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Thousand Islands of New York – Where Glamour Embraces Penury

December 26, 2021 | By

Haimonti Dutta pens a memorable trip to the picturesque Thousand Islands archipelago. More than eighteen hundred in number, these islands on the St. Lawrence river straddle the border between the United States and Canada.

mighty St. Lawrence river

Thousand Island – mighty St. Lawrence river

It had been a rather strenuous week for the family – everyone was working ten to twelve hours a day; the kid’s coursework had picked up and so had the list of extracurricular activities – early morning soccer, instrumental music, choir practice, and the incessant computer games – Minecraft, Roblox and others. It was the right time to consider escaping routines — even if it was just for a few days.

The long weekend in the second week of October with the sometimes recognized and at other times unrecognized Columbus Day (the day dedicated to indigenous people – particularly the American Indians and other native American tribes) holiday offered just the right opportunity. A search for places to visit ended quickly — the Thousand Islands archipelago was overwhelmingly popular – it was close to home and yet, remained unexplored. More than eighteen hundred in number, these islands on the St. Lawrence river straddle the border between the United States and Canada.

Schedules were quickly checked and it seemed leaving home on Friday night to be back by Mon afternoon would work. A cabin was rented through the popular Airbnb site, ensuring that it was overlooking a bay with promises of gorgeous water-front sunrise and sunsets. A quick packing of food, books to read, cameras, painting equipment, and bike arrangements were made with miraculous efficiency (it’s almost uncanny how efficient we can be when planning trips). Before you knew it, the family loaded up the Subaru Impreza and we were driving down I-90 east headed towards Syracuse, NY.

This part of the highway is relatively less traveled, especially once you are past the exits that lead to the Finger Lakes region of NY. An occasional Recreational Vehicle (RV), cars with horses in the trailer, anglers with huge fishing rods resembling telescopes on top of the cars are not uncommon. Gorgeous sunsets, especially in the early Fall evenings, are a treat to the eyes and we looked through the rear-view mirrors to catch a glimpse of the breath-taking beauty. As dusk rolled in, we passed red barns, travel centers, rest areas and large windmills that provide sustainable energy to the primarily agrarian community inhabiting these regions. Soon, it was time to stop for dinner and we decided to try our luck with middle eastern food – a Jordanian restaurant on the outskirts of Syracuse.

Lamps at the restaurant in Syracuse, NY

Calligraphy Thousand Islands

Calligraphy and designs on wooden plates at the restaurant

COVID19 had ensured that restaurants are no longer crowded, even on Friday nights. Most people simply take-out or have the food delivered at home. Thus, it was not a surprise that we found only a few tables occupied in this restaurant. The aesthetics caught the eye immediately – there were framed pictures of birds, hookahs with intricate designs, scenes from the dessert in Petra, fancy colored lamps with mosaics, handcrafted wall hangings with intricate designs stitched on them, and exquisite calligraphy on wooden plates. We do not know whether it was because we had not eaten out in a long time thanks to COVID, or whether we were too hungry to judge appropriately – but the food was outstanding. The starter of Jordanian delights comprising of baba ghanoush, hummus, falafel, grape leaves, and salad to be sampled with warm pita bread and the main course of rice and chicken in lemon and garlic gravy tested our ability to eat.

Finishing up, we headed for the destination – Chaumont, NY traveling through Watertown and other quaint villages, now all engulfed in the darkness of the night. The clear blue skies enabled us to watch the stars, twinkling in the distance – one, two, three and then whole constellations. I wish we could stop and gaze at them for hours, but we wanted to reach our cabin by the bay, quickly. As we drove through the darkness, through highways and dirt roads, we saw houses already decorated for Christmas, small trees with ornaments and holiday colors, closed warehouses with dim lights and lighthouses sending signals with blinking lights. It seemed like a fairy tale and when we crossed railway tracks we wondered if the Polar Express would come by.

Suddenly from amidst the fields, and darkness emerged a light-yellow glow … a strange coloration of the sky and we wondered what it could possibly be. It wasn’t a full moon night, nor lights from a distant city – it took a while to realize, they were the Northern Lights, not quite the Aurora Borealis – but less dramatic auroras – solar winds interacting with the earth’s magnetic field resulting in a treat for the eyes, but very rarely seen this far South in upstate New York. I was reminded of something I read in a book by Ruskin Bond, “Zone for Dancing” –

“No night is as dark as it seems. […] I have grown accustomed to night’s brightness – moonlight, starlight, lamplight, firelight! Even fireflies light up the darkness. Over the years, the night has become my friend. On the one hand, it gives me privacy; on the other, it provides me with limitless freedom.”

