Lake Freighter, St. Laurence River Traffic, photo by Mike Keenan
Quickly ‒ if appearing on the TV quiz show, Jeopardy, what geographic term describes a cluster of islands near a mainland?
Archipelago is the correct response. In world rankings, Canada's Arctic region fits up there near the top, listed third in size behind Norway and Finland. Nonetheless, despite the appeal of the far north, my favourite Canadian archipelago is more accessible ‒ in the St. Lawrence River.
Yes, it's the misnamed 1000 Islands, composed really of 1864 islands, some large like Wellesley Island, home to the Wellesley Island State Park and others quite tiny.
These inviting islands, most popular in the summer, stretch for 50 miles downstream from Kingston, Ontario. Two-thirds belong to Ontario, the other third, New York State.
To fully appreciate the huge Can-Am archipelago, I take two cruises, first from Gananoque, 20 minutes east of Kingston, and then from Alexandria Bay, New York.
Captain Kenneth Belfield, photo by Mike Keenan
Captain Tim Brooks, photo by Mike Keenan
The Gananoque Boat Line operates five triple-decker, all-aluminum vessels. I opt for their short, one-hour cruise aboard the “1000 Islander,” captained by Tim Brooks and Ryan Riddell, Gananoque natives.
Tim explains that the "ship’s small 5.5 foot draw, allows access everywhere, even into the shallows," the water quite crowded on this sunny morning with motor boats, sailboats, cruisers and a squadron of brave kayakers.
Private cottages set amidst the islands are 5th and 6th generation, whose owners include business and political leaders from Canada and the U.S., a few university professors and Whit Tucker, an ex-CFL player.
We venture through narrow channels of the Admiralty and Navy group of islands, viewing small lighthouses and watching for great blue heron, osprey and