BY GARY MAY and LINDA MONDOUX
So, you think you know what an island is. How about 1,000 islands?
The Thousand Islands (not the 1,000 Islands, as they are referred to in some places), are a world-famous archipelago strewn along an 80-kilometre stretch of the St. Lawrence River, starting around Kingston and divided between Ontario and New York state.
Despite the name, there are in fact 1,864 islands in the group, but someone wisely decided the Thousand Islands sounded better.
The largest is Wolfe Island, at about 100 square kilometres, on the Ontario side, reachable by ferry at Kingston. One of the smallest is called Just Room Enough, and provides space (or just room enough) for a single cottage, a tree and some shrubs.
There are exactly 1,864 islands in the Thousand Islands — most of them privately owned — because that’s how many meet the requirements set back in the day by the Canadian and American authorities. They decided that in order to qualify for island status, a piece of real estate had to remain above the river’s surface all year long, be larger than one square foot (or 930 square centimetres) and be occupied by at least two living trees. No island is split by the international border — islands are either on the Canadian side or the U.S. side.
The most famous is Heart Island in Alexandria Bay on the American side. The island is home to Boldt Castle, constructed by George C. Boldt — who at the time owned New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel — as a show of love for his wife, Louise. The 120-room Rhineland-style home was abandoned four years into construction, in 1904, when Louise died suddenly. A broken-hearted Boldt never returned to the island, and the castle fell into disrepair.
The Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property in 1977, and began the slow and painstaking task of bringing the castle back to its original splendour, a labour of love that has transformed it into a tourist attraction, though the work continues today as funds become available. You can stop by to see the castle on one of the many boat tours of the islands (don’t forget your passport!). You can also visit the Boldt Yacht House, on Wellesley Island, the new home to the 1892-built Kestrel, a 63-foot steam yacht similar to those that were popular on the St. Lawrence River at the turn-of-the-century.
With all the construction of luxury homes in those early years, the Thousand Islands became known as Millionaires Row. Many expensive estates still exist, and tourists aboard the tour boats plying the river throughout spring, summer and fall eagerly crane their necks to catch a glimpse of how the rich and secretive live.
But mostly, the Thousand Islands are a quiet place of beauty, where huge ocean-going vessels and lake freighters still sail majestically past the islands on their way up and down the Seaway. Experienced Seaway pilots manoeuvre the ships through the tricky series of shoals and rocks that make navigating the St. Lawrence a challenging task.
The islands are actually a neck of the Canadian Shield, which connects the main shield section in Ontario to a secondary portion that’s represented by the Adirondack Mountains in New York state.
There are several interesting facts attached to the islands. For example, the famous Thousand Islands salad dressing is named for them. Former Clayton, New York, resident Sophie LaLonde is credited with concocting the dressing and serving it to guests of her husband, who was a popular fishing guide at the turn of the 20th century. Clayton hotel owner Ella Bertrand and New York stage actress May Irwin got hold of the recipe, and Irwin passed it on to George Boldt to serve in his famous hotel’s dining room.
Clayton is one of the main island-area communities on the American side of the border, and is home to another significant area attraction, the Antique Boat Museum. The museum’s galleries boast more than 300 preserved boats and thousands of recreational boating artifacts. You can try your hand at sailing or rowing on Tuesday evenings until Aug. 28: the museum throws its doors open to the public once a week for some free in-the-water time using its own fleet of small craft.
Another story linked to the islands is that Deer Island is actually owned by the Yale University-based secret society, the Skull and Bones. The society dates back to 1832 and counts among its members both George Bushes and U.S. Senator John Kerry. While the island is still held by the society as a rustic retreat, recent visitors have been quoted as saying all that’s left is a bunch of stone ruins.
Among the Canadian communities along the islands are Kingston, Gananoque, Rockport and Brockville.
The Great Lakes, including the Thousand Islands region, are known worldwide for their many well-preserved shipwreck sites, thanks to cold, fresh water that is capable of keeping many sunken vessels in stunning condition. Edie Benish, who owns Seeway Vision Dive Charters in Brockville with her husband, Kevin, says the Brockville and Rockport areas are considered “the best freshwater diving in the world” because of the quantity and quality of the wrecks, good visibility up to at least 70 feet, an even temperature from top to bottom and currents that make every dive unique.
Tony Dekker, lead singer and songwriter of the indie band Great Lake Swimmers, fell in love with the beauty and spirituality of the Thousand Islands, and the band recorded many of the tracks on the Lost Channels
album at Brockville, Rockport and Singer Castle on Dark Island.
refers to a passage in the St. Lawrence where a reconnaissance boat from a British warship went missing in 1760. The story of what happened to the ship remains shrouded in mystery to this day. While the ship is not specifically mentioned in the lyrics, they are filled with dramatic images of raging waters, howling winds and dark night skies. You can catch Great Lake Swimmers in concert in Kingston on Sept. 22.
For $8.99, you can fly along the St. Lawrence River and explore the Thousand Islands via your iPad, all while listening to a Great Lake Swimmers soundtrack.
Pilot-turned-photographer Ian Coristine, who last year teamed up with the band for a show in Brockville, has been capturing the beauty of the Thousand Islands in all seasons for many years, after a chance flight to the area from Montreal in 1992. He is now the steward of Raleigh Island, whose story is told in the memoir One in a Thousand
, a new eBook co-written with Donna Walsh Inglehart, chronicling the journey that Coristine says “fundamentally changed my life.”
One in a Thousand
, hailed as “the most sophisticated interactive eBook,” describes the challenges of acquiring Raleigh Island, the restoration of an abandoned cottage, and Coristine’s adventures in the air and on the water as he immersed himself in a new, unexpected career.
The interactive book, available in the iTunes app store, includes an 85,000-word text set in a stunning layout, videos of his flying adventures, nature sounds from the river, an interactive map and hundreds of his best images embedded in the text, in galleries and in automated slideshows set to unpublished instrumental tracks from Great Lake Swimmers.
'Rare, magical place'
According to Coristine, “It has become my life’s work to celebrate and help protect this rare, magical place.”
Want to visit in person? Before heading out on a cruise, don’t forget to drop by the mainland St. Lawrence Islands National Park’s visitor centre. Located on the riverfront at Mallorytown Landing on the Thousand Islands Parkway between Brockville and Gananoque, it’s a great spot for a scenic picnic or an easy hike. There’s also a boat launch here, so if you have access to a boat, more than 20 island properties in the St. Lawrence River between Kingston and Brockville are open to the public for swimming, hiking and camping.
If your summer is already booked up, there’s still plenty of opportunity to visit the Thousand Islands this year: the St. Lawrence River in early fall is simply stunning!
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — August 2012