The loon really was straight out of central casting.
Easing a kayak out of a garage in Toronto's east end, the piercing call of a bird more often heard farther north broke the quiet morning air. It was one of the only things awake around dawn to witness this test of whether paddling – the quintessentially Canadian way to get around – was a viable alternative to the road congestion for which the country's biggest city is now known.
It's never all that quick getting into the city from the Beaches. A normal commute can range from about 25 minutes in a car to an hour on the streetcar, if you don't short-turn. And the 501 Queen streetcar got a lot worse this summer, when a series of construction projects forced it onto epic diversions.
Not long before the construction started, the idea of water transportation had been mooted on the mayoral campaign trail, which left me wondering about bypassing traffic in a kayak. But how feasible is it to paddle to work? I recently set out to test the waters, "commuting" each way and storing the boat overnight at the home of a helpful expat couple.
The only company as I launched earlier this month, not far from the Balmy Beach Club, was a group of stand-up paddle boarders. A few of them carrying small dogs on their boards, they moved east toward the sun that was climbing huge and red from the horizon. I went west, paralleling the beach and then curving out to cross the mouth of Ashbridge's Bay.
The first half-hour toward the downtown was probably the most peaceful commuting I'd ever done. Just me, the birds and the rhythmic dip and splash of the paddle. I was reminded of The Wind in the Willows and the water rat's love of "messing about in boats."
Urban life intruded near the base of the Leslie Street Spit. The distant hum of traffic was punctuated by the beeping of reversing trucks. The first plane roared overhead at 7:02, but quiet fell again as I looped around the spit, passing a couple of skippers who seemed to be waking up aboard their yachts near the end.
I was more than halfway there. Less than an hour later, I was pulling the boat out in downtown Toronto.
Taking to the water
When driving along the waterfront highways, gridlock often gives commuters a chance to look at the lake. In the summer months, it can be a beautiful glittering sight. And it's usually pretty empty, particularly in the morning.
People have long mused about using Lake Ontario as a commuting alternative. The urban theorist Jane Jacobs thought it could be done in all seasons, arguing decades ago that the city should start "hydro-foil and ice hovercraft transportation."
This spring, mayoral candidate John Tory's transportation plan included the teaser that "the water remains an untapped resource for most Torontonians." He mentioned water taxis and commuter services, but didn't go into detail.
The idea is not far-fetched, with the examples of many other cities to learn from.
In Chicago, a water-taxi service connects several parts of the city. Hong Kong has high-speed boats bringing commuters from outlying islands and the venerable Star Ferry remains used by residents in spite of the excellent subway between Kowloon and the island. And in Venice, while the tourists ride the clichéd gondolas, water buses operated by the transit agency help locals get around.
In Toronto, though, some issues would need to be resolved. Would there be a series of pick-up spots or a pair of major terminals, with correspondingly large parking requirements, to the east and west? Where would commuter ferries dock in the core and how would their passengers connect with the transit network? Could it be run in winter, or would it be service for summer only, when traffic volumes already are down a bit?
Of course, these issues do nothing to prevent a person driving their own boat into the city's downtown from the east or west. But there are not a lot of places to moor when you arrive. A kayak, on the other hand, is small enough that there are more options. Clubs in the core and near Cherry Beach offer storage, for a fee, and striking a deal with a waterfront condo resident could mean space in their storage locker.
The evening commute
It's a short walk from the Globe building at Front and Spadina to the water, and as I paddled I cut a beeline southeast across the harbour. The early August heat dropped immediately out on the water and a distinctly molasses sort of smell drifted over from the Redpath facility. It was a somewhat windy evening, though, with the chop combining at times with the ferries' wakes to make for a bouncy ride.
The water smoothed out through the Eastern Gap and the traffic on the lake dropped noticeably as well.
The Spit is closed to the public during the week, meaning it would be verboten to do a quick portage that would cut the trip by one-third. Taking the long way around, I powered past the guano reek pouring out of one of the bays. There were very few boats here – just a few jet-skis that made me think there could be a faster way to do this.
It was somewhere around here I started to wonder about the safety of the water, which was ending up on my face periodically.
The city is rightly proud of some of the cleanliness of some of its beaches, but water elsewhere is not tested. (A spokeswoman for Toronto Public Health reached later recommended that people stick to tested and guarded areas. She offered no specific health advice related to those using the water elsewhere. Maybe it's a good thing I've got all my shots.)
The passage across Ashbridge's Bay seemed more or less endless and I began to regret the incredibly heavy chain I'd brought along to lock up the boat. But my mood lifted after rounding the last headland. The Leuty Lifeguard Station was in sight and the finish was just after that.
All told, about two hours each way. The truth is, you'd have to be pretty driven to do this every day.
But it's not inconceivable to paddle to work occasionally. Commute on the Queen streetcar, add in a visit to the gym and the timing is a wash. And it's a lot more fun than going to the gym.
The other ways to get there
People who live in the Beach, in Toronto's east end, will sometimes say that there's everything you need there. That's a good thing, because the area can feel pretty removed from the downtown. Although not far away geographically, there isn't a particularly fast way to get into the core – a problem made much worse this summer by construction in a few spots. The options from Neville Park and Queen to The Globe building at Front and Spadina, roughly 10 kilometres by the most direct route possible, timed to arrive by 9am:
The 501 into the city can be peaceful at this time in the morning, and usually without the sardine-can jamming of the evening rush hour. The seats fill gradually, with most taken somewhere between Kingston Rd and Leslie. The crowd tends to keep it low-key, reading, listening to music or talking quietly on the phone. There's a certain amount of dozing as you stop-and-go your way into town. Total time: 67 minutes.
The TTC's #143 bus costs double fare, a premium service that makes a series of pick-ups in the east end and then doesn't stop again until it reaches the core. The bus, which fills up quickly, is more uneven than a streetcar (kudos to the woman who managed to do her makeup as the vehicle lurched). But its advantages are clear when you consider the speed. "Best $30 I spend every week," one passenger was overheard saying to his companion. Total time: 45 minutes
Ducking down to the lake after a few blocks, the waterfront trail is largely deserted. The pong around Ashbridge's Bay coats the throat but the section between the Spit and Cherry Beach, although it adds distance, is bucolic. It's hairier crossing the downtown, with Queen's Quay a mess and the other east-west arterials clogged with traffic. Wellington, in particular, might not be enjoyed by a less-than-experienced cyclist. Total time: 40 minutes at a relaxed pace.
Except for some delivery trucks, it's a smooth drive out of the Beaches and down to the Lakeshore. The big-box commercial development around Leslie looks as though it belongs in the exurbs, but the surviving stanchions where the dismantled stretch of the Gardiner once stood are a reminder that the city is evolving in positive ways as well. Traffic flows well most of the way but progress is hung up at Front and Spadina through a few signal cycles. Total time: 23 minutes.