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How does that old adage go? Ontario is flat- as flat at can be. 

For those who have explored the province, however, you know this is simply not true.

Look at Toronto on a map and all you see is a seemingly limitless grid of streets, extending indefinitely for kilometres in every direction (except to the south – the sea’s there!). But explore a little, and you’ll soon find steep ravines and the dramatic topography of river valleys spread all throughout the city, hidden beneath the grid.

A Harbourfront photography exhibit debunked the concept of a featureless Toronto topography last summer with No Flat City – a series of photos that explored Toronto’s more steep side.

But even for those in the know, that old notion that Ontario is flat is hard to shake.

Visiting Guelph in the past, the city seemed like another instance of even-grounded Ontario – but for a few rolling hills it felt like a limitless plane on which agricultural, suburban and urban development could be built indefinitely.

But as I get to know Guelph – drive down its streets, bike up its hills and walk along its rivers and alleys – I am learning the subtle topography of this place. As I push into Guelph’s topography, those subtle inclines become more dramatic – I understand where the highest bluffs and lowest river valleys are – I know where to go for the best views. (So far, that’s on College street just west of the University of Guelph, where the city looks like it’s emerging from an lush forest).

Whenever I look at a physical topographical map, I’m always surprised to see how unvaried the landscape seems from a large scale. I run my hands across the raised surfaces — even mountains appear like small bumps rising only slightly from the landscape.

There’s a subjective experience of topography that makes the hills appear beneath your fingers. Every huff of breath, every extra push in the pedal, every time your ears pop in the car, you are pushing into topography and making the ups and downs of landscape real and legible.

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