720. That’s the number of nautical miles we logged along the St. Lawrence River from Gaspe to Lake Ontario. Trusty as ever, Windleblo climbed and clawed her way upstream and upwind, finally reaching the Thousand Islands on August 16th. Many thanks to John, Jesse, Jocelyn, and Jon for helping guide Windleblo up this long, long river.
The heavy lifting complete, our reward came as we finally set anchor in the Thousand Islands. The water was cool, clean, clear, and inviting, the constellation of islands seemingly endless as we weaved through to get to a group on the Canadian side called the Navy Islands. We were due in Alexandria Bay, New York, by the end of the week to meet up with our good friend and returning Windleblo crewman, John Renna, but for now we had a few days to enjoy Canada’s version of the Thousand Islands.
The Thousand Islands is an archipelago at the mouth of Lake Ontario where the Great Lakes drain into the St. Lawrence. Aptly named, islands of all shapes and sizes dot a 35 nautical mile stretch of the river, which widens to nearly ten miles where it meets the lake. The river splits into several channels as it braids among the islands, creating sleepy still backwaters juxtaposed with deep swiftly running flows. The islands are rimmed in granite,
topped by mixed coniferous and deciduous forests, and liberally sprinkled with stunning summer homes along their shores. The international border between Ontario and New York meanders through, forcing the cruiser to take pause before haphazardly setting the hook. An errant placement could result in a stiff fine for illegal entry into one country or the other.
Nobody thought much of the Thousand Islands until a guy named George Boldt brought Teddy Roosevelt up from New York City for a visit. Boldt was an hotelier who made the original Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan the place to see and be seen for the glitterati of the late 19th Century Gilded Age. Before Boldt, the Thousand Islands were being
given away. After him, they were in demand. Now, a typical Thousand Island summer home fetches $1 million.
After exploring the Navy Islands and two other island groups near Gananoque on the Ontario side, it was finally time to reenter the good old U.S.A. Our first stop was at Heart Island where George Boldt built the opulent Boldt Castle as a surprise gift for his beloved wife, Louise. Sadly, Louise died unexpectedly in January, 1904, just before George intended to present his gift. He immediately directed that all work cease and for over 70 years the property was abandoned, falling into disrepair. About 40 years ago, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority
purchased Heart Island for one dollar. An ambitious restoration project then began turning the Castle and adjacent structures into a major tourist attraction.
Conveniently, the U.S. Border Patrol maintains a port of entry at Heart Island. We checked back into the country before spending several hours exploring the Castle and Yacht House. Then, it was off to an anchorage in a side channel 300 meters upstream from Alexandria Bay. Going ashore, we lashed our dinghy amidst a crowd of cigarette boats rafted three deep the full length of the 200 foot dock. Thumping music drowned out the din emitted by the raucous crowd both at the dock and along James Street, the town’s main tourist thoroughfare. We noted many tattoos
and piercings as we searched among the watering holes for a suitable restaurant. All looked hideous, greasy spoons brimming with crowds of large loud people. Luckily, we thought to look one block off James Street where we found a brilliantly understated farm to fork affair with a pleasant relaxed atmosphere. We ordered small plates of seared scallops, Utica greens, arugula salad, and an exquisitely unique homemade mac & cheese dish. We washed it all down with local craft beer and followed it with imperial stout infused chocolate ice cream. (The latter sounds weird, I know, but delicious!)
The next morning, John joined us just in time to see the finale of the Bill Johnston Pirate Days. Each August, A-Bay,
as it is called, holds a ten-day tribute to pirates complete with reenactments of naval battles between pirates and Redcoats, general partying, and a parade.
Our week with John was focused on one theme – déjà vu all over
again. John grew up down Interstate 81 in Syracuse and spent two weeks every August camping with his family at Cedar Point State Park just upriver from A-Bay. Our mission was to take John down memory lane as he revisited those days.
The week raced by punctuated by a brilliant sail around Wellesley Island, shore leave for a road trip to Syracuse to attend the wedding of one of John’s high school buddies, an idyllic anchorage at Mary Island State Park where we viewed the August 21st solar eclipse through our home made box viewer, and of course a day exploring and reminiscing at Cedar Point State Park.
Our time in the Thousand Islands drew to a close as we sailed past Tibbetts Point lighthouse into Lake Ontario. As the horizon broadened, it dawned on us that we had done it – we had made it all the way into the Great Lakes, America’s North Coast.