Living on one of Ontario's many islands during the winter can often feel like you're off in the Arctic, especially when the lake freezes over. 'It’s isolated, but there’s a great beauty in the isolation,' says Ron Tiessen, who runs the Pelee Island Heritage Centre. Even in summer,  Pelee is a 100-minute ferry trip to the mainland, so  there’s no such thing as a quick trip to the shopping malls. But even that link is cut off from December until the end of March, when the ferry stops running because Lake Erie freezes in the winter.

Stocked pantry, love of peace and quiet — even isolation —
will get you through those cold winter months of island living

News Archive BY GARY MAY
Lois Eves can’t just run to the corner store any time she’s out of something. For her, a shopping trip involves hopping aboard the cable ferry that links her Simcoe Island home to even the limited shopping on Wolfe Island. And she knows that when winter gets particularly bad, that link could be broken for days, or even weeks on end.  

For most of us who enjoy living in Ontario’s waterfront communities, shopping is as easy in winter as it is during the summer. The store is still a quick trip away if we run out of milk or eggs, or want to pick up a newspaper. But for hundreds of people who live on Ontario’s year-round islands, the coming of winter involves special planning.  

“You don’t just run to the store every day,” says Eves, who has lived on Simcoe Island in Lake Ontario, near Kingston, since 1959. “But we learn to live with it. It’s no hardship at all.”  

Eves, who just turned 80, tells that a few years ago, ice stopped the cable ferry from sailing the half-kilometre across to Wolfe Island between Christmas and the middle of March. If they wanted to get to one of Wolfe Island’s stores, Simcoe Island residents had to drive across the ice, take a snowmobile or walk.  

Eves prefers the walk across to where she leaves a second car she can drive to Marysville, Wolfe Island’s only village. But then last year, she says, the water remained open and the ferry wasn’t stopped once.  

Marysville offers limited off-season shopping and, if you want to go to Kingston for a larger selection and harder-to-find items, Eves and other Simcoe Island residents have to take another ferry. Luckily, that one is kept running most of the time, thanks to a bubble system that maintains a stretch of open water to the mainland.  

“It’s certainly quiet here in the winter,” Eves says of Simcoe Island, which supports just 25 full-time residents, one of whom is her son, who lives “just a stone’s throw away. But I love it. I love to look out at the water, or the ice. I wouldn’t want to go any place else.  

“It’s not limiting at all to live on an island. There’s more freedom.”  

Simcoe Island is tiny — about 3½ kilometres long and one kilometre across at its widest point.  

About 650 kilometres southwest of Simcoe Island is Pelee Island, a year-round home to an estimated 250 people. Located in the western basin of Lake Erie, Pelee Island is larger — it’s at about eight kilometres from tip-to-tip and three kilometres wide. And while the island is visible in the distance from mainland Leamington and Kingsville, it might as well be in the Arctic during the winter season.  

Isolation 'brings the community closer together'

Pelee is a 100-minute ferry trip to the mainland, so even in summer there’s no such thing as a quick trip to the shopping malls. But about the middle of December, when Lake Erie starts freezing over, the ferry stops running until the end of March. When that happens, a small aircraft that flies to Windsor airport is the island’s only transportation link to the outside world.  

Rick Masse, Pelee Island Township’s mayor, likes to point out the contradiction of the community’s isolation, despite its proximity to millions of Canadians and Americans who live around Lake Erie.  

“It brings the community closer together,” Masse says of that isolation once winter sets in. “Once a week, there’s a pot luck dinner at someone’s house, and you’re likely to see 30 to 45 people show up. The Legion has a restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch. That becomes the community centre. If someone’s in need of help, you’ll hear about it quickly, and the community comes to their assistance.”  

Zane Hooper is 84 and has lived on Pelee Island all his life, except for the couple seasons he spent working on the Great Lakes freighters and an occasional winter visit away. Hooper has been running Bayview Cottages on the island for more than 50 years, and says he welcomes the peace and quiet when the tourists go away. It gives him a chance to catch up on maintenance and repairs he needs to do around the place, and he likes to do a little woodworking.  

Come winter, Pelee’s only store is the co-op, to which food is flown in once a week. But isn’t it a little inconvenient — not being able to run out to pick up something he’s forgotten that can’t be had at the co-op?  

“It’s not a big deal,” Hooper says. “You can always work around some of those obstacles.” Now, his wintertime trips off-island are limited to a once-a-month visit to his doctor’s, during which he drops in on family on the mainland.  

He says many islanders grow a lot of their own food to carry them through the winter.  

Pelee still keeps an elementary school going for the nine or so pupils. A couple of Grades 9 and 10 students are now connected to their school board of education lessons through a new e-link program. And the five or six older high school students spend weekdays billeted with family and friends on the mainland, then fly back on weekends.  

Masse says the air link is a bit of a worry in the minds of many islanders, who think back to the tragedy that struck in January 2004, when the plane serving the island crashed into Lake Erie soon after takeoff, killing 10 people. Most were hunters drawn to the island for the winter pheasant shoot.  

“We’re still not over it,” he says. “With the children flying over on weekends, that memory creates apprehension.”  

Illness or accident can be cause for concern

On Wolfe Island, there’s also some worry over the prospects of illness or accident, admits Gail Kenney, who lives on the island located off the shore from Kingston. While the channel between Kingston and the island has been kept open by use of an underwater bubble system since 1975, sometimes, she says, the boat is laid up for repairs.  

She says once, while regular service was suspended, her daughter broke her arm, and had to spend the night nursing her painful injury until the replacement tugboat arrived in the morning. Boarding the tug was tricky, too, she recalls, because it lacked the ferry’s convenient walk-on capability. Instead, her injured daughter had to navigate a plank.  

Kenney has lived on the island for 47 years and says the permanent population is close to 1,200, a number that triples in summer with the cottagers and other tourists. “It’s definitely quiet, come winter,” she says. “But it’s lovely and peaceful.  

“We have two general stores on the island, a restaurant that stays open, and a hotel with a restaurant. But the bakery closes and so does the pizzeria, the art gallery, the craft store and the museum,” as well as a small department store.  

Back on Pelee, Ron Tiessen runs the Pelee Island Heritage Centre, a museum and interpretive centre. “You live differently on the island in winter,” he says. “In summer, visitors think we’re so laidback, but we have deadlines just like everyone else. All the islanders are tired by the time the tourists leave. It’s our time to enjoy life more.  

“Winter is the reward for all of your hard work,” he adds. “People here aren’t living in these snippets of time the rest of the world does. Island life is the antidote to snippets of living.”  

Tiessen believes islanders are forced to think in longer timeframes than mainlanders. “We smile when we hear people need a Mac’s Milk or a 24-hour grocery store.” 

Even when the ferry is running, he says, people need to plan. When someone goes for an appointment on the mainland, they likely come back with $500 worth of food and supplies in the back of their vehicle.  

'It's so peaceful here'

About 100 kilometres northwest of Pelee Island, just before the Detroit River flows into Lake Erie, shopping for William Foley is a four-minute ferry ride to downtown Amherstburg. He moved in to his highrise condominium on Bob-Lo Island in September 2009, and loves the privacy that comes with sitting in the Detroit River, halfway between Michigan and the Ontario mainland.  

And while ice floes sail past Bob-Lo on their way into Lake Erie, Foley says they didn’t interfere with ferry service at all last year. He’s been told by other island residents, however, that three years ago, the river froze over and an icebreaker had to be summoned to clear a path for the ferry.  

Would it bother him if that happened again? “No, not at all,” says Foley. “It’s so peaceful here. You see coyotes and fox and bald eagles. I can watch the river from my patio. And my grandchildren love to come over to explore the island.”  

The ferry takes him from the private island (see our community profile on Bob-Lo) to the edge of Amherstburg’s downtown. So while the island’s restaurant and store are only open from May 24 to October, “it’s just as easy to get to shopping from here as it is from any place else in Amherstburg.”  

In fact, Foley can just take a short walk to the dock, hop the boat and do his shopping on foot. That’s convenient in summer when there are times the ferry is filled with cars, he says.  

Back on Pelee, Tiessen says some people welcome winter’s solitude and think it is the island’s best time. He recalls a January a couple of years back when the weather was “perfect.” He conjures up an image of weeks of blue sky and crisp snow — the township doesn’t salt the roads — and how islanders gazed across the frozen lake. “You’d think you were in the Arctic. It was perfect. It’s isolated, but there’s a great beauty in the isolation.”  

Almost 600 kilometres north, Eric and Liz Stillwaugh live on Manitoulin Island at South Baymouth, a place that used to be isolated but which, thanks to modern communication, seems just as connected to the modern world as any place else.  

'You can almost hear the snow falling'

South Baymouth is linked to the mainland by the Chi-Cheemaun car ferry to Tobermory, as well as, to the north, the bridge at Little Current. Still, a trip to Toronto that takes 3 ½ hours in summer becomes a seven-hour trip in winter, because of the circuitous route required once the ferry stops in late October.  

“We’ve lived here 37 years,” says Eric Stillwaugh, who has seen plenty of changes in that time. There’s now high-speed Internet, satellite TV, two island health centres with chopper connections to big-city hospitals for emergencies, and supermarkets for all their food needs.  

Stillwaugh believes South Baymouth was probably a closer-knit community back before all of those links were available. There aren’t all of the social activities — the community dinners and dances — that were once held by those who stayed for the winter, he says.  

Winter here is definitely more quiet than the hectic summer tourist season and its seven-day-a-week working schedules. “It’s like going to the cottage, but having to work all the time,” says Stillwaugh. “Still, it’s nice to take that dip in the water at the end of the day.”  

In winter, “you enjoy the quiet. You hear the trees. You can almost hear the snow falling. I enjoy that.” — October 2010