto it’s easy to forget the impact we have made, that there were civilizations here with their own way of life living along long lost rivers before the modern world arrived with condos and cars.
During our walk we visited a memorial to the victims of Hurricane Hazel, a tragic event which destroyed 60 homes and cost dozens of lives in 1954. Gervais explained the history and purpose of Indigenous Medicine Wheels and discussed several natural healing principles during one of many stops. We also saw the Oculus, a strange, modernist structure located in South Humber Park. I have to also say it was interesting, as we neared the end of our journey, to walk under the Gardiner Expressway (a major highway leading into Toronto) at South Humber Park and see things I don’t usually see when I drive – marshes, wildlife and bike paths. Our tour ended at the Humber Bay Arch Bridge.
Gervais says people are often surprised by Toronto’s hidden pockets of nature and history.
“There is over 12,000 years of history there,” says Gervais, who says she was inspired to create Redwing after a life-changing trip to Mount Kilimanjaro in 2012. “You’re standing or walking in the footsteps of people who have been through that valley for thousands of years. I think there’s a sense of awe and wonder, a connection with past generations.”
The Redwing Institute walk was invigorating, educational and entertaining. It also goes without saying you will burn a few calories along the way, never a bad thing. People who sign up for a Redwing walk will love the experience of hiking in the city with new friends while learning new things. No need to worry – Gervais is an excellent hostess and you will have no problems keeping up with her, Lara Croft adventurous vibe and all.
MORE ABOUT REDWING INSTITUTE
Text or Phone: 416-894-9622
Pricing: Four Member Family Pack (Two Adults/Seniors & Two Students/Youth) – $195
Adults – $95
Seniors (65+ years) – $85
Students (16 – 21 years) – $75
Youth* (6 – 15 years ) – $45
Children* (5 years and under) – FREE
Groups – Group rates available upon request