Before you canoe or kayak to the Toronto Islands, read this

The urban paddling route we get asked about the most is from the city to the Toronto Islands, and those requests have only increased recently. Now that the warm weather is upon us,  Torontonians are looking for safe activities they can do outdoors while getting some physical distancing space from their fellow city dwellers.

While it might seem like a simple thing to drop your boat into the water and paddle a short distance to the islands, we don’t recommend it unless you’ve considered all the challenges you might encounter on your way to and on the islands. It can be quite dangerous if you’re not adequately prepared.

Note: Thanks to COVID-19, the ferries that would normally take thousands of people to and from the islands each day are, understandably, only available to Ward’s Island residents. It appears that the water taxi services have delayed the start of their season due to the pandemic as well. This post will not be updated in real time, so it’s best to contact those service providers directly to get the most up-to-date information.

Before you canoe or kayak to the Toronto Islands

Check the weather forecast

While Toronto’s harbour is somewhat protected from the winds and waves of Lake Ontario by the islands themselves, the water can still be quite choppy and wavy, even on calm days. When you check the weather forecast, look for warm-weather days with low winds (ideally less than 25km/hr) and lots of sun.

Check the wind and wind gust forecast before you go

Plan your route

Before you get into the water, ask yourself:

Where can you park and launch your boat, safely and legally? Normally, we park at and launch from Cherry Beach because it offers safe, easy access to the water from a sandy beach that isn’t far from the parking lot. Its waters typically achieve Blue Flag status, as well.

Launching the canoe at Cherry Beach
Launching the canoe at Cherry Beach

Which open water crossings might you have to make? When paddling from Cherry Beach in the east to the Toronto Islands, you have to cross the ~300-metre Eastern Channel – the main commercial shipping route in and out of the harbour. It’s not uncommon to witness huge shipping freighters using the channel, not to mention everything from sailboats to speedboats to party boats. In other words: boats that don’t care about, and may not even be able to see, you in your little canoe or kayak. We recommend paddling across the Eastern Channel as quickly as you possibly can to avoid getting caught in the wake of one of these larger, faster boats. You can relax once you’ve crossed the channel.

What types of boats might you encounter on your route? The large craft in the Eastern Channel are not your only concern. If you head north to the Inner Harbour, watch out for water taxis and ferries, if they’re running. The ferries are predictable and slow-moving, but the water taxis can be much more erratic as they zip passengers to and from the city on a tight schedule. A water taxi driver was charged after hitting a father and son who were kayaking in 2016; thankfully they were OK, but it could it have been much worse. There are also often boats moored in various spots around the island.

Where will you land on the islands? If you’re coming from the east, unless you want to spend the day on Ward’s Island Beach, you’ll want to take the Eastern Channel to the Inner Harbour and into the little cuts, channels, and harbours of the islands themselves. We don’t recommend continuing across the south side of the islands beyond Ward’s Island Beach because the water can get quite choppy and there isn’t anywhere to land your boat until you get to Centre Island Pier – about 2km away. Even on the inside of the islands, the shore isn’t always accessible. There are a few good landing spots here and there, depending on water levels.

Wading into the water at the busy Ward’s Island Beach

How will you get home if you get injured or something happens to your boat? One person who recently asked us about this route told us he was planning to paddle to the Toronto Islands in an inflatable kayak. If that’s your boat of choice, then you may want to call ahead to the water taxi companies to see what options are available if your craft deflates while you’re on the islands. You don’t want to get stranded and have to call emergency services to get you home.

Pack enough supplies for your day trip

Restaurants and washrooms may not necessarily be open the day of your visit, so be prepared with enough food, water, and other supplies to get through the day. Check the latest social media posts of island businesses like The Riviera Ward’s Island Kitchen to see if they’re open and what their pandemic hours look like.

