What it’s like to visit Toronto’s favourite beachside destination once the deep freeze has set in.
Dropped in the middle of the Island on a winter weekday, the intrepid explorer can expect to hear wind. And waves. Occasionally, one of those toy planes chugging to the nearby airport. A dog. Something you’ll persuade yourself is another dog. More wind; more waves.
Last Friday afternoon, an incongruous noise—one belonging to the city, not the Island—broke through. A shabby TTC bus rumbled east from Hanlan’s Point, shuttling grocery-laden residents back to their homes on Ward’s Island. Blame the wind and the waves: During the cold months, ferries service Ward’s only, but the choppy water required a diversion to Hanlan’s less-exposed port. (Early that morning, when a determined ferry driver tried to pull in, the boat slammed into the dock, hard, causing a Plexiglas cabin window to shatter.) Then the bus was gone, swallowed up by the imperfect silence.
Further east, near Algonquin Island, there was another familiar sound: the insistent tap of a hockey stick, then the scratch of blades across ice. Chris Jones and his 13-year-old son, Jackson, circled each other on the lagoon, which had frozen solid the week before. Jackson announced he could spend an entire day out here without getting cold or tired. Jones qualified that: “You do need to bring him food every now and then.” Jackson took back the puck.
He may be making up for lost time—no one can remember more than two days last winter when the ice was thick enough for a skate. “One guy went in the water,” recalled Adam Rotenberg, general manager of the Rectory Café, the only Island restaurant to stay open past autumn. “But that’s nothing new. Someone goes in every year.” The Rectory’s chef had already taken off for the TTC bus, and Rotenberg was packing up; he had expected there’d be few customers in this kind of wind. Although that’s about all he’s learned to expect. “It might be heavy snow, a grey day, a sunny day—it’s blind luck how many people come in the winter.”
On an evening ferry back to the city, two twentysomething tourists watched the skyline through the cameras on their phones. “We came so we could see this at night,” said Jan Sremer, of the Czech Republic, gesturing with his free hand. Still, he and his Bavarian friend, Thomas Lonski, had made the most of their Island day: They walked on the beach, climbed a tree, coaxed some kids out of their hockey sticks, and, sneakered, shuffled around on the ice. “We saw maybe five people there,” Lonski said. Neither of them minded. They liked the quiet, and they confessed that their hockey skills didn’t quite merit a crowd.
2 million: Approximate number of visitors to the Island each year
600: Approximate number of permanent residents
262: Number of residential properties
179: Number of students enrolled in the Island Public/Natural Science School
55: Number of over-night summer camp kids per week
1: Number of restaurants open year round (Rectory Café)