IT HASN’T BEEN A GREAT YEAR FOR TRAVELERS. Coronavirus and the lockdowns have been devastating for tourism and the hotel and airline industries will take years to recover. Up here in Canada international and U.S. travel is still restricted, and there are parts of my own country that I can’t visit. Which has made me look at my own hometown, Toronto, for scenery and photo opportunities that I’d normally get on a plane or a train to find.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to the Toronto Islands, out in Lake Ontario within view of the condo and office towers of our downtown, a short ferry ride away from subways and streetcars. A small fleet of antique ferries, one of them over a century old, operate between ferry docks near the foot of Yonge Street and three points on the Islands. Ridership is restricted at the current stage of Covid-19 re-openings, but I had no problem finding a spot on the William Inglis (launched in 1935) to Ward’s Island on a weekday morning.
Ward’s Island is the most easterly of the chain of fifteen islands, all of which began as sandbanks formed by centuries of erosion of the Scarborough Bluffs far to the east. Walk along a short trail from the ferry dock and you’ll reach the edge of the island, a long, disused concrete dock that looks across a shipping channel to the now mostly-moribund Port Lands. The Islands were once attached to the mainland here, a link that was broken by a massive storm in 1858 that also destroyed two of the island hotels.
There have been people living on the islands for as long as you could get here from the mainland. The Anishinaabeg used them as a sort of health spa and sanitorium, and within a few decades of the first British colony being built on the shore across the harbour, the Islands began filling up with tents and shacks, then cottages and big summer homes to take advantage of the lake breezes and enjoy Toronto’s brief but glorious summers.
The island Boardwalk begins on Ward’s Island and runs along the edge of the lake all the way to Gibraltar Point Beach. It was called Lakeshore Avenue when it was the address for a neighbourhood of grand summer homes, which began to be bulldozed in the 1950s, when the City of Toronto decided to evict island residents as part of a grand plan to redevelop the Toronto Islands into parkland, public beaches and an amusement park.
It was the start of a battle between the city and the residents of Ward’s and Algonquin islands, who decided they didn’t want to leave. This went on for decades, and culminated in a series of protests and legal battles that were finally resolved in 1993, when the province stepped in and signed an act that granted island residents 99-year leases on their land.
They remain here to this day, roughly 750 people in 262 homes whose leases can be passed down to family or sold – at a price stunningly low in a city where real estate is famously expensive – to a waiting list limited to 500 people. It’s a tight-knit, more-than-slightly bohemian community who live with scant amenities – a few seasonal cafes and restaurants – and a ban on cars and stores on the island. Their homes range from hippie hovels to handsome cottages, and in exchange for these restrictions they get to enjoy the city’s finest weather in the best possible spot – that is, when the lake doesn’t rise and flood the island. (Sandbags from last year’s floods are still visible all over the shoreline facing the city.)
For the rest of the city, the Islands are a high summer pleasure spot, an only mildly challenging hiking and cycling trail, and a destination for weddings. There are public and private yacht clubs on the inside of the islands facing the city, and houseboats moored along the channels. You can rent kayaks and paddleboards, bikes and quadricycles, or simply take your own bike on the ferry and explore all the way from the homes on Ward’s Island to the “clothing optional” beach at Hanlan’s Point, by the edge of Billy Bishop Airport.
You can do away with a whole day on the island from morning till sunset, even if the Centreville Amusement Park is closed for the season, as it was this year thanks to the coronavirus. Wildlife isn’t as varied or rampant as it is, say, out on the Leslie Street Spit or conservation areas like Rouge Park, but each of the islands, from populous ones like Ward’s and Algonquin to tiny or isolated spots like Snake and Mugg’s Island, have their own character, and each one offers unique views of the lake and the city.
There are remnants of the history of the Islands to be found, like the stone walls and foundations of the long-gone summer mansions by the boardwalk to the ghostly footprints of a demolished street by the sole remaining church, St-Andrew-by-the-Lake. This Anglican church is still open for Sunday services as well as concerts and recitals, and was moved to its current spot on Centre Island from Gibraltar Point in 1959.
The original sandbanks of the Islands have been filled in with dredged sand and landfill since the city began improving its role as both breakwater and destination. Which is why the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, built in 1808, now sits a considerable distance from either shore of the island. Unused since 1958, it is – like any decent old lighthouse – apparently haunted by the ghost of its first keeper, allegedly murdered by soldiers from the local garrison.
For most Torontonians, the Islands are all about its beaches, most of which stretch along the far shore from Centre Island to Hanlan’s Point. Water quality is often much better than at the mainland beaches to the east and west, thanks to the lake currents. Weekends can be crowded, even under lockdown restrictions, but on a late summer weekday it was remarkably empty, though only one beach had a lifeguard on duty.
The saddest thing to see were the idle rides and kiosks of the amusement park – like The Ex, our big summer fair, a casualty of the coronavirus. This sign, from last year, will end up doing duty for nearly two years, a memorial to the losses and sacrifices of this very strange year. But Stage Three of the reopening still meant the usual crowds – masked but still thick – on the Thomas Rennie back to the city.
Photos and story © 2020 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved