toronto islands winter

More people are visiting the Toronto Islands this winter than ever before

Head to Toronto's Jack Layton Ferry Terminal and you'll find it surprisingly busy these days. 

February ferries across Lake Ontario, once reserved only for island residents and the bravest of cold weather excursionists, are carrying more visitors across the water than winters past.

"People are cooped up, there are less things to do in the city," says Julian Ganton, longtime island resident and owner of Toronto Island SUP

"There really haven't been that many people visiting in the winter simply because it's not seen as a winter destination." 

Ganton, who grew up on Ward's Island and has been running his stand-up paddleboarding business since 2014, says that lockdown has encouraged more people to get outside, making for one of the busiest winter seasons so far.

During summertime, the crowds are a no-brainer: the islands are some of Toronto's most attractive recreational destinations in hot weather with its beaches, bike rentals, and parks. 

But winter in lockdown has shown a new appreciation for the scenic snowscapes that the Toronto Islands provide.

Bright red dogwoods, white birch trees against pristine snow, and the surreal ice formations of Lake Ontario are just a few of the natural wonders available to city-dwellers, says Daniel Rotsztain, who works out of a studio at Artscape Gibraltar Point.

"Usually only a few brave souls make the trek, and it's often only people who are friends of the Island community, since there are so few services [or] places to warm up in the winter," says Rotsztain.

There are also more people hitting the lagoons for skating. While a great past-time for skaters with experience navigating wild ice, Ganton warns of the extreme dangers that come with a treacherous frozen lake. 

He and a group of Toronto Islanders check ice conditions daily. When out on the ice—including their epic ice sailing excursions—they always make sure to pack emergency equipment like ice picks, ice, claws, and rope. 

"It's such a thin line between fun and putting yourself in danger," he says. "A lot of people don't have the fear or the sense to know what's safe and unsafe when it comes to ice because a lot of people didn't grow up with it." 

A wintertime visit to the Islands requires preparation.

Ward's Island ferries are only running every hour these days, and due to COVID-19, they're operating at half capacity. Expect longer wait times and prolonged time spent out in the cold.

There are also limited amenities: washrooms are open, but eateries on the islands are closed, meaning there's nowhere to grab hot drinks or snacks. 

The City of Toronto has a Toronto Island Park Master Plan in the works, which could see things like warming huts and additional washrooms in the future, but more services are needed to encourage people out over the Lake. 

"The services should come first, inviting people to enjoy the Island all year long," says Rotsztain.

"Without a place to get a warm drink and warm up, the Island remains the domain of those already 'in the know', which limits the equitable experience of natural beauty that all Torontonians should have access to." 

Lead photo by

Daniel Rotsztain. Artwork by Lorna Livey as part of the exhibition DAY TRIPPER, a collaboration between Open Studio and Lake Effect Projects.

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