My Canada, 135/150: So near, and yet so far

One small pleasure I was anticipating, when I launched this Canada150 project, was taking our bikes over to the Toronto Islands to get new photos to accompany my tribute to this wonderful, bucolic getaway mere moments from Canada’s largest urban snarl.

But as I write this, in 2017, I cannot visit the Toronto Islands unless I live there or have business visiting people who live on Ward’s and Algonguin Islands; one on-island establishment, the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, is still bringing its members to the club grounds via private shuttle boat but has altered and adapted activities. Heavy spring rains and raising Lake Ontario levels have put what were once pathways and parks and beaches under water. News crews have filmed carp and other fish swimming along what used to be bicycle paths and picnic areas. The best educated guess for when the islands will be safe for visitors again is mid-summer. It’s been a sobering reminder of the fragility of our shorelines, in a time of climate change.

IMG_2515
At the Rectory Café for dinner after a day of cycling and beach-lazing on the Toronto Islands. Photo: Chris Moorehead.

Before 2017, we would take a day trip — or, one memorable time, booked a two-day trip staying overnight with one of the few island homes offering bed-and-breakfast accommodations — by cycling four kilometres to the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal or, if impatient, a bit further to the water taxi stand. There, for $7.71 for the ferry (both ways) or $10 (each way) for the water taxi boat, we’d cross the Toronto harbour, unload our bikes, and enjoy a day of cycling, reading on the beach, and having a meal at one of the island’s two restaurants before heading home.

Toronto’s downtown, from the inside, can feel like row upon row of oppressive concrete and steel, with bad-tempered drivers duelling with transit vehicles, cyclists, and walkers on the street. But Toronto, seen from the water, reveals its signature skyline. As the ferry crosses from downtown to the islands (in normal conditions, at one of three docks on Hanlan, Centre or Ward’s Islands), the urban angst drops away. The islands await.

The islands weren’t always islands. These areas were a series of sandbars originating from the Scarborough Bluffs west of current downtown Toronto that formed a curved peninsula, creating a sheltering cradle for the Toronto Harbour. The city parks department reports that “a number of severe storms and their strong wave action worked to erode the peninsula, requiring frequent repair to small gaps until finally, in 1858, an island was created when a storm completely separated the peninsula from the mainland and the gap was not repaired.”

Kelley Ward Island beach
We’re in Toronto? On the south side of Ward’s Island, away from the city skyline. Photo: Bunny Kitchen

The islands can be insanely busy during summer months when families crowd into the amusement park areas of Centre Island: kvetching about the horrible lineups at the ferry terminal is a unifying complaint among Torontonians, often amplified by journalists who write columns about city life. I’ve also gone to the islands in the fall and in the winter, when only the Ward’s Island ferry runs and the recreational facilities are shut down, to walk or take visitors on the ferry to see the iconic skyline view. On one occasion, I was waiting with a friend visiting from B.C. to cross and I noticed a familiar face in the ferry line-up: Calgary’s mayor Naheed Nenshi was in Toronto to give a lunch speech and was set to appear at an evening event; he, too, was spending this crisp, sunny fall afternoon taking the ferry so he could walk amid brilliant foliage on the islands.

The islands’ history, even before they were islands, is one of constant change and reshaping. At the turn of the 20th century, an amusement park and a baseball stadium for 10,000 spectators were built: the official city history of the islands states that Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run there. An airport developed in 1939 on land augmented by landfill at one end: It still operates as the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, home to Porter Airlines. For the first half of the 20th century, the islands were an in-demand residential area, although the homes were always built on leased land; there were also resort hotels. Many endured earlier eras of high water levels and flood damage.

The islands reshaped again in the 1960s when a newly formed Metropolitan Toronto government decided this land should be converted to park use: The battles by some residents to keep their dwellings (under 300 houses remain to this day, clustered at the east end) went on for years and there are strict rules now about how these homes can be sold and what (if any) improvements can be made to them.

The 2017 shutdown of public traffic to the islands is taking a toll on island businesses catering to visitors. The Rectory Café, only one of two full-service restaurants, has announced it will close in fall 2017. Apparently you can convince the ferry operators to let you cross to Ward’s Island if you have a dinner reservation at the Rectory, which is out of the flooding zone.

Too often, we take for granted those favourite places just moments from our door. As Joni Mitchell once wrote, “Don’t it always seem to go / that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” The islands are not gone, but 2017 has provided a glimpse at a future few of us want to imagine.

Main photo: Kelley Teahen

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