‘Do you go in that, or is it just art?’: How a kayak makes Lake Ontario a bigger part of Toronto city life

Noble Horvath

“Hey man, what’s that?” shouted a guy standing on the shore by the mouth of the Humber River as I paddled by. I said the swimming animal he was pointing at looked like an alligator, but seconds later the loud crack that sounded as this improbable gator slapped its tail […]

“Hey man, what’s that?” shouted a guy standing on the shore by the mouth of the Humber River as I paddled by. I said the swimming animal he was pointing at looked like an alligator, but seconds later the loud crack that sounded as this improbable gator slapped its tail on the water and dove underneath revealed it was a beaver.

A resident beaver, that is, as I’ve discovered it is often seen here, living out a Canadian cliché dream in view of the CN Tower and in the shadow of the Mimico highrises. The beaver is just one observation I’ve made this past summer while paddling in my kayak. While I’ve rented one a few times over the years, I’ve always wanted my own.

The lake and waterways define Toronto but opportunities to experience the water itself, beyond swimming and ferry rides to the island, are limited. A boat of my own would make the lake more a part of city life, I thought.

The shoreline is really the start of a vast wilderness and the lake has a will of its own. The wild beaver aside, the mouth of the Humber by the arch bridge can be fierce, as I found out last weekend when the waves made it seem like my boat was on a roller coaster until I got upstream into calmer river waters.

In the Humber Marshes, passages through reeds lead to lily pad ponds, mostly silent but for distant city sounds drifting in.

A kayak, or canoe, allows access to places difficult or impossible to get to otherwise. In the Humber Marshes, passages through reeds lead to lily pad ponds, mostly silent but for distant city sounds drifting in. A long-legged egret gingerly walked from pad to pad while other birds watched, a sublime sight just a few hundred metres from a subway station.

The Toronto Islands has a maze of passages to paddle as well, and entire islands and secret lagoons are accessible only by the tiniest of watercraft. Perhaps the greatest “reveal” of the city skyline is when emerging from what seems like a wilderness to the view across the harbour of a sparkling city. The Leslie Street Spit’s human-made coves can also be explored this way, and I’ve seen mink and possums darting in and out of the water there.

Floating under the pods at Ontario Place is absolutely unique and up close I really appreciated the size of the three old lake freighters that were sunk to form the site’s outer break wall. Paddling along the city edge is like seeing an inverse version of it, looking in rather than out.

New kayaks, good ones at least, aren’t cheap but I was able to get a used one from a friend. Around 25 years old, it still floats, though at times it likes to go in a different direction than the one I want. Boats also have wills of their own, but we are patient with each other.

Acquiring the kayak was the first part of making the lake more a part of city life. The other challenge was where to keep it. Though there are a few rental storage locations in Toronto, I’m lucky to have space at home so I bought a kayak bicycle trailer.

The Toronto shoreline is really the start of a vast wilderness, such as the one surrounding the mouth of the Humber River.

If you want to talk to strangers in Toronto, try towing a big yellow kayak behind your bike. Most people are curious about the trailer or wonder if what they’re seeing is real. One fellow even poked fun at my “big banana” as I towed it down Lake Shore Boulevard during the ActiveTO weekend closure. This conviviality has been an unexpected and pleasant part of being an urban paddler. One colleague, who also pedals his kayak to the water, said he was once asked, “do you go in that, or is it just art?”

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Despite so much shoreline, public spots to launch are actually hard to find, especially in the central city. Between Harbourfront and the Humber there are just a few locations at Ontario Place and then the sandy beaches before and after Sunnyside. Head east, and there’s not much opportunity until Cherry Beach.

Though perhaps a niche concern for a few people like me right now, making it easy for more people to get a small boat into the water all along the waterfront could open up the lake to more people. We have a wildly successful Bike Share program, so why not boat share too? Toronto could really embrace its location on a Great Lake.

Last weekend, when I paddled up the Humber, dozens of people and families were out on the water. They seemed, at least in my view, to reflect the multicultural nature of Toronto.

This may seem a trite observation, but outdoor-focussed groups and institutions, like Parks Canada, have been working to attract a more diverse population of visitors and here, on Toronto’s waters, it’s already happening and I look forward to an increase in this kind of marine traffic in the years to come.

Shawn Micallef

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