Amid the marshy mess, the Islanders, a hardy lot, soldier on

Amid the marshy mess, the Islanders, a hardy lot, soldier on

Ducks flapping their wings to rise vertically out of the water, joyful-like, then diving and submerging, ass-up.


Fish swimming across what was pebble-covered road just a few days ago.

Idyllic, really, the Toronto Islands, even when sodden.

Maybe especially when drenched to the gills, metre-high in some places, water spilling over the berms, the gigantic sandbags, the bladder aqua damn — a thick rubber tube snaking along the embankment.

A gentle gust of wind rippling the lake sends water sloshing down pathways, cresting mini levees, slapdash bulwarks, turning grassy expanses into lagoons and bayous.

Heavy winds had been forecast for overnight.

It is urgent.

A city update was held on the state of flooding on Toronto Island Park on Ward's Island. So far 15,000 sandbags have been deployed and 30 pumps are working.

Lake Ontario rose Thursday to its highest recorded levels: 76.03 metres above sea level.

This is higher even than the peak 75.93 recorded in the storm summer of 2017, which left sections of the Islands awash and closed off for months.

Local Councillor Joe Cressy Councilor put out a chicken-little bulletin mid-afternoon, tying nature’s wrath on the Islands to an accelerating “climate crisis,” which may or may not be true. He certainly doesn’t know it for a fact.

But Cressy, all the time, has his hair on fire.

Maybe because I covered the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita and love the misty grey fug that envelops Venice during aqua alta winter months, but I don’t share the current hysteria, wrung for all its worth.

Neither, from what I saw yesterday, do the imperturbable residents of Ward’s and Algonquin Islands, as they continued to stroll and walk their dogs and cycle and bird-watch and take tea on the porch of their pretty flower-bedecked cottages, having done the best they can, with a huge helping hand from the city, to organize for the alarmist worst. Volunteer groups and parks employees have battened down the Islands with 24,000 sand bags, while 30 generator-powered pumps belch out excess water, redirecting it towards the lake.

Water in.

Water out.

All of a frenetic piece to mitigate the risk of flooding.

Only 253 houses left on the car-free (except for service vehicles) five-kilometre-long archipelago.

The water table is only some four feet beneath on the Islands. But there are no basements to flood, just crawl-spaces. Everywhere the sound of water rushing, lapping, spewing.

It will dry out and recede. The engorged canals will return to their normal width and depth. Parkland will re-emerge, the bogs disappear, the silty water beat a retreat.

The city, lessons learned from the swamping of ’17, was far more prepared this time ’round, with flood-prevention efforts to weather the engulfing of the Islands.

You live on the Islands, you take your chances … in exchange for the bucolic surroundings, the serenity, the 15-minute ferry-length distance from urban Toronto.

They are a hardy lot, Islanders, battle-scarred from efforts to remove them from the ’60s to the ’90s, furiously protective of their community.

Only 253 houses left on the car-free (except for service vehicles) five-kilometre-long archipelago.

Alison Stirling, a 36-year resident, remembers the big storms and flooding in 1984, the upheaval from installation of sewers in 1972, and of course 2017. Her husband has been busy, pitching in with other Islanders, to man the ramparts. “Everybody has been volunteering, pumping, putting up the sandbags, day and night. The water level against the docks, that has changed dramatically.

“The slightest wind and things could get very perilous. That’s our biggest concern right now.”

Yet there’s no place she’d rather be. “It’s a very tight community. We know all of our neighbours.”

The rains will continue to come and then, weather prognosticators assure, abate by mid-June. But who knows, these gonzo climate days?

In the meantime, it remains a marshy mess, with ferry service to Hanlan’s Point halted, the area around surrounding Gibraltar Point closed and water yesterday breaching Algonquin Island. Officials huddled, discussing whether transformers should be shut down, pre-emptively, to avoid shorting out power to parts of the Islands.

Conditions were changing from minute to minute. But, again, this is a steadfast community, self-sufficient. They’ve had to be, locked in by ferry service timetables and a treasured solitude.

“Two years ago was much worse,” recalls Stefani Brown, a professional dog-walker who had taken Toby and Nanuk, husky and collie, out for a ramble, steering them clear of swollen, sludgy pools. “The man who owns my house isn’t too worried about it. The homes are sitting on sand, right? So everything feels soaked, spongy. I think mold is more of an issue because that can make you sick.

“It’s like global warming, everybody has an opinion. But this community is very resilient.’’

The city, lessons learned from the swamping of ’17, was far more prepared this time ’round, with flood-prevention efforts to weather the engulfing of the Islands.

Leaving a pot of simmering split-pea soup on the oven, Capt. Pete Gutenburg — he’s worked at the Island’s fire station since 1999 — took the Star out on a careful ride aboard the fire engine truck. (But wouldn’t let me hit the siren, darn!) Rolling through sprawling suddenly created lochs, following routes delineated by orange-painted stakes, because, in several areas, both east and west, the roads have disappeared. Cautiously avoiding eroded stretches along the shoreline — more evidence of the devastation of ’17 — and other dangerous spots where the truck could tip into the lake.

The disc golf course — think frisbees, instead of golf balls — is completely drowned. Benches and picnic tables are underwater. The Sunfish Cut, a favorite spot for tourists taking photos with the Toronto skyline in the distance, is saturated and forlorn.

Lakes within a lake.

“The wildlife is loving it at least,” says Gutenburg, as a Canada Goose and her goslings crosses his path.

Down past the “clothing optional beach,” Gibraltar Point, the lighthouse, the plaque marking where Babe Ruth swatted his first home run as a 19-year-old against the Toronto Maple Leafs, veering around the CAUTION OPEN WATER sign, the Island restaurant that proclaims, out front: “Bridge Over the River Kawhi.”

All of it dripping, but shimmery in the dappled sunlight.

Yet the public school is open, children playing. Quadracycles trundle along. Moms push prams. Joggers pound the boardwalk on the lakeside, although the horizon disappears in haze, a foggy blur where water meets sky.

Gutenburg probes through weeping trees, assessing where his vehicles can go, should an emergency arise. The Royal Canadian Yacht Club, can’t get there, over the breached bridge; would have to hump it on foot. But most of the Islands are accessible to emergency vehicles. Not like ’17, when every which way was flooded, severely limiting the crew’s ability to respond. “We felt like the Maytag Repair Man there for a while.”

Ann Lacey and Jo Gladding, both Island lifers, 37 and 36 years respectively, warn a city girl, squelching across ankle-deep puddles, to stick to the boardwalks.

“The city has been amazing, with everything they’ve done to help,” says Lacey, who arrived here nearly four decades ago, pregnant with a son who now lives nearby with his kids. She says: “A lot of us are older, so it’s been hard. People have emerged as real leaders.’’

“So far we’ve been lucky because we haven’t had a big wind yet,’’ adds Gladding. “That would send the water right over the harbour wall.’’

Come what may, no regrets for their lifestyle choice.

Lacey: “The nature! The birds! God, yes!”

Gladding: “Look at us! No ongoing car traffic. The water right there. I go in the water a lot, a real water-person.”

Just not this kind of water, everywhere water, in runnels and spates, murky.

“It came faster last time,” observes Mitchell Fenton, an artist, painter, remembering 2017. “This one has been kind of in slow-mo.”

He’s raised three kids on the island.

“We came for a picnic and decided we just had to stay. Like mating swans. It’s such a beautiful place.”

Nearby a pump gurgles.

“Suck it up and spit it back into the lake.”

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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