Auroras as seen in Chaumont, NY

Auroras as seen in Chaumont, NY

As we headed to the cabin on the bay that night, the faint light from houses on the inlet bordered the veil of darkness, and we could discern lift-docks held up high in the air, in precarious angles, and tied to posts on the shore with strong ropes. It intensified my curiosity, and I was to learn later that once the Labor Day weekend passes, folks from this region know “Winter has officially started”. The locals joke the seasons are “Summer, Fall, Winter, More Winter and Even More Winter”. The temporary docks that are much sought after in summer for launching boats, walking or jumping into the water for a swim are now being prepared to be removed and stowed away for the next half of the year when snow makes navigation on the bay impossible.

Cabin Thousand Islands

The cabin on the bay

Shack Thousand Islands

A shack selling bait – minnows, flies, and small fish

As dawn broke over the Guffin Bay and fishing boats lined up in docks, one could sit back and watch the horizon, or the sky painted by the sun hiding amongst clouds, or the flight of the Canada geese all from the deck of the cabin on the bay. A large tree in the front yard was reluctantly responding to changing seasons, shedding some of its yellow leaves and shivering in cold gusts from the bay. A small lamp on top of the door was the only ornamentation in front of the cabin, but one could easily spot the grill on the right and dense thicket behind it. Inside, the rooms were well furnished, with a small kitchen and we wasted no time in making a pot of hot tea to get our day started. I love morning walks, and the small dirt road by the side of the bay looked enticing.

Lift Docks on the Guffin Bay

Lift Docks on the Guffin Bay

As I walked along the bay, all I could see was water, water and more water interspersed with tiny islands – too many to count. Little shops by the road side sold minnows, flies and other kinds of bait. Sea gulls, circled flag posts and poles, screeching loudly. Sometimes they settled on the edge of the dock fluffing up their feathers, bending their heads quizzically as if to look for fish and even trying out what seemed like dance moves – balancing first on one leg, bending another and then repeating all over again with the other leg. The Canada geese didn’t mind them much and a flock of them swam along the surface of the water, until some felt threatened; then all of them flapped their wings suddenly, loudly honked, and flew away – not even giving me a chance to take a good picture of them in flight.

A seagull on a post at the end of a dock

A seagull dancing Thousand Islands

A seagull dancing

Colorful canoes, upturned rested on the grass. Summer lilies and bright marigolds still decorated the window sills of the shops and sheds. I did not know bald eagles too have their nests here, but I did see these raptors high up in the sky majestically gliding over the bay. Far away, near the islands a few fishermen cast their nets from small canoes. Others still looking for a suitable place to fish, moved on in their motor boats, past islands, past rocks towards the wide, open St. Lawrence river.

Thousand Islands

Late afternoon, we headed to Cape Vincent hoping to see more boats. A lonely road through corn fields and grassland, an occasional barn, hay bales stacked up high like a wall, tractors to be sold with notes from owners, lonely scarecrows, cows, sheep and horses grazing was all you could see on the drive between Chaumont and Cape Vincent. We headed straight for the river — past a near dilapidated downtown with small mom and pop stores.

Restaurants, with a necklace of lamps at the entrance that opened during the day, a solitary grocery and liquor store with an occasional customer, a shed with stacks of pumpkins, colorful mums and dried corn, an antique store with broken windows and cobwebs hanging from doors was all that the downtown offered to the inquisitive visitor. The docks were mostly empty, barring a few birding enthusiasts and fishermen returning with their catch. A large ferry carrying cars was heading somewhere – I learnt later that it carried auto passengers/ferry on the St Lawrence river between Cape Vincent, NY and Wolfe Island, Ontario. The slip docks attracted attention – some of them allowed at least a dozen boats to be parked. Others were two storied and housed even more boats. Far away in the river, a lonely sail boat without the sail stood silently, testimony to the days of warmth and merriment which was now over – there was no more wind in its sails. A large map next to some benches informed the visitor of the Great Lakes and St Lawrence seaway system and the waterway trails. This would come handy, since the next day we had plans of taking a boat ride to see the thousand islands.

We spent the following morning at the Antique Boat Museum watching a video of how a single train connected New York city to the thousand islands in the early part of the 20th century. Business men who had to be in the city for work would spend the week there, but on Friday night they would take an eight-hour train ride, to reach the thousand islands area by early Saturday morning – just in time for breakfast with family. The history of boating in the area appeared to be well documented, beginning from the canoes to the modern-day motorized boats. One was particularly enamored by the many stories the museum had to tell – such as churches and mass being delivered to whole communities on boats – or nail-biting finishes to boat racing competitions. Game fishing, particularly for the muskellunge (locally known as muskie) was an important pastime, but salmon, trout, perch and others were also caught by the smaller fishing charters. Amidst all that, you could not afford to miss the big map of the thousand island area marking out all its 1862 islands including those on the other side of the border in Canada – we stopped to appreciate nature’s play and ponder over how the river managed to even craft them. Finally, we headed to the dock of the museum to see antique boats — made of mahogany or oak decorated and anchored, ready for pictures.

