On that glorious sunday, I set to go to Ward’s Island. This was the place I wanted most to see and the one I preferred in Toronto. As I had not been to Kensington market and also wanted to visit a couple of bookshops on Bloor and Bathurst Streets, I decided to go for a little wander first.
I left from Yonge Street, walked up to Bloor Street and walked west until I reached Bathurst. I, of course, stopped a few times to visit some bookshops and ended up with a heavy bag to carry around with me all day. Some parts of Bloor Street were nice, with a bit of activity, but others were too quiet and so was Bathurst Street. I like to find a buzz in a city; otherwise it reminds me of those boring and depressing Sundays in France (I used to hate them!).
I was then happy to arrive to Nassau Street and get closer to Kensington market. The buzz was there, it was sunny and people were happy. I stopped for a bit of food, enjoying the heat and looking at passers-by.
After a walk around the streets of Kensington market and Chinatown – and a couple of stops in shops I must admit – I jumped in a street car that took me to Harbourfront where I caught a ferry to Ward’s island.
You might think it is a strange choice to go to Ward’s Island rather than Centre Island, which is usually favoured by tourists. Ward’s Island is one of the two inhabited parts, Algonquin island being the other, and I had been told how chaming it was. I also wanted to see where Richard from Margaret Atwood’s “Isis in Darkness” went to look for Selena – it is also where Charis from The Robber Bride lives.
“One day he bought a bottle of Italian red wine and took the ferry over to Wards Island. He knew Selena lived over there. That at least had been in the poems.
He didn’t know what he intended to do. He wanted to see her, take hold of her, go to bed with her. He didn’t know how he was going to get from the first step to the last. He didn’t care what came of it. He wanted.
He got off the ferry and walked up and down the small streets of the island, where he had never been. These were summer homes, cheap and insubstantial, white clapboard or pastel, o sided with insulbrick. Cars were not permitted. There were kids on bicycles, dumpy women in swimsuits taking sunbaths on their lawns. Portable radios played. It was not what he’s had in mind as Selena’s milieu. He thought of asking someone where she lived – they would know, she’d stand out here – but he didn’t want to advertise his presence. He considered turning around, taking the next ferry back.
Then, off at the end of the streets, he saw a minute one-storey cottage, in the shade of two large willows. There had been willows in the poems. He could at least try.
The door was open. It was her house, because she was n it. She was not at all surprised to see him.
. . .
She led him to a stone breakwater overlooking the lake, and they sat on it and ate the sandwiches. She had some lemonade in a milk bottle; they passed it back and forth. It was like a ritual, like a communion; she was letting him partake. She sat cross-legged, with sunglasses on. Two people went by in a canoe. The lake rippled, threw off glints of light. Richard felt absurd and happy.” (“Isis in Darkness” from Wilderness Tips)
In the first half of the 20th century, Toronto Islands used to be a place where the city dwellers would have a summer home and come to escape the summer heat. However, in the 30s, some of the homes on Hanlan’s point were destroyed to build the airport. Later, in the 50s, the land was transferred to the Metro Parks Department and homes were slowly demolished to transform the islands into a park because of flooding problems. Atwood refers to this in an unpublished story called “Ménage à Trois”, which can be found at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library (MS 200, Box 95, Folder 4). Some inhabitants opposed this decision, but by 1970, only 250 homes – on Wards and Algonquin Islands – remained. A long fight ensued before the islanders were finally granted the right to stay there and keep their homes, provided that they were living there full-time if I am not mistaken. This is a condensed summary, but you can read more about it here and here.
I loved going around the “streets” of these two islands. The habitations are really different on each island. On Ward’s island, these are mostly small colourful cottages, while on Algonquin’s island the houses were definitely more upmarket. I kept asking myself which one could have been Selena’s house.
I stopped for a cold drink in the garden of the Rectory Café, which was built in 1948 and survived the demolitions. It was lovely to sit there browsing through my new books.
Being there allowed me to take a breath of fresh air. I sat on the beach looking at this beautiful lake…
I also noticed many cats chilling in gardens and on the “roads”. It must be a paradise for them with so few cars around. Animals are a great ice-breaker as they provided me with an opening to start chatting with a few islanders. I ended up walking with one of them who told me a bit about the islands.
I unfortunately had to leave, but I know I will come back. I might even treat myself with a couple of nights on the island next time I’m in Toronto. When I got back to the ferry dock, the sun was setting on the city. It was beautiful!