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Unless you have taken a ferry to the Toronto Islands in southern Ontario or happen to be wealthy enough to own a yacht, chances are slim that you have seen the city from the other side. While tourists flock to the waterfront to take in the scenery in the summer months, very few Torontonians ever seem to enjoy this aspect of their own city, myself included. I decided to change that.
Having a couple Yamaha Waverunners at my disposal to explore the old steamship routes in the area known as Explorer’s Edge in Muskoka, I then decided to do some research on where and how I could go about getting them into the water closer to home rather than leaving them on the trailer to collect dust until their return. I decided to reach out to friends with boats to gain insight from their experience. It turns out my hockey buddy Adam and his wife frequently enjoy the Toronto Harbour in their 20-foot cuddy cabin and he was more than eager to show me the ropes.
Agreeing to meet at Humber Bay Park West, I discovered a part of the city I never even knew existed. Frequenting the running and cycling paths both east and west of it, I had crisscrossed the opening of the park dozens of times, blissfully unaware that there are multiple boat launches that are not only open to the public, but also completely free.
Not even having to wait in line, Adam unhooked the straps and guided me as I slowly backed my truck towards the water until the machines started to float. Strapping on our vests, we thumbed the starters and were on our way out into Lake Ontario in the summer sunshine while most of our friends were still sitting under fluorescent lights at their office desks.
Once past the mouth of the safe harbor, we were exposed to roughly two-foot waves which we dealt with by pinning the throttle to skim across the tops. Briskly cruising toward the west side of the islands, planes soared slowly over our heads as they approached the Billy Bishop Airport, tipsy revelers aboard party cruises waved and yelled while friendly people aboard anchored sailboats enjoyed cocktails and BBQ. Not only offering a side of the city most people don’t experience, there is a whole other world to be experienced out here!
Shutting down the power and beaching the WaveRunners in order to shoot some pictures and take in the scenery, we definitely got more than we bargained for. Apparently unknown to most Torontonians, we evidently have our very own nude beach on Hanlan’s Point. Recognized as a ‘clothing optional’ beach in 2002 according to the rarely updated Friends of the Islands website, there is nothing forcing you to be naked, but it is one of the few public places in Canada where it isn’t prohibited. Adults of all ages, shapes and sizes embrace the open air in all their glory. It may sound sexy at first, but consider that these people showing off their birthday suits aren’t models. You’ve been warned.
Immediately stashing my camera inside the watertight onboard compartment as to not appear to be a total pervert, we moved to a less crowded area to talk shop. Enjoying the afternoon sunshine as the waves gently lapped against the sandy shore, the city seemed worlds away. As the sun sank deeper into the summer sky, we hopped back on the machines and continued a speedy exploration of the south end of the islands before heading back to the safety of the bay before dark. Relaxed but rejuvenated after a spirited return, our weeknight evening felt like a vacation without ever leaving the city limits.
A lifelong friend just happened to get into town from BC the next day and as luck would have it Jon had a boater’s permit from when he used to ride PWC up at his late uncle’s cottage on Lake Muskoka. Suggesting we meet up to grab lunch, I floated the idea by him that we spend the day out on the water instead. He didn’t need much convincing.
Toronto sits on the shores of one of the world’s largest lakes. A PWC is a great way to experience this part of the city.
Heading back to Humber Bay Park West after the morning rush hour, we quickly slipped the machines into the water and were on our way while our less fortunate friends were sipping their morning coffee in front of their flickering computer monitors.
Conditions were different that the previous day so we had to adjust our riding position and style according to the higher, choppier waves. Thankfully we’d both opted to wear board shorts and stashed our wallets and phones in the glove boxes because we were soaked to the bone by the time we rounded Gibraltar Point into the more protected main channel. Huffing and puffing from the effort required to traverse and absorb the impact of the large swells, we were also both smiling from ear to ear.
Passing by the woodlands of the Wildlife and Island Bird Sanctuary, a variety of species can be spotted – making it a haven for bird watchers if you’re into that sort of thing. Passing through the large white buoys into the inner harbor requires a permit which can be purchased online. Failing to have both a Powered Vessel Operator’s permit and a Pleasure Craft Operator Card can result in a hefty batch of fines. So too can exceeding the 10km/h speed limit within the confides of the inner harbor or anywhere that is within 150 meters of shoreline or breakwater. The inner waterways all feature ‘No Wake Zones’ for obvious reasons. The models we were piloting just happened to feature a ‘No Wake’ mode which takes the guess work out of how fast you’re going. Navigating the harbor requires a great deal of attention and courtesy. Numerous buoys of varying description must be adhered to, ferries and sailboats must be given the right of way and inadvertently entering the off-limits areas surrounding Billy Bishop Airport will land you in all kinds of hot water. Thankfully our pleasure craft training and a little bit of common sense paid off, allowing us to avoid injury or incarceration.
Long time residents of ‘The Big Smoke’ may know about Centreville or the various yacht clubs on the island, but few people I recounted my experience to knew anything about St. Andrew-by-the-Lake Anglican Church, Toronto Island Public/Natural Science School, the Rectory Caf?or the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, which many believe is haunted by the ghost of a former keeper who was murdered and buried on the island. There is also a year-round colony of cottages on Algonquin and Ward’s Islands, covering 33 of the islands’ total 825 acres. Residents purchase the building structures but lease the land from the Toronto Islands Land Trust. Owners must occupy their home for at least 220 days of the year and have it listed as a primary residence. Transferring ownership is complicated and challenging so most are handed down from generation to generation.
Adjacent to the Ferry Docks, located where the old Shopsy’s used to reside, Toronto Islands BBQ & Beer Co. features a large outdoor patio complimented by a clear view of the city skyline. Since we were riding (rental units, no less) we abstained, but a couple cold ones on a sunny summer afternoon would have been mighty tasty. Keeping an eye on the time since I had a client conference call to jump on, we found a quiet spot to beach the WaveRunners beside the Long Pond grandstands, where various regattas occur throughout the year. The intercostal waterways are quiet and may feel remote, but having a strong cell signal meant that I could enjoy a day out on the water with an old buddy but still take care of business.
Sightseers are free to explore the Islands by foot, or rent a bicycle and experience them on two wheels. Visitors often travel to the Islands for a day when they have small kids to enjoy Centreville but there are plenty of other reasons to visit, made even more entertaining by watercraft. While the Royal Canadian and Island Yacht clubs are wildly expensive and consequently pretentious, the Toronto Island Marina and Yacht Club features fuel docks and visitor slips that allow use of the Upper Deck Restaurant and experience various evening entertainment that transpires over the summer season.
Located in close proximity to Toronto’s rapidly improving waterfront, exploring the unique characteristics and culture of the Toronto Islands by water had me feeling like a tourist in my own city. Rather than living for the long weekends where you end up spending more time on the road than you do at the cottage, why not start by exploring your own backyard?
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