During your paddle to the Toronto Islands

Wear your PFD or lifejacket at all times

The waves can be unpredictable and so can other boaters. Given the water taxi collision story mentioned above, you don’t want to get run over or knocked out of you boat without a proper PDF or lifejacket. Even if you’re an amazing swimmer, you could easily be knocked unconscious by the impact of a motorboat or sailboat hitting you at full speed. Plus, Lake Ontario is COLD! It’s frigid even on the hottest, sweatiest August day, and the cold water can make it more difficult to breathe while you’re swimming. Also, attach a whistle on your PFD so you can call for help if you need it.

Sometimes it’s easier to portage across the islands than paddle around them

Be prepared to turn back

Don’t let your ego get the best of you. If you’re feeling unsafe or the weather suddenly changes, the best thing you can do is head back to shore as quickly as possible. You can always try the trip again another day. If you’re having a hard time getting into your canoe and kayak on the shore because the waves are rolling in too aggressively, it’s probably a good sign that you shouldn’t head out onto the lake.

Turn your bow into any oncoming waves

Rather than letting large waves hit the side of your canoe or kayak, which could either flip your boat or swamp it, turn the front of your boat into the waves so you can safely ride over them instead. There often isn’t enough time to outrun speedboat wake, but you can reorient yourself to take the hit more safely.

While on the Toronto Islands

Act like you’re visiting someone’s home

Because you are! There are about 260 homes on the islands and people live there year-round. Don’t wander through people’s yards. Don’t pee in their bushes. Don’t litter in their parks. Don’t pick their flowers. Treat the islands and their residents with respect. You’re just visiting, but they have to live there every day. Don’t give other paddlers a bad name.

Our canoe on Centre Island during the 2017 flooding

Don’t expect amenities to be open

Businesses on the island have been hard hit the last couple of years by flooding and now the pandemic. They may be slow to reopen, or not reopen at all, even though the rest of the city might feel like it’s starting to get back to normal. It’s possible there won’t be any washrooms, water fountains, or other amenities that you’re usually used to.

Leave no trace

Pack out what you’ve packed in. Take all litter and food items back with you to the city when you leave the islands. Don’t assume some city employee is going to clean up after you.

Still have questions? Leave a comment below or send us a message on Instagram: @urbanpaddlers

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Cassandra Jowett is a marketer who works at a software startup in Toronto. Her love of the great outdoors first started at the base of the Rocky Mountains when her parents took her camping as a baby. It blossomed as an adult when Brian began taking her canoe tripping in the Ontario backcountry.

Comments

Add Your Comment
    • Brian
    • July 5, 2020
    Reply

    Have you kayaked (or canoed) through the Western Channel to get to the Islands? Past the airport. If so, I’m curious about feasibility, water conditions, boating traffic……

      • Cassandra Jowett
      • July 13, 2020
      Reply

      There are restrictions for the water around Billy Bishop Airport and you’ll see buoys clearly marking that area. Just steer well clear of those and there’s no problem.

    • Greg HEfford
    • April 1, 2021
    Reply

    This is a lovely clear guide. Thank you. I am interested in getting to the Hanlan’s side of the islands coming from the east Cherry Beach area. Do you have experience and recommendations for a trip like this. Single paddler in a 12′ kayak

    1. Reply

      Thanks Greg! We’ve actually never paddled all the way to the Hanlan’s side – it’s pretty far in a canoe in choppy waters, but you might have an easier time in a kayak if it’s a closed-top. We think you may want to paddle through the canals on the inside of the islands to the most westerly bay and then portage your boat over to Hanlan’s point from the closest bay (looks like Block House Bay or Trout Pond on this map). That way you avoid the choppy waters around the south side as well as the big boat traffic in the harbour. That’s what we would do – it’s farther than it looks!

    • Greg
    • April 1, 2021
    Reply

    that’s great advice. Thank you so much

    1. Reply

      You’re welcome! When are you planning to go? Unless you have a dry suit, we wouldn’t recommend paddling on Lake Ontario until about June. The water is very cold and potentially deadly if you fall in.

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