If you spend any time on the Rideau River over the Summer, or at Baxter Conservation Area, you may have seen a colourfully decorated pontoon boat making people’s dreams come true on hot Summer days.
This is the legendary Ice Cream Float, launched by North Grenville resident, Bob Harlow, almost 20 years ago.
In 2000, Bob was a full-time long-distance truck driver. He had a house (where he still lives) on the Rideau River and loved spending as much time as he could on the water in the Summer. He says he came up with the idea for a floating ice cream shop on one of his long drives. “When you are a long-distance truck driver you have far too much time to think,” he says. “It was going to work really well, or flop.”
Bob bought a new pontoon boat and fixed it up with everything he might need to sell ice cream (a roof, a freezer, a wash station) on the water. Getting the proper permits from the authorities was a bit of a challenge, because no one had ever done something like this before. The water is under federal jurisdiction, so he just had to get permission from Parks Canada to set up shop. He also had to pass all the health and safety inspections that any business selling food would have to go through.
His first day on the water, Bob sold five cones. Now, on busy days, he sells up to 200 cones to boaters and visitors to the Baxter Conservation Area. Bob’s business has grown through word of mouth and he is now a staple for kids at Baxter Beach and boaters on the Rideau River. “Baxter has been great to work with,” Bob says, adding that he goes out to the beach every Friday in the Summer, rain or shine, to sell cones to ice-cream-crazed day campers. He can hear their squeals of excitement from across the river as he pulls away from his dock, “He’s coming!” they yell, as they clamber over one another to be first in line.
The Ice Cream Float has become a full-time job for Bob during the Summer months. In the early Fall and Spring he goes out on weekends, and still works driving a truck for a local company during the week. In the Winter, he goes back to full-time truck driving. It is usually a one-man show, but sometimes he has help from friends who like to come out and see the joy on people’s faces as he chugs up beside their boat. “You’re always dealing with happy people,’ Bob says. “There are no calories on the water. Everything floats.”
The Ice Cream Float has also seen Bob through some pretty rough times. In the Spring of 2002, his ten-year-old son, Adam, fell out of a tree and died. “It was hard to go out after that,” Bob says, explaining that he had hoped that his son would take it over once he retired. “You’re in a fog for so long.” Even so, Bob continued to serve his customers with a smile and says the Float really helped him in the grieving process.
The Ice Cream Float is a simple business, just six flavours of ice cream in cones, but Bob likes it that way. “I keep it simple, so it’s still fun,’ he says. Selling drinks and other food would mean dealing with garbage, and Bob says he doesn’t like the idea of it ending up in the river. “You can pack Kool Aid and sandwiches when you go on a picnic,” he says. “But you can’t pack ice cream.”
Bob has been going out every Summer now for the past 18 years and doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon. He loves spending his Summer days on the water, selling ice cream to happy people. “Every Spring, I look forward to getting the boat in the water,” he says. “The boat is keeping me young.”