Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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Air boat provides unique transportation to Lake Simcoe’s Georgina Island

JIM BAINE, Special to the Toronto Sun

GEORGINA - Talk about a cool way to get to work.

Each weekday morning, people line up along the shores of Lake Simcoe at the hamlet of Virginia, 90 kilometres north of Toronto, waiting to be taken across the ice to the Chippewa First Nations reserve on Georgina Island.

Their mode of transportation is unique — a 5.4-metre flat-bottom air boat powered by a 350-horsepower engine that drives a huge fan with three long blades.

Affectionately known as The Scoot, it carries teachers, students, community workers and band council members back and forth to the island several times a day.

Julie Virgoe, a personal support worker from Virginia, takes the air boat regularly.

“I sometimes try to take my snowmobile across, but the ice is not always safe,” she says.

Marian Borse, a retired teacher who helps out at the island’s library, concurs.

“When the band council declares the ice not safe, I follow their advice.”

There is an ice road to the island at this time of year, but travelling the route can be precarious.

Cars and trucks can get stuck in deep ruts, especially after a mild spell — or worse, slip through the ice with tragic consequences.

Capt. Mike Big Canoe, who in warmer months pilots the huge Aazhaawe ferry across the lake, says The Scoot was commissioned by the band council specifically because of the dangers posed by the ice.

“There are people who have to go to and from the island every day for doctor appointments, school and work,” he says. “The Scoot’s main purpose is to make travel safe for them.”

The school on the island only goes up to Grade 6 and the first run of the day from Virgina, at 7:30 a.m., is a group of teachers at the Waabgon Gaming primary school and educators at the Niigaan-Naabiwag child-care centre. As The Scoot arrives, older students who live on the island and attend school on the mainland pile out and get on waiting buses.

“Sometimes we can drive across, but for safety reasons the band has determined that the kids will always take The Scoot,” says Gina Marucci, one of the educators.

It can be a bumpy ride. When the lake is frozen solid, The Scoot bounces along at a slow speed, with Big Canoe trying his best to avoid ruts and ice channels.

“The best conditions are with about two inches of fresh snow,” he says. “When it’s like that, we can fly along at up to 60 miles an hour,” making the three-kilometre trek to the island in a matter of minutes. When it’s icy or there are patches of water, the trip takes about 15 minutes one-way.

Steering is accomplished by two large rudders at the back of the big fan. There’s no reverse on the boat, but it can turn a circle on a dime — much like a small plane on a tarmac.

There are actually three Scoots in the band’s possession; most of the time two are parked or undergoing maintenance.

In the early spring, when the ice starts to melt and it’s still too early for the ferry, there are two Scoots running all day long.

“It can be really busy,” Big Canoe says. “But if there’s an emergency on the island, there’s got to be a way people can get help.”

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