"I mean, honestly,” Kevin says, with a glint in his aqua-blue eyes, “who hasn’t had sex on Hanlan’s beach
?” Never one to enjoy losing at never-have-I-ever, I busy myself with my notepad. That this is considered a given to this gorgeous guy, a point is silently made; living on the Toronto Islands sure is different than living in downtown Toronto.
I meet Wrik and Kevin at The Fox pub on Bay St, a few blocks from the Toronto Ferry Docks. We settle into a booth and, after exchanging Pride stories, I tell them what I am after: to learn about the fabulous life of homos who live on the islands. I am picturing late-night circuit parties, skinny-dipping and plenty of sex au naturel. While there is some of the latter (spoiler alert), it doesn’t take long to discover that this life is a different kind of fabulous. Walks, not raves. Dinner parties, not white parties. Nights in with popcorn, not poppers (well, not that they admit). Indeed, I have stumbled upon a people who have found a tranquil home only a hop, skip and a boat from the party.
Wrik speaks with an infectious enthusiasm and a slight edge that indicates he’s ready to dish the dirt if asked the right questions. He moved to Ward’s Island for a guy and has lived there happily for 22 years. “My partner at the time bought the house through Now
magazine. This was before you could actually lease the land.” Young and energetic, Wrik couldn’t commit to living there full-time for several years and kept his studio in the city as a lifeline for overnight trips downtown. “The whole 11:30 last-boat thing freaked us both out. I was young, just out of OCAD. On and off, I had places in the city for a very long time. If we happened to be at the strip club until 1am, we would have somewhere to stay. Because that’s the big thing —” Wrik pauses dramatically before both he and Kevin emphasize in perfect gay unison, “— getting home!”
Wrik’s partner Steve died 18 years after they first moved in together. As Steve’s common-law partner, Wrik kept the house on the land that had been leased to them for 99 years. Some time later, Wrik met Kevin and the two quickly fell in love. In the beginning of the relationship, Kevin was adamant that he would never move to the island. “I thought there was going to be an outhouse, I swear to god!” he says. Indeed, the scenery and peace quickly won out over the hustle of downtown. “You walk out your door and you’re in a park. Even the rodents take on a whole different character!” Like Wrik, Kevin kept his place downtown for a year before giving in and moving to the island. “I met Wrik when I turned 30, and I had a new teaching job, so I guess I had just had my time at the party and I was ready for something else. The island has been a sobering experience,” he says, then quickly adds, “though trust me, I get my drink on. Just now it’s at the beach.”
Before wrapping up the interview, I ask if there are things about living out there they can’t stand. A grocery list is presented, ranging from the difficulty of getting home and the abundance of drum circles, to the constant stream of tourists. But, they concede, it’s all worth it. “It’s enjoying the beauty of the natural side of life — that’s the tradeoff for missing the partying.” As for the tourists, Kevin says, “If you wanna take a picture of me with a hard-on in my front window, go ahead. It is what it is.”
Needing to take a trip to the islands with all this in mind (and perhaps catch Kevin in his morning routine), I head to Ward’s to meet with Maurice at his newly renovated home. “It’s not really a typical island house anymore. It used to be more rustic,” he explains while I have a quick look around at his cozy, tastefully decorated two-storey home, complete with spacious office, living room, kitchen and bathroom with claw-foot tub. His yard is alive with plants and greenery, marking the tight property lines between his house and the neighbours’.
The house is proudly his, but the land underneath is leased, in accordance with the Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust, established in 1993. The trust allows residents to hold the titles to their houses while leasing the land for 99 years. Leases run from $45,000 to $50,000, with the average house costing between $100,000 and $160,000. If an owner wants to sell, the house is bought by the trust and resold to someone on the waiting list. The waiting list is currently at its maximum, with 500 hopefuls. One can be added to the waiting list only by entering a lottery and getting really, really lucky.
Back to Maurice, a prolific visual artist who moved to Ward’s Island in 1991 after buying a house with a writer friend who was looking for a part-time home to work in. After Maurice moved in full-time, friction mounted, and he bought his friend out and began living solo. Being consummately single, I was curious about being a bachelor on the island. Partnered now, Maurice remembers his time as a single man in the middle of the lake with mixed feelings: “The island was holding me back! Even hookups were fraught. The whole neighbourhood sees that person leave in the morning.” (I can’t imagine what that walk of shame would feel like!) But similar to Wrik and Kevin, Maurice has always felt it was worth it for the quiet and serenity. After all, he points out, “You’re really only 15 minutes away from the centre of downtown.”
Which doesn’t seem that far, sure. But the whole single and stranded thing worries me. A quick check on Grindr shows most of my matches are more than two kilometres away. From the Village, this could be Leslieville. But from the Island? At 2am? What, am I supposed to swim? I don’t know if all the baby chipmunks on earth could quite make up for that.
Now, living on the Toronto Islands ain’t all nature walks. I do manage to squeeze out some juicy details about sex on the beach, and it turns out there are some off-the-beaten-path spots where folks have been known to romp al fresco. “The spots that you can’t get to on foot. You need a canoe,” one source coos. Take for example, Forestry Island, near Trout Pond, where a central path leads off to loads of isolated spots that make Queen’s Park look like Dundas Square at rush hour. Or perhaps a jaunt to the island next to Snake Island, where my source has found makeshift huts housing all sorts of sin: “There were stacks of porn and a mattress. It was so creepy!” This island is unnamed, and I think it’s time to fix that. Lemmeseeyour Atoll? Gotahuge Peninsula? Iwantitinmy Isle? Or perhaps something simple, like Nick Green’s Island of Love. Write your city councillor. Let’s make it happen.
In the meantime, I’m not sure I’ll be moving out there anytime soon. Perhaps once I’ve found that special someone and am ready to trade in my last-call shots for the 11:30 ferry rush. With a waiting list of 500 people to buy the next available house, I think I’ve got time to decide. Hell — my grandchildren would have time to decide.
The hut of sin on Nick Green’s Island of Love is now open for business.