by Anna Prodanou

On a beautiful summer morning two large voyageur canoes move easily across Toronto Bay. The paddlers are snapping photos, laughing, and taking sips from their water bottles. They’re gliding at a leisurely pace and clearly enjoying the experience of being out on the water. Later they’ll land on one of the many Toronto islands and visit sites not easily accessible by foot, like the trout pond and Doughnut Island.

Leading the pack of these would-be explorers is Joanna Kidd, long-time Toronto Island resident and naturalist. Once the canoes are beached, she’s barraged with questions… about the rare and fragile sand dunes at Hanlan’s Point, the habits of the night herons and turtles that nest on the islands, the ever-present cottonwood trees that hold fast the island sands with their deep roots. Kidd has an answer to every question. “I’m here to see Gibraltar Point Lighthouse”, says one of the group, Liz Dobrzanski. She wants to hear about the haunted island lighthouse and its’ ghost, a long-dead, presumed bootlegger who, according to legend, refused some rowdy soldiers their evening nightcap back in 1815 and paid for it with his life.

Some of the people on the tour live in nearby waterfront condos. Their windows look out on Lake Ontario. They’ve moved here to enjoy a “clean, green, accessible” waterfront. With low flying planes overhead, much of the waterfront is still an industrial brownfield. There is an organization that is working to bring Torontonians the waterfront they desire.

That organization is the Toronto Bay Initiative or TBI. With Kidd, as President, a small Board of Directors and many volunteers, TBI is a sort of good-will ambassador for the waterfront, organizing nearly 30 tours and events annually from early Spring to late Fall. The events range from environmental work such as sand dune restoration on Hanlan’s beaches and the maintenance of the Spadina Quay Wetland at the foot of Spadina, to the Portlands Bike Tour, which explores the industrial brownfields of the former port of Toronto.

Toronto Bay Initiative is a volunteer based, community action organization formed in 1997 with a mission to work for a “cleaner, greener, healthier Toronto Bay”. The canoe tour is one of its more popular tours and takes place twice this summer. If you’re not the canoeing type you can explore the harbour on a traditional riverboat and hear from guest speakers. Last year the tour featured a Toronto police underwater diver who spoke about the strange things buried under the waters of Toronto Bay. One such item was the remains of a whale, definitely not part of the lake’s ecosystem. Once part of Toronto’s Aquatic Show, the whale found a watery grave under Lake Ontario. “Toronto Bay is full of surprises!” said Sarah Morrison, a Queen’s University engineering student, on board for the trip. But the highlight of Sarah’s day was a chance to steer the venerable old Oriole boat when she paid a visit on the bridge. In 2004, visitors on the boat tour will hear from guests such as Toronto historian and storyteller, Mike Filey; Urban Strategies landscape architect George Dark and Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation President and CEO, John Campbell.

TBI’s tours on water are matched only by its events on land. All tours have an environmental focus. The bike tours include the Lower Don River together with partners, Friends of the Don East, a tour of the industrial portlands partnering with the South Riverdale Community Health Centre and a tour of the island with Albert Fulton, the keeper of the Island archives. TBI prides itself on being a partnering organization. Most of the events have community partners such as the Toronto Parks and Recreation Dept., Mountain Equipment Co-op, Kortright Centre, Gibraltar Point Centre for the Arts, The World Wildlife Fund, Toronto Zoo, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and many others. Local businesses also take part.

New this year are tours of the recently opened Distillery District, which once fronted on Lake Ontario, a Redpath Sugar tree planting to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Redpath Refinery (one tree will be planted by TBI volunteers for every year of its existence) and a guided walking tour of the central waterfront as part of Heritage Toronto’s Walk Historic Paths program. There are also events planned for bird watchers and photographers.

This year scores of TBI volunteers will plant thousands of native trees, shrubs and plants in over five events as a continuing effort with the city to restore Toronto’s only sand dunes on the Islands. TBI volunteers also take part in the annual Great Canadian Shore Cleanup, picking up hundreds of bags of litter on the shores of Lake Ontario. It’s a countrywide initiative. Last year 20,015 volunteers helped clean 477 shoreline sites in each of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories, fishing up items ranging from Christmas ornaments to a message in a bottle. All in all 49,859 kilograms of trash were picked up! “The shoreline cleanup is my favourite activity, it brings out the most committed and interesting volunteers”, says Kidd, who won the 2003 Yachtsmen’s Spring Thaw Environmental Award for her leadership in cleanups, habitat restoration and environmental protection.

TBI is able to achieve goals in the community with hours of volunteer help and creative fundraising efforts. This year it applied to the Metcalf Foundation and received a grant to create an Explorers Map of the Waterfront. “This is going to be our most exciting project to date,” says Randee Holmes, TBI’s Executive Director. To qualify for the grant TBI is required to match funds. Holmes and a group of volunteers are planning a live auction, Bid By the Bay, will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 19th at the Lakeside Terrace York Quay Centre.

To donate items for the auction call TBI at (416) 598-2277, or visit

Anna Prodanou is a contributor to Maclean’s, Toronto Life, Chatelaine and a Member of the Board of the Toronto Bay Initiative.