One of the pleasures of living in, or visiting Toronto, a city whose dense waterfront on Lake Ontario sprouts new glass condo towers every month, is visiting the Toronto Islands: Ward’s Island, Centre Island and Hanlan’s Point. The islands, originally a peninsula that split off completely from the city in 1858, were originally surveyed in 1792 and have been welcoming day-trippers for centuries; the three islands combined see 1,225,000 visitors a year. You can rent a bike there or just sleep on the sand and listen to the wind in the trees. Safe, clean, cosy, they’re a cheap and blessed respite for anyone who can’t afford to travel any further on a hot, humid afternoon.
A $6.50 (round-trip fare), 10-minute ferry ride delivers you from the concrete jungle of downtown to the grassy lawns, tall weeping willows, white sandy beaches, yacht clubs and tree-canopied walkways of Ward’s Island, my choice yesterday, even on a gray, windy day. I took photos of the cottages, a crazy riot of color and style, from the quite literally condemned, the plastic-sheeted-window crowd, the house with the paper bag marked “mail” hung on a nail on its front door to the chi-chi olive-painted elegance of the newly-renovated, their glossy ceramic tile kitchens easily visible through the bungalow windows.
Owning a house on the Island has long been an insanely coveted privilege fought for for 30 years with the city’s Parks Department which owns the land. The Purchasers’ List opens again this November with 30 vacancies on it — anyone fortunate enough to win the right to buy a house will pay $45,000 for the lease to the land on Ward’s and an average of $100,000 to $160,000 for a tiny wooden house, many of which are barely 1,000 square feet, with postage-stamp-sized lots. Then you have to commit to living in it full-time, a joy in summer and fall with regular ferry service — and a totally different game in winter when the ferries are slower and fewer and the wind howls off the water. Transporting everything you need from the city means living a less-spontaneous life, albeit one with a spectacular sunset view of the city’s office towers gleaming gold and pink.
Island living, for its many charms, can be a little tough in a emergency, as I discovered many years ago while briefly dating a boy whose father owned a house there. Home for the weekend from college, he woke up at 2:00 a.m. with a nasal hemmorhage; no exaggeration, this was blood enough to fill the plastic bowl I held beneath his nose — a week-old soccer injury had somehow started up again. To reach the nearest hospital meant calling the Harbies — the Harbor Police — who sent out a boat, the equivalent of a marine ambulance. A cop awaited us at the dock, took one look at Peter’s condition, noted my short hair, leather jacket and pissed-off/scared demeanor and asked if I’d done this to him. Um, no.
Yesterday’s visit was a little calmer, just a quick two hours’ wander down the silent, narrow streets, filled only with cats. Two young men walked past me with a rifle (very un-Canadian sight, that, in Toronto anyway) and some empty beer bottles — perhaps heading off for a little plinking. Another young man walked past dragging one of the enormous carts that make life there workable, this one loaded high with driftwood, perhaps for his cottage’s woodstove. I took lots of photos, ate a great hot dog and chatted with a lively 10-year-old named Flynn who let me share his cafe table to get out of the rain.
It was Flynn’as last day there, after a perfect summer in a rented cottage. It’s not every day you find common ground with a 10-year-old boy you’ve just met, but our love for the Islands did it.