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December 11, 2013
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Toronto Beach VIII
What better beach to hit when the city is being undressed than Hanlan's Point?

The eighth in a summer series of dispatches taking the pulse of Toronto’s beach culture. Last week: Kew-Balmy. HANLAN’S POINT Accessed Sunday, July 17, 1 pm, via bicycle and the Hanlan’s Point ferry. Supplies Blanket, camera, sunscreen, mini-bar Temperature 41 degrees Celsius with humidity, sunny Water Quality Safe to swim. Blue Flag-certified since 2005 Soundtrack Bon Jovi, 99 in the Shade ‘WATCH OUT FOR THE WINDMILL MAN,’ reads the email. ‘You’ll know him when you see him (watch for the crotch).’ The instructions are from Shawn Micallef, devoted Hanlan’s fan and author of Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto. They are a propos of a beat-the-heat beach party he planned last Sunday. The Windmill Man does exactly what you think he does. Proudly. He’s a character to avoid, if only because he can’t be ignored–a reminder of Hanlan’s past incarnation as an amusement park. It’s really quite the show. If you’re like me, you may have felt a bit like a tourist in this town over the past couple of weeks. As the city swelters, and council considers cuts, Toronto feels foreign, an unravelling city where hard-won battles are being refought. So what’s a tourist to do? Alight to the beach! And what better beach to hit when the city is being undressed than Hanlan’s Point? You’ve got sunscreen, a towel, and you’ve lined your bag with ice packs, then crowded it with beverages and snacks. Line up for the Hanlan’s Point ferry. In the queue, admire bikes, appraise dogs, aspire to muscles, accept tattoos. Board the ferry. On the trip, know that you will hear this at least once: “You mean, it’s a naked beach?” De-boat, and bike or walk the single kilometre to the sand. Choose sides: clothing-optional or the ‘textile side.’ If you’re meeting friends, make sure you’ve identified an obvious gathering spot: under the Blue Flag, for instance, or by the lifeguard station. You likely won’t recognize them lying there in their bikinis and shades, amongst all the shiny bodies. It’s almost like you’re making completely new friends! Together, stake out a good, roomy spot. You’ve got the choice between shade or sun. (If you choose sun, you can always rent an umbrella from a man in the buff.) Settle in. Now relax. You’re surrounded by 1,000 people, and half of them are naked. Believe me: this is your Toronto. Hanlan’s Point is on the eastern edge of the Islands, near Billy Bishop Airport. The area was first used by natives as a sourcing ground for healing herbs. Evidence of those visitors may have been discovered in 1908 during tunnelling in Toronto Bay: twenty metres below water level, over 100 footprints, likely laid down more than 10,000 years ago, were found preserved in clay just east of Hanlan’s Point. In interviews, inspectors on site described having seen both child and adult footprints, perhaps traces of a family heading north from their camp on the Lake Admiralty shore to what’s now Toronto centre. Hanlan’s is perhaps best known for its past incarnation as Canada’s Coney Island. Like Sunnyside and Scarboro Beach, it was home to a popular amusement park that boasted shooting galleries, rollercoasters, a diving horse show, a dry slide called the Hurgle Gurgle, and the Museum of Living Curiosities. There was also a baseball stadium on Hanlan’s where, in 1914, Babe Ruth hit his first pro home run. In 1971, the first “Gay Day Picnic,” precursor to Pride, was held at Hanlan’s. And while nude bathers have been an on-again off-again feature there since the 1890s, Hanlan’s was only officially recognized as a clothing-optional beach–one of only two in the country–in 2002. In Stroll, Micallef describes Hanlan’s as “Toronto’s most liminal of spaces, an in-between space in our civic backyard that somehow seems far from home.” It’s true: identity is more mutable at Hanlan’s than anywhere else in the city. What results is the kind of kinetic energy that, paired with sun and water, makes you feel like you’re travelled far away and back again in one afternoon. The key to having a good time in a group at Hanlan’s is to set a few ground rules. 1) If you wanna get naked, get naked. 2) If you don’t wanna get naked, don’t. 3) Just because you don’t wanna get naked doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t. 4) The border is permeable: it’s perfectly fine for a group to split up between the clothing optional and clothing mandatory beaches. 5) No pictures. Most of the 15 or so of us who turned up to the beach party last Sunday split the afternoon between epic swims out to the fringe of boats docked offshore and sunbakes. The water was warm, with little algae. Conversation skipped from the kiteboarders in the distance to cocktail recipes and court rats to the constant stream of naked men who lean against the lone beach phone booth for no apparent reason. There was a lot of beach-narrative tweeting. Friends I didn’t know were at the beach crossed the bathing suit divide to visit for a while. Around us, people played beach croquet and Frisbee and gin rummy. Naked toddlers played in the surf. As the afternoon faded, we went on a walk of the shoreline, out where there are private coves and you get waves crashing the shore. The crowds thinned but still, everywhere we went, there were people. Our walk ended in a field east of the beach, where we rolled in the grass like strange drunken nymphs. I don’t know if it was the rolling or the mix of Riesling and sun, but later that night, when I was trying to sleep, all I saw when I closed my eyes was a game of Tetris. But instead of dropping blocks, there was a cascade of shiny private parts, all falling together against a bright sandy background.

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