I have a declaration to make. On Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., I did knowingly and with deliberate intent violate Section 608-21 B of the Toronto Municipal Code. It states in unambiguous terms that: "No person shall access or skate on a natural ice surface in a park where it is posted to prohibit it."
Notices citing that rule surround Grenadier Pond, the lovely getaway in the southwest corner of High Park. Ugly yellow signs posted by the parks department warn "DANGER. Ice Unsafe. Keep off." And "No Skating. No Access."
I went down to the pond anyway, sat at the edge of the ice, laced up my old black-and-white Bauer hockey skates and took off. The recent cold spell has frozen the pond hard and smooth. Some say the skating conditions are the best in years.
I travelled up to the north end of the pond, where ducks gather to feed in summertime. Then, with the north wind at my back, I headed south, taking long strides and hearing my blades carve into the black ice with each stroke.
Until a woman in a fur hat took to the pond to trace a circuit just as I unlaced, I was the only one out there on a perfect winter morning. That's a shame. There is nothing quite like skating on a pond or lake in the open air. Instead of making circles, as you would on a man-made rink, you go where your blades take you. The feeling is sublime.
That is why, for decades, even generations now, people have been coming to Grenadier Pond to skate, municipal codes be damned. A photo in the Toronto Archives from what looks like a century ago shows a group of skaters in heavy overcoats forming a conga line as they move across the snow-covered surface.
Today, people sometimes make clearings in the snow for shinny games or shovel paths for pleasure skating. On my outing, I followed the path of an earlier skater, who had been out with a frisky dog if the tracks were anything to go by.
The authorities are not pleased. A report on the volunteer-written City Rinks website says that, one day last week, a bylaw officer stood beside the pond blowing a whistle to order people off. A city spokeswoman says that, after a complaint about skating on the pond, officials gave out three $125 tickets on Sunday. As she puts it, the bylaw division "educates first and then enforces."
At a time when governments are obsessed with risk and afraid of rising liability costs, the finger-wagging reflex has become automatic. Look at the bans and curbs some Canadian cities are enforcing on that other great winter pastime, tobogganing. Or consider the mindset of the officials who put "stay-off" signs on the boardwalk down at the western waterfront for the winter. Do they think people are going to slip on the deck and pitch head first into the harbour (which, like Grenadier Pond, happens to be frozen)?
Responsible authorities warn citizens against genuine risks, but they also weigh the severity of those risks and measure them against the benefits of the activity they propose to ban. In the case of Grenadier Pond, the risk seems moderate. Careful, self-policing skaters have been monitoring the thickness of the ice for years. The benefit of leaving residents to enjoy such a marvellous experience is high, especially in an era when officials are urging people to get out and exercise for their health.
The city has two options. It could measure the ice, declare it open or closed accordingly and post lifeguards to patrol the pond. That would be great, but it would take lots of money and labour at a time when the city is straining to cover its existing obligations. Or the city could post "danger, take care" warnings and simply look the other way. That is more or less how things have worked down at the pond for years: the city posts its signs, the skaters skate, taking their own precautions and judging the risk.
Perhaps that's the best thing to do about the skaters on Grenadier Pond: just let them be.