Yesterday evening, not too long before sunset, we left the beach. We balled up our towels, collapsed our fancy beach chairs, took up and shook out the big beach blanket, trudged across the sand, and took the boardwalk to the main road. Once we were off the beach and into the greenery, the air was full of the scent of a humid country summer evening, plus a bit of marijuana smoke from someone nearby. As we walked the road between the trees, we could see to the right a lagoon with a quay and several boats tied up to it; to the left, just on the other side of a tall chain fence, the airport with its turboprop planes; and ahead, above the trees, tall buildings and the CN Tower, just across the harbour. And then we got to the ferry dock and waited.
No other city I’ve ever been to has such a sylvan, bucolic retreat just across water from the heart of town. Toronto Island (and its associated smaller islands) is a gem of parkland, carefree and car-free; within a half hour from downtown, with no driving involved, you can be swimming a great lake in cottage-country surroundings. And what makes it so are the ferries.
Toronto Island is a big bow, about 6 kilometres to walk end to end, and at each end there is a small gap from the mainland: a quarter of a kilometre at the east end, half that much at the west end. A century or so ago, the island was actually a peninsula, a spit of land connected – just barely – to the mainland. Then a big storm came and cut the neck of land in two. And since then, the gaps have been studiously maintained. As has ferry service.
The Toronto ferries are like bits of Disney, but in the real world. Millions of tourists and locals have taken the classic two-deckers with their wooden benches, the William Inglis, Sam McBride, and Thomas Rennie; at peak times in the summer, the century-old sidewheeler Trillium is also in service. As you arrive at – or leave from – the Centre Island ferry docks, it is like some treasure island in the Magic Kingdom. You lean on the wooden railing, look past the iron posts, walk the wooden stairs. Aina and I have taken friends on a ferry trip without even getting off it, just so they can ride the magic boat and see the exquisite view of the skyline.
And then there is the Ongiara.
The Ongiara is the other ferry. The one the locals ride. The one that doesn’t go to the amusement park and picnic shelters on Centre Island. It services Ward’s Island – the east end of Toronto Island, a whole neighbourhood of little homes inhabited by a truly special sort of people (“crustier than a day-old baguette” is a description that may have been used more than once) – and Hanlan’s Point, the west end, with the best beach on the island, a lot of parkland, and not much else. The Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport is there too, but it’s fenced off and has its own extremely short ferry ride (or you can take a tunnel now). Much of the time in the summer the Ongiara does a triangle route: mainland ferry docks to Ward’s Island, then across the harbour like a string on the bow of the island to Hanlan’s Point, and then back to the mainland, 15 minutes for each leg.
The Ongiara has a different kind of magic. It is not Disney-ish. It can carry cars and trucks. Although vehicles are only allowed on the island if they have extremely good reasons to be there, the city does have maintenance vehicles and some of the eating establishments need deliveries too. So the Ongiara has one wide metal deck, with two narrow cabins, one on each side. In the summer, many beach-goers love standing on the deck, seeing the city view and the sky above, getting the occasional splash spray off the bow in their faces. In the winter, everyone is glad there are the cabins, with their long wooden benches and heating.
The Ongiara is no more authentic than the others – in fact, it’s the newest of the bunch, dating to 1964; the Rennie, McBride, and Inglis date to ’51, ’39, and ’35, respectively – but it’s what some people think of as “authentic” because it doesn’t seem like how one would do things for tourists or fiction. The others help you feel that you have passed a dreamy day that wasn’t quite real. The Ongiara helps you feel that you have passed a dreamy day that was more than real. You aren’t on the fantasy island tourist ferry; you’re on the boat back from the edge of the wilderness. You stand on its open metal deck with the towel-draped masses – or sit in its oil-smelling cabins, watching the view through the bus windows, or reading, or noticing the really quite large spider in the corner – and you have been let in on a locals’ secret, like the hole-in-the-wall joint that serves the best rotis in town or the little water’s-edge building with the only gyros you really want to eat. You’re there and it’s not fancy but it’s also not prepackaged and shrink-wrapped. You look up and see not scores of life vests packed into a ceiling but the great azure or ebony firmament. It’s like a music festival in a field instead of a concert in a pretty old concert hall.
Even the name is different. The oldest ferry is named after the provincial flower, the trillium (a Latin-derived name), and the other three fancy boats are named after men of European descent, but this boat has a Mohawk name – or anyway a white rendition of a Mohawk name. The original is Onguiaahra, which means ‘neck of land cut in two’; it referred to the Niagara Peninsula, and is the source of the word Niagara. So it’s just that much more local – aside from not being in the Niagara region. There is, after all, a neck of land that was cut in two much closer by.
Ongiara is also the name of an album by a band called the Great Lake Swimmers. Which, given that it gets us to and from the beach where we swim in a Great Lake, seems perfectly appropriate.