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Living the island life

The flooding of the Toronto Islands has forced the Globe's Alison Gzowski to acknowledge the power of Mother Nature

Alison Gzowski sloshes through the water around her home on Ward’s Island.

There's quiet, and then there's the Toronto Islands in the flood of 2017.

Every year seems to bring more and more tourists to the parks. No longer just our fair-weather friends, crowds of visitors arrive when it's too cold for the beach. During the polar vortex a few years ago, when the bay was frozen over, one made the long trek from Billy Bishop airport. He turned up at a neighbour's door and introduced himself, in broken English, as a "hungry traveller."

Centre Island’s amusement park is empty, closed because of the flooding.

These days, with the parks closed until July 31, one of our two cafés announcing it will close this fall, other island businesses devastated, our kids going to school in the city, day camps and permits cancelled, we could use some travellers, hungry or otherwise.

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My street, close to the ferry docks, is usually a natural route for tourists. Instead, it's filled with sandbags and pumps. There's an industrial one going 24/7 a few metres from the house, sucking water from the field and dumping it back into the bay. I've bought a sump pump, the kind you'd use in a basement (islanders don't have basements); it's doing continuous duty from inside a milk crate in a hole in the yard. The yard isn't flooded, it's saturated. We islanders live on a sandbar, and those of us at the lower ends of the islands have submerged yards because the water table has risen.

A home and sandbags on Algonquin Island.

After all, it's not as if we're living near an overflowing river. Some days it feels less like a flood and more like a water waiting game. With the lake level at a record high, heavy rains or high winds can send water shooting down streets.

I consider myself lucky. I won't be able to plant a garden any time soon, but the ground is being fertilized at no cost thanks to the ducks and the E. coli-laden water. I have friends with flooded crawlspaces and warping floors.

A flooded baseball diamond on the Toronto Islands.

It's even too wet near my place for the peacock. You may have heard of him. He's a welcome distraction, and thanks to our community e-group, a local star. He appeared (if appeared means a screeching wakeup call) extremely early one morning on a neighbour's balcony. She even posted a pic of the "fancy turkey" that awoke her.

His backstory, according to community lore, is that when the farm animals on Centre Island were evacuated, he followed the trucks because his mate was leaving. Since being abandoned, he's been spotted in the drier parts of Ward's Island, on sheds and roofs and most often at the home of two six-year-olds who named him Eyeball. A few days ago, he was seen strutting down the boardwalk toward Far Enough Farm, but ended up walking back with a neighbour. He's either mistaking us for peacocks or distressed by the water at the farm.

Flooded picnic area and grass fields on Olympic Island.

And so he should be. Centre Island and Hanlan's Point are significantly more waterlogged than we are, with many portions impossible to access. But ever since I saw a neighbour's post of carps on the path with the caption "Why don't we do it in the road?" I've wanted to see the spawning fields. I rode down with a friend and discovered a new form of aquafit: pedalling a bike through foot-deep water. When we stopped to look at what we thought were otters frolicking in the pond, a fin gave away their identity. Carp. Huge and boisterous.

Of course, we won't be catching or cooking any of the fish, (the water has E. coli, for one thing) but I think some of us will be eating our words. Early on, my 77-year-old neighbour claimed that after Hurricane Hazel in 1954, someone was riding her bike down the road and fell off because a fish got caught in her spokes. That led to eyebrow raising and ribbing until carp started appearing on the road near the ferry.

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Tugboat Radium Yellowknife loads large sandbags on Ward’s Island to be moved to another spot where it is needed.

Many of us have lived through island floods before and tend to talk about the first one they knew as if it held secrets or advice. Those, like me, who experienced the 1973 high waters (when we were still fighting to save our houses from demolition) recall that we were left on our own to cope. This time, we've had Parks and Conservation employees with us from the first sandbag (and we're up to 40,000 or so).

In the month since the high waters became a threat, nature has been showing us how it adapts – or not. I've visited the swan who built a floating nest for her eggs. (Sadly, her eggs were later flooded.) Some of the many Parks and Conservation employees who have been helping us non-stop made the uncomfortable discovery while sandbagging that fire ants don't drown. Happily, I can report that a flooded yard means the squirrels don't eat our tulips.

A lifeguard stand sits in high water at Ward’s Island Beach where sand used to span out beyond it.

All 11 island beaches are now under water. That takes an effort to grasp. If you weren't familiar with the beaches even six months ago, you would still notice some telltale signs. The lifeguard stand at Ward's Island Beach is now out in the lake. Down by Hanlan's, where the best swimming could be had, paths that once led to a sandy beach end in a cliff.

The nude beach is mostly gone (although we have had an occasional naked visitor).

What it looks like on the island

And then there's human nature. We're a small, tight-knit community. We know how lucky we are to be able to live and take care of our corner of the park. We've had intergenerational groups filling, tying and placing sandbags. We've opened the community hall to offer hot potluck lunches to the city workers. During the heavy downpour a week ago, when a month's worth of rain fell in a day, I came home from work to find my street filled with neighbours who had not only added another row of sandbags, they had moved others so the industrial pump was able to reduce the water in the street to mere inches.

We also know each other's business. So when our emergency committee suggests that it's not good etiquette to pump water from our crawlspaces into the street, that we are not to touch the sewer grates and that we should not take sandbags from someone else's pile, we know who and what they are talking about.

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With the lake level at a record high, heavy rains or high winds can send water shooting down streets.

We will doubtless still be under water next Saturday, but we'll find our own relief when we gather in the community hall for our biennial Talent Night. This community show dates back more than a hundred years, always gets a full house and often pokes fun at our circumstances. Naturally, we're anticipating songs and skits about the high water.

After all, we are good at telling stories. Yesterday morning, Eyeball was evacuated from the island to join the other animals at a farm north of the city. As he was carried in a box onto the ferry, an islander pointed to the pea hen in the next crate and claimed she was brought to lure him back into captivity. A group of us gathered around to take photos and ask the farm employee about his capture. Turns out Eyeball had simply wandered off into the community because his "circumstances" had changed. We had invented his love story. It's one way of keeping your spirits up while playing the water waiting game.

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