Canoeing in and around Toronto
Canoeing in Toronto? Despite what many might think, Toronto is a paddling paradise. Some might say it's an urban canoeists wet dream. In a good day of paddling, the sights you'll likely see over the gunwale of your boat range from gritty urban decay and graffiti murals to hidden beach hideaways and curious wildlife. Toronto has river systems, lakefront beaches, and islands in the stream. Escaping the dull grind of city life is as easy as renting a canoe. Of course, the most frustrating aspect of renting a canoe is getting it from the rental shop to the water.
Still, here are my top six picks of local equipment shops that rent canoes.
Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre
This place might be the most expensive but I guess there's a convenience fee for being able to rent a canoe from somewhere right on the water and just a short paddle from a day of exploring the Toronto Islands. Canoe rentals are $30 by the hour or $60 for the full day. I recommend going with the full day. I would only rent for an hour if my hat blew off on the ferry and I wanted to paddle out and rescue it before it sunk.
Mountain Equipment Co-op
MEC rents general purpose canoes on a price curve dependent on how long you'd like to rent them for. It's $30 for a single day, with each additional day added on at $20 per day, or you can rent for a full week for $140.
Located about a five minute walk from Old Mill station, Toronto Adventures offers rental canoes, and guides tours down the Humber and Rouge River and around Cherry Beach/ Leslie Spit. Canoes are $40 for the first hour, and $25 for each additional hour. Their location makes them a perfect destination for a spontaneous trip down the Humber to the lake. They also deliver boats anywhere in the GTA if you can give them two days notice.
The Complete Paddler
Found near Islington and Evans Avenue at 919 Oxford Street, The Complete Paddler is a highly specialized shop with a full range of water gear. They offer Kevlar Tripping Canoes to rent for $40 per day, or $37.50 per day for multiple days. Like there other two options, canoe rentals from The Complete Paddler include PFDs, paddles, and other safety equipment.
Exclusive Sport Rentals
Currently based in Vaughn, but with plans to expand to Toronto this year, Exclusive is more of a Dial-A-Boat service for Torontonians who want to paddle around their own city (1-855-91-SPORT). With more than 8 canoe models on offer with varying price points and purposes - ABS canoes for white water, or fiberglass canoes for quiet lake paddles - Exclusive delivers rental equipment all over the GTA. Prices vary by boat, so you'll need to know what type of craft you're after, or let them suggest something for the trip you're planning.
On Centre Island, during the summer months, you can rent a canoe from the Boat Rental near the Shrubbery Maze. There is a limited supply, so be sure to get there early.
Now that you have a canoe, where to paddle? Here are my favourite launch options.
The Scarborough Bluffs are one of the most geologically distinct landmarks on the coast of Lake Ontario. The water is often choppy, and the beach here is littered with neatly sanded beach glass. Conditions can get quite rough. Local freshwater surfers come out on windy days to ride the rollers drifting in from open water. Pick a calmer day to paddle out from here.
The Secret Beach runs immediately west of Bluffer's Park. It's called the secret beach colloquially because of the secret entrance through a hole in the fence alongside the R. C. Harris water filtration plant. Secret Beach is a remote series of manmade breakwaters that soften the threat of erosion from oncoming waves. It's a quiet, rarely-trodden, sandy beach where you'll often spy tents set up as temporary homes behind the wild-looking tree line. Old flotsam and jetsam wash up here constantly, and there's a beautiful piece of graffiti worth seeing on an old cement drainage outlet. If you're approaching from the west in the faltering evening light, you'll likely find local kids around a roaring driftwood fire. Join them if you like, but keep an eye out for the bylaw police.
Paddling west from the Secret Beach, the boardwalk picks up and meanders along the sandy coast of Kew Beach. It's potentially the most interesting people watching turf you'll paddle past. Dog walkers roam unleashed; joggers cut through stroller pushing crowds; cyclists and rollerbladers speed along the designated cement pathway. And out on the water your canoe and you will glide past all this action in utter calm with the rippling water lapping lazily at the sides of your boat. In the heat of summer, power boats creep the volleyball courts at Ashbridges Bay, so be sure to keep your eyes open and steer clear of potential run-ins. There's a roped in swimming area closer to the beach. Watch for kids swimming out to tip you.
The Don River
I thought the Don River was a perfect place to put in for a paddle on a sunny day, but it's actually one of the only places I recommend you avoid. Sections of the river are absolutely beautiful, but its southern end is bordered on either side by highways with bridges looming overtop and litter blowing in over the banks and through the effluent pipes. Watch carefully for the dams that cut up the river run. You'll be steering clear of floating brown clumps when your bow will suddenly drop three feet and you'll be getting wet, and not the good kind of wet.
Whether you launch your canoe in the East, or paddle in from the West, all paths converge on Toronto Island. The Islands are carved with little river systems. Birds and turtles and carp nest and spawn on sandy beaches and in warm, shallow pools. There are forgotten city relics to investigate, like the old sand filtration system. There are also beautiful bridges and fountains throughout the main island's waterways. It's a destination for urban paddlers because it feels like you've left the city completely, but without the stress of driving for hours. Approaching from the east takes you past Cherry Beach and around a few beautiful, uninhabited islands. Approaching from the west is a bit more awkward, as you'll navigate the oft populated nudie beach around Hanlan's point with its ubiquitous fleet of high powered boats toting high powered binoculars. You'll also need to carefully avoid the Island Airport. The Toronto Port Authority restricts boat passage through an area called the "exclusion zone," marked out with white "Keep Out" signs. Entering the Exclusion zone is punishable by a $10,000 fine.
Humber River and High Park
If you prefer river paddling to lake paddling, the Humber is a perfect place to put in. There's a slight current to mind, but trust you'll float quite comfortable down to Grenadier Pond past the lush greenery and surprised wildlife. If you launch your boat at Bloor Street and head south down the river, you're instantly on a beautiful river run. The Humber takes you down through parklands, alongside bike trails and the beautiful High Park, and out to Lake Ontario on the west side of the Harbourfront. From here, you're a relatively short paddle on to Toronto Island.
Did I miss any place? Add your recommendations for where to get a canoe or where to paddle in the comment thread below.
Like all activities on open water, canoeing can be dangerous if you're inexperienced or caught off guard. Make sure you wear the appropriate safety gear, like lifejackets, PFDs, or any other equipment recommended by the rental company you choose. Always stick close to shore when out on the lake, and avoid wearing heavy clothes that weigh you down in the water. Keep a safe distance from any water traffic that poses a threat, like motor boats that drag large wakes behind them, or sculling and rowing groups out training on the water. Above all, plan accordingly so that you're not out on the water after the sun sets. Trying to paddle home in the dark is not safe at all.
Writing by Tristan Steiner. Photo by andycamera in the blogTO Flickr pool