On the coldest winter mornings, when the first ferry bound for the Toronto Islands chugs through the frozen harbour, it does so thanks to the William Lyon Mackenzie. Hours earlier, at 5 a.m., the fireboat begins its day by punching its thick steel shell through the ice of the bay, cleaving a 20-foot-wide path to Ward’s Island. The Ongiara—the only city ferry usually carrying passengers and cars to and from the islands this time of year—will spend the day retracing the route.
That’s on a normal day, though. “Today, it’s gonna be rough,” says David Cranswick, standing on the icebreaker’s deck as it whirrs to life in its berth near Queens Quay and Spadina. This mid-December morning, the temperature is just below freezing, but the ferry isn’t running at all: The Ongiara is being repaired, and its replacement, the William Inglis, has started leaking, which means the William Lyon Mackenzie has had no help preventing the route it opened hours ago from refreezing. It’s only 9 a.m., but Cranswick and the crew are already going out for the third time: An 83-year-old man who lives on Algonquin Island is feeling dizzy and has to go to a hospital, which means they need to get him.
As the boat glides into the harbour, chunks of ice thump against it. “This isn’t really breaking ice,” says Cranswick. “This is just travelling through ice cubes.” In the bridge, marine captain Brad Puckering* keeps his eyes on a digital map that shows, in overlapping skinny red lines, all the other trips along the same few courses the boat has taken through the ice so far this winter, and the one it’s taking now. These paths are called fire access routes, and in winter, the boats make them to and from Hanlan’s Point, the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, and Ward’s Island. If they didn’t? “Depending on the thickness of the ice,” explains Cranswick, “this trip that we’re doing right now could take two hours if there was, say, six inches of ice.” When the ice is two feet thick, the 200-tonne boat will stop breaking through and get lodged on top of it instead. (“That’s bad,” quips Cranswick.)
So, though the ice is now five inches at its thickest, it takes all of 15 minutes to get to the Ward’s Island dock, where the ailing man and his wife are waiting. The firefighters grab pike poles—usually used for pulling down walls—and push blocks of ice out of the way, then slowly help the pair onboard and into the boat’s cabin. Then it’s back the way they came. On the return trip, Puckering makes a quick turn off the path and into the solid ice of the harbour. The William Lyon Mackenzie lurches and shakes, like an airplane in turbulence, as thunderous scrapes—dozens every second—drown out nearly everything else. “This is like nothing, really,” shouts Cranswick, before the boat returns to the path and waves filled with slabs of newly split ice chase after it. There’s a long, cold winter ahead.
CORRECTION, FEB. 13, 2014: Because of a transcription error, this article originally misspelled marine captain Brad Puckering’s name as Puckpring and misidentified him as the fireboat’s engineer.