City / Going

En Route: where am I?

window viewSitting beside a window in the departure lounge at the Toronto Island airport, savouring a Porter cappuccino and looking at the Toronto skyline, I have already been transported though I have not yet boarded the plane. Between the city and me is the glistening water of the western gap that I have just traversed. On the crossing from mainland to island, Lake Ontario’s waves continuously surged and receded beneath the ferry. Kayakers and long-tailed ducks, both in winter plumage, paddled past the prow. That short nautical jaunt has heightened my awareness of exactly where I am, and made me feel that I am already on my way, not just waiting to go.Ferry

Now that there is second way to get to the island airport, others taking the same flight will have arrived here differently, through a tunnel under the water. What is the appeal in walking down a long, fluorescent-bright corridor on a moving sidewalk? What the tunnel tells you about where you are is completely generic: you are in an airport. Could be Pearson or almost any other airport on the planet. Those that differ are the memorable places.Ferry/elevator sign.

tunnel - ports toronto

Toronto has the distinction of having the world’s shortest ferry ride. The crossing to the island airport takes less than two minutes, though if the boat is on the other shore when you want to go, you might have to wait ten minutes for it to unload and come back. But that’s not fast enough for some. One ferry worker gives me his assessment: “The ones who like the tunnel are guys who are going to miss their plane because they get here ten minutes before it departs. Me, I always get here earlier.” It takes six minutes to walk the tunnel. Choosing it seems similar to the way drivers stuck in traffic will detour to a route that saves little or no time but allows them to keep moving and thus feel like they are getting somewhere. The tunnel assuages the impatience of those in such a rush, but all air passengers, ferry-riders and tunnel-walkers alike, are assessed a mandatory $20 surcharge to pay off the $82.5 million cost of this P3 (public-private partnership) project. Of course, the assumption behind its construction was that the proposed airport expansion was a done deal, thus creating a much larger pool of passengers to walk it and pay for it. But many vocal Toronto citizens organized against extended runways in order to protect the waterfront and that expansion plan is now defunct. (Thank you, NoJetsTO).


Fuel truck on ferryTunnel access is via long escalators on the island side and by elevator on the mainland end. “Some busy times there are like two hundred people lined up for the elevators,” recounts the ferry worker. If so many are willing to wait and walk, could this be the demise of the ferry? The worker continues, “As long as planes use fuel, we’ll be running. Only way to get fuel to the airport is the ferry.” For now yes, but that used to be said of passengers, too. Use it or lose it, I worry.

Aboard the plane as it lifts I can see the island beach at Hanlan’s Point where in summer I have looked up and held the opposite end of this gaze. With altitude the city on the shore shrinks away and the lake, glistening and blue, spans to the horizon.  Take-offIsland airport from air

What sticks with me from travels and is long remembered after are the qualities that make a place distinctive, and those include unique ways of getting around. Variety in modes of transit makes us conscious of where we are on our way to where we’re going. We see what we might not know about or expect, and encounter the features that contribute to the character of the place we are in.  And as we look at our surroundings we can accomplish that challenging directive to live in the moment.

One such journey for me was from the west coast islands of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, where we had arrived by boat but were leaving by plane. It’s entirely possible that it has changed since, but finding the Queen Charlotte City airport in the early 1990s was tricky for us Torontonians. We followed the road out of town as per the directions given but missed it and drove past it a couple of times before we realized that the small roadside clearing with an asphalt ramp into the water, pay phone and rusty rolling staircase was in fact the entire extent of the facilities. And, as it turned out, all that was needed.

Our flight was on an amphibious plane, a Grumman Goose, which was basically an enclosed aluminum rowboat with wings. Accelerating for take-off we could hear the surf slapping against the belly of the plane and feel its impact directly beneath our feet. The spray from the waves we were feeling splashed up and hit our window, washing over our view of the mountains.
Click on any photo to enlarge

I think of Pittsburgh, Quebec City and Graz, Austria, cities I’ve visited which might not ordinarily be thought of together but are linked by similar topography. All are built amidst high hills and steep changes of grade, and are characterized by magnificent summit views. Their heights and depths are linked not only by charming though daunting pedestrian staircases, but also by funicular railways. Pittsburgh, famous for steel production, is located at the confluence of three rivers, and as you inch upward in the funicular car, the city with its 446 steel bridges is slowly revealed to you.
Click on any photo to enlarge

Aerial tram and 59th bridge.Toronto, Vancouver and New York are all situated beside bodies of water and along with their subways, buses and streetcars (in Toronto) they incorporate ferries into their transit. Unique to New York City, over the busy East River water corridor where a ferry might interfere with barge traffic, is an aerial tramway that connects Manhattan to Roosevelt Island. Gliding along in the air above and beside the 59th Street Bridge gives a perspective that suggests an affinity to the Eiffel Tower.

Toronto’s uniqueness is less grandiose but every bit as memorable. Coming in for landing at the island airport entails an exhilarating and spectacular descent over deep blue water, dipping low over Cherry Beach and the port, and passing beside the glittering downtown skyline along the shore. On touchdown, no question where we are – we have arrived in a big city on a great lake, where our first experience can be crossing that lake to arrive in that city via a distinctly brief ride on the ferry.


Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin
Additional photos courtesy Ports Toronto and  Wikipedia Creative Commons

This article can be found both in GOING OUT in the section Where We’re Going, and in WHAT’S HERE in the section The City.


Beautiful article! I have never flown from the airport, but have taken the ferry to pick people up or accompany them to the airport. I would never use the tunnel. Your pictures are lovely and I feel like going there for a ride right away.
Sylvia Bergeron, Toronto

Beautiful photographs, beautifully written and places I’ve never seen. Makes me want to simply “go”.
Cheryl Kryzaniwsky, Port Elgin, ON

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