One Book: Hanlan’s Point

A man is standing by the lakeshore at Hanlan’s Point ferry dock. Cicadas in the grass near the roadway, cars passing behind the hotel. The ferry rush hour is over already at 8:15, and the Hanlan’s Point ferry is the least frequent of them all, as it takes passengers to a buggy, unkempt part of the Toronto Islands. But it is the most peaceful ride, ending close to wilderness.

Consolation, page 1

The Hanlan’s Point ferry is the best ferry. It isn’t romantic and “olden-times” looking like the Centre and Wards Island boats — it’s made of big pieces of industrial steel and designed to support trucks and cars and dates back to the late Diefenbaker days, but doesn’t have any of the sharp and suave leopard-skin pillbox hat style usually associated with that era. There is little embellishment or extraneous comforts on The Oneida, and the ambulatory and two-wheeled passengers often have to find space to stand in between the big truck tires and trailers that haul canoes and food or even roadies and gear for Virgin Fest.

It’s a privileged view of the working underbelly of what makes the Toronto Islands tick, akin to taking a walk down the service road behind Disney World. There is certainly some satisfaction in walking past the huge crowds with their kids, coolers and strollers waiting to head to Centre Island on summer days, it a land of manicured lawns and Trudeaumania era planters and fountains. The Hanlan’s waiting area is never as crowded, and there is shade and even benches, and you get to enjoy that mildly-smug feeling of knowing the better way to the island. Once on the ferry, you get the most magnificent Toronto skyline pass-by this side of a late night drive along the Gardiner Expressway. You can stand still on the ferry deck and watch the buildings of various distance shift between each other as you move west. In the superhotsun and dizzy smog you might almost think it’s some kind of Proustian Remembrance of Things Past episode, where you can see all the Toronto skylines at once. Other times it’s just Toronto and it looks good.

As Redhill says, the ferry arrives at the buggy, unkempt part of the island. This being in Toronto, all is relative and unkempt is still fairly well kempt and the bugs somewhat reasonable unless it is dusk or the few weeks in the summer when the flies decide to bite and take chunks of your naked flesh with them. The cut grass here is not as golf-course perfect as it is on Centre Island, where (late parks commissioner) Tommy Thompson’s famous “Please Walk On The Grass” signs are located. Island guests are greeted by the massive statue of old ripped-ab Ned Hanlan, champion rower of the 1880s, clad (as the precise prose of Wikipedia currently states) “only in surprisingly revealing trunks.” Nearby is one of the Massey Medal -winning polygonic pavilions that dot the western half of the island, its concession stand open in the summer and staffed by an often lonely but relaxed looking attendant.

Once on the island it’s worth the diversion to take a quick right and walk up to the airport fence. Nearby is the plaque that talks about Babe Ruth’s historic home run, slugged when the baseball stadium was here. Here too was the Hanlan’s Point amusement park. What’s terribly disappointing is there is not a ruin to be found, not even a hump in the landscape that might let your imagination think this was where the pitcher’s mound was, or the grandstand or whatever Edwardian amusement required a formidable cement foundation that airport construction might not have completely destroyed. Still, there is the chain link gate that lets you get as close to the runway as you can without a security clearance, and you can listen to big Porter Airline propellers fan the hot tarmac, indifferent to their controversial reputation in the city beyond.

A few years ago in deepest February, on an evening as cold as today, we took the airport ferry (the only one running) over from the foot of Bathurst and waited for the old city bus (a GM Fishbowl, for the bus-fan readers, complete with home-made island advertisements inside) that crosses the island in winter to pick us up. We rode it to an evening art opening at the Rectory Cafe, located near the Algonquin Island bridge. We crossed what seemed like frozen Saskatchewan wilderness except for an unreal Toronto skyline lit up in the background. We drank the herbal tea favoured by the crazy eccentric year-round island residents and sipped some stronger stuff from our flasks then walked outside onto the frozen canals, eventually catching the last bus back to the airport ferry, lest we be stranded so-far-but-so-close from civilization. Only the bus can cross the runway to get the ferry, and even it has to wait for special clearance.

In the summer, days on the island and beach are long and time stretches and bends in a great childlike way. Friends who insist on heading back early are quickly dismissed and forgotten so their abrupt departure doesn’t remind us too much of the real world that always waits. Walking or riding the 5 or 14 minute trip back (respectively) to the ferry is always slightly anxious, like walking to the streetcar stop hoping you don’t see it pull away. The walk is straight towards the CN Tower — it sticks out from the trees like those ultra-modern utopian cities the crew on Star Trek seemed to always visit. Like on the mainland, the waiting area is relaxed. Everyone will get on (except maybe once or twice on peak summer weekends) and we’ll pass by the skyline again, looking completely different in twilight than it did that afternoon. Even a bike ride back up hard and formal Bay Street will seem a little more bucholic after time spent on the near-wilderness of Hanlan’s Point.

Photo, buggy and unkempt, from Thanksgiving day 2007

3 comments

  1. Great post. Now I really can’t wait to get to the islands this summer. The huge quantity of snow outside kind of adds to that craving, too.

  2. I moved to Toronto in the summer of 2004. I didn’t have a job yet and was blissfully free of responsibility for a couple of months. So I spent my days wandering and exploring my new city. Then I discovered Hanlan’s Point. I spent many happy afternoons just lying on its beaches until that dreaded job offer came and I was forced to once again join the ranks of the gainfully employed.

    I still look back fondly on that first Toronto summer. What a great introduction to the city I have come to love. I doubt I’ll have another one like it anytime soon.

  3. I think it would be nice to have a community ballpark back at Hanlan’s Point – I daresay it might be something of a tourist attraction?

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