Thousand Islands

A boat named “That’s Her”

Antique Boat Museum Thousand Islands

An antique boat named “Pardon Me” both docked on the French Creek harbor of the Antique Boat Museum

The last leg of the trip involved a boat tour of the thousand islands organized by the Clayton Island Tours. The boat with a capacity of approximately 60 people took us close to the islands and offered a view of the magnificence and grandeur of the river. We saw lighthouses (such as the Rock Island Lighthouse), innumerable magnificent summer homes of the rich, aptly called “The Millionaires Row”, Yacht Houses, the American span of the Thousand Island International Bridge connecting New York to Ontario, the Boldt Castle built as a Rhineland Castle by George Boldt to commemorate his love for his wife, and Devil’s Oven – the hiding place of pirate Bill Johnston during the Patriot’s War of 1837. As we sailed through glamor and splendor as if in a Hollywood movie, we saw from our boat – a marriage taking place in Boldt Castle – the bride in a beautiful flowing white gown and friends and family all ready to board a private boat docked at the small harbor. We cheered and sent her wishes for a wonderful married life from our boat – quite a unique experience, I have to say.

I could not help wonder what it must feel like to live in the luxury of those summer houses in “Millionaire’s Row” – recall, there are no grocery shops on most of these islands. You get on a boat from your harbor and travel by river to the nearest store to buy milk, bread and other essential supplies. I shuddered to think that this seaway and its shipping channel freezes completely almost nine months of the year – and all one is left with is ice, ice and more ice. I am told that some people enjoy ice fishing for perch and salmon – but for most of the year this wonder of nature is stark, desolate and remote.

I was mesmerized by the beauty of the St. Lawrence river — the dark, deep waters and the strange land that it crafted around itself – like a lady with long hair dancing, in a trance — sometimes dressed in dark black and at other times milky white – an enigma to a casual traveler like me.

While Mark Twain eulogized the Mississippi river in his memoir, ‘’Life on the Mississippi”, and wrote of his days as a steam boat pilot, Sir J. M. Lemoine of Quebec has written about the St. Lawrence river,

“It lies for a thousand miles between two great nations, yet neglected by both, though neither would be so great without it, — a river as grand as the La Plata, as picturesque as the Rhine, as pure as the Lakes of Switzerland. . . . The noblest, the purest, most enchanting river on all God’s beautiful earth . . . has never yet had a respectable history, nor scarcely more than an occasional artist to delineate its beauties.”

On the way back to our cabin on the bay, the sun was setting over the St. Lawrence river. We drove along the bank, quietly gazing at the water sparkling through the trees – my lady with long hair was now dressed in gold; a lone fisherman stood on his boat, nets cast with long shadows on the water; the ducks were preparing to go home, and on a mud flat an abandoned, upturned canoe served as a resting place for some noisy gulls.

Perch Thousand Islands

Freshly caught perch in a bucket at the Chaumont Bay Seafood Store

It occurred to us that a trip to this part of the state should not end without a taste of fresh fish from the river. The owner of the cabin on the bay had some phone numbers for local fishermen and we wasted no time in calling them up. The owner of Chaumont Bay Seafood called us back, stating that he was out in the river, but would be willing to meet us later in the night.  At around seven that evening, we stopped by his shack – a small white shed with a board announcing its name; several buoys and iced fish containers lay around; wooden planks and buckets leaked water, fishing nets were jumbled up in heaps, and two large trucks were parked in the driveway of what seemed to be a space shared with a local diner. The local fishermen were coming in now, after their day’s work with ice boxes and fresh catch. I ventured to peek into one bucket and discovered fresh perch, pink and yellow still alive and slithering. The owner welcomed us, and told us his commercial permit allowed him to catch perch and walleye. He supported ice fishing, though commercial fishing helped to make ends meet. The fishermen bring their catch, clean, process and refrigerate for sale. COVID had affected business as all the neighborhood diners had shut down and there were no takers for the fish they caught. The pandemic had made things even more difficult for these entrepreneurs.

The drive back home was uneventful. We all agreed the fish tasted out-of-the-world, but nothing could compare with the joy of having seen an aurora and reveling in the beauty of nature.

We remain hopeful that once restrictions due to COVID are removed and the borders opened, we can drive on the Thousand Island International Bridge to Ontario and visit the islands in Canada.

(Pictures have been provided by the author)

More to read

The Charms of San Francisco

The Old World Charm of Montreal and Quebec

The Goa Diaries: When A Pleasant Surprise Went Unpleasant

Dark Tourism – Another Way to Understand Travelling

Haimonti Dutta is an assistant professor at the State University of Buffalo, New York. She lives with her husband, Manoj K Pooleery and son, Agneya Dutta Pooleery at Ewing, NJ.
All Posts of Haimonti Dutta

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