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ice storm

Passengers ride a Toronto Island Ferry Jan. 9, 2014.The Globe and Mail

On Tuesday morning Peter Dewdney decided to go grocery shopping. Yes, it was cold outside, but that's what winter clothes are for.

He normally travels by boat, but thick ice had put it out of service. After waiting at the bus stop for five minutes and then hearing he might be there for an hour, he decided he'd just eat what he had in his house. Of course, before cooking, he'd need to massage his frozen pipes with a blowtorch.

These are just some of the charms of winter on the Toronto Islands. The 70-year-old Mr. Dewdney has lived on Ward's Island since 1970. Though he'll assure you the seasonal benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, this week was a tough one for many of the 700 Islanders.

Islanders know they normally have the best commute in the GTA, a 10-minute ferry ride to the foot of a strutting skyline. For two days this week, shore-bound Islanders spent up to two hours on buses, mainly waiting at the airport for a chance to cross the tarmac before hitching a ride on the airport ferry.

Toronto's main winter ferry – the 53-year-old Ongiara – broke down Tuesday morning after taking a beating from this season's extraordinarily thick ice.

Waterfront parks manager James Dann says needed parts were flown in from Texas and work was finished late Wednesday. Sure enough, the Ongiara sailed Thursday morning, but ice clogging the ferry terminal made keeping the schedule impossible.

"Ice presents a huge obstacle for us," says Mr. Dann.

For most Islanders, though, ice is more of an opportunity than an obstacle.

Ask about ice and they are more likely to mention how one of their two lagoon skating rinks is now larger than the one in Sochi.

Island resident Geoff Currie, 58, oversees the volunteer-run rinks. In a few weeks, the huge pad near the Queen City Yacht Club docks will host the Mallard Cup, the community tournament that sees up to 40 shinny players swinging sticks (and shovels).

Mr. Currie used to maintain rinks offshore in the harbour. One morning a few years ago, he woke up on the day of the tournament to find the wind had moved the harbour ice, rinks included, out into Lake Ontario overnight.

"People said they saw my prized four-foot scraping shovels floating off toward Rochester," says Mr. Currie.

That's part of life on the water. Another part is what Rick Simon calls "skating the wild ice."

Mr. Simon, a 45-year veteran of the islands, says that, while conditions can be especially variable around bridges, skating the interior canals and lagoons opens the islands up for exploration.

"You can go for long distances instead of in circles, duck into inlets to skate among trees, glide over places where you see beaver swimming in the summer," says Mr. Simon.

The city discourages people from using their own judgment and sense of self-preservation in gauging ice thickness. The policy is: the ice isn't safe. From time to time they are proven right. Joanna Kidd has been living on the islands since 1976. In the early 1990s her dog Biggles was accompanying a neighbour who was walking the lagoons with her two children and a mother who was visiting from Columbia. The mother fell in to her waist. Panic ensued until Biggles emerged from the woods with a stout tree limb and the three used it to pull the grandmother to safety.

"We will never know if all Biggles actually wanted to do was play," says Ms. Kidd, noting that the Airedale-poodle mix, was a retriever at heart.

Though Biggles is no longer at the ready, Ms. Kidd traverses the lagoons on cross-country ski treks across the islands up to a dozen times a winter.

"If the conditions are good, you've got to go," says Ms. Kidd, who often winds up at the covered sand dunes at Hanlan's Point for relief from the flat topography.

She's more likely to see wildlife than people. Though the wildlife roster is impressive (resident snowy owls, two bald eagles before New Year's, mink playing around the Mallard Cup rink, elusive coyotes) the dearth of winter visitors from the city was a common theme with everyone The Globe spoke to this week.

Geoff Currie says he wished more skaters would come out from the city to try out the rinks. Thinking even bigger, he envisions a city-run skating route from Ward's Island all the way to Hanlan's Point.

"It could rival what they have in Ottawa, for a fraction of the cost of one of the compressors at the artificial rinks," says Mr. Currie.

Rick Simon has similar ideas, envisioning warming huts selling hot chocolate and beaver tails with skate and ski rentals.

"It seems like the liability and insurance people rule the world," he says. "We take advantage of what we have here, but we'd like to see more people enjoying it."

Ignoring hardships in favour of taking advantage seems a common creed of the islands, one being learned by the children who sail daily to the islands to attend the Waterfront Montessori school.

The ferry disruption caused the school to cancel the evening concert planned for this week. It had also left about 15 mainland students on the bus Wednesday afternoon, waiting for a chance to cross the airport tarmac. One of the teachers decided it would be a good time for a recital. The busload was treated to a rendition of My Favourite Things. No doubt the Islander passengers were able to come up with a few of their own verses.