I prepped for this nautical romp like I was readying for a far-flung outdoor adventure: sunscreen, wide-brimmed hat, shades, a water bottle. But I nixed the idea of a long-haul drive from downtown Toronto to some remote northern waterway. Instead, I boarded a canoe just a couple of blocks away from the city’s Union Station.
A local outfitting company called the Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre set me up. Established in 1980 as a kids camp, Harbourfront seemed a safe bet for an urban paddling newbie. The goal for this excursion: the Toronto Islands, about a 1.2-mile stretch (and a half-day adventure) across the harbor.
Now here I am, bobbing inside a giant canoe styled after Canada’s early Voyageurs vessels, which can easily accommodate 15 paddlers. Off we go, quickly leaving behind the congestion and din of the big city.
Out on the water, it feels like I can touch the soaring planes taking off from the busy Billy Bishop island airport. We’re close enough to see these massive machines as never seen before, even close enough to make eye contact with airplane passengers craning to see out of their windows.
“The minute we get halfway I want you all to look back and see what you’ve left behind and tell me if you feel anything,” head oarsman Jamie Kowalewski instructs us.
It’s the money shot: Toronto’s skyline in its full, jaw-dropping, beautiful glory. But it’s what lies ahead that will really take the cake.
Glorious calm takes over as we leave the stresses of the city behind and draw closer to the Toronto Islands with each stroke.
We reach Centre Island in about an hour. There, we paddle under a lush green canopy of willows bordered by tall reeds that hug the shoreline, canoe past some of the smaller inlets and enter a tiny lagoon. Though these small islands teem with wildlife such as blue herons and beavers, we find a golden silence interrupted only by our paddles plunking into Lake Ontario. It’s nirvana for any nature lover in Toronto.
Photo Courtesy of Ilona Kauremszky