Life Travel


Into the wild of the Toronto Islands


Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre instructor Sean Magee, left, and Adam Newton of London paddle through a channel in the Toronto Islands with the skyline of Canada’s largest city ahead. (WAYNE NEWTON/QMI Agency)

Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre instructor Sean Magee, left, and Adam Newton of London paddle through a channel in the Toronto Islands with the skyline of Canada’s largest city ahead. (WAYNE NEWTON/QMI Agency)


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Going wild in Toronto sometimes means picking up a paddle.

Just ask Sean Magee.

Magee's parents opened the Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre, now owned by paddling enthusiast Dave Corrigan, decades ago when the shoreline was more dirt and mud than the neat concrete quays of today.

With Magee as our coach and guide, our goal, even for a neophyte kayaker like me, is to cross the busy Toronto harbour to a channel near Hanlan's Point - a distance of about two kilometres.

The rewards of paddling to the Toronto Islands are immediate and satisfying. Along with the fun and feeling of accomplishment comes vistas of Canada's largest city that would be unimagined by many visitors and sights one might not imagine in Canada's largest city.

The clothing-optional nude beach of Hanlan's Point aside, a glance to the rear reveals a skyline dominated by the 553-metre tall CN Tower. Only the view from the islands gives a true sense of the size of the CN Tower compared with other downtown skyscrapers.

Look ahead and we see the site of the minor pro ballpark where a 19-year-old Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run - the ball popped into Lake Ontario and remains a sunken treasure.

Paddle further and we're upon the oldest landmark in Toronto, a lighthouse built in the early 1800s. It's a stone structure said to be haunted by one of its former keepers.

Spotting unusual birds close up is common when you are gliding in a kayak. After being greeted by a pair of white swans - which some say are becoming too numerous on the islands - we soon spot a variety of other, birds including the impressive blue heron.

In fall, the Toronto Islands become thick with migrating blue jays, monarch butterflies and green darner dragonflies, according to one brochure I read.

As Sean leads us through more channels, we feel like we're in the quiet wilderness, spotting turtles sunning on logs and trying not to get paddles weighed down with lillypads.

Turning another corner and we're upon Centre Island, teeming with family activities, ranging from summer Sunday picnics along the water's edge to the hubbub of the Centreville Zoo and its miniature train rolling past boaters.

Our kayaks are dwarfed by the impressive yachts docked at the exclusive Royal Canadian Yacht Club marina.

We pass little Snake Island, where campers can book sites.

With wind conditions changing the paddle back to shore took slightly more time, especially when we stopped to watch the turboprops of Porter Air fly low overhead as they landed at Billy Bishop Airport.

A kayaking experience might be the most adventuresome way to experience the changing Toronto waterfront, but it's far from the only one.

On land a day earlier and taking part in a three-hour bicycle tour led by Terrence Eta of Toronto Bicycle Tours, we see first-hand the ongoing transformation from gritty industrialized area.

Standouts are an naturalized area where a parking lot once stood, the Music Garden donated by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the remnants of the headquarters of the Norwegian air force during the Second World War, and urban beaches including the aptly named Sugar Beach opposite one of the last remaining industrial users of the waterfront, Redpath Sugar.

No trip to the waterfront in August would be complete without a stop at the grand lady of the lake, the Canadian National Exhibition.

Now in its 136th year, the Ex may not pack the same attendance punch it did in its heyday, but it's still Canada's largest annual fair and its centrepiece attractions - the massive midway and famous Food Building - satisfy appetites for thrills and new culinary experiences.

I took a pass on a Krispy Kreme doughnut cheeseburger that had my teen son drooling and tweeting to his friends.

This choice despite the fact I had introduced him to oysters and trout on Adelaide Street at Starfish Oyster Bed and Grill the night before.

To his credit, he passed by the chocolate eclair hotdogs, deep-fried butter and deep-fried Mars bars, the latter a treat he's previously devoured.

The midway lacks the Flyer roller-coaster I remember from when I was my son's age, but makes up for it with rides such as Crazy Mouse - a homage to the old Wild Mouse which was once my favourite - and the Fire Ball, a circular, upside-down fright sight that dominates the skyline of this year's midway.

The Ex is open until Labour Day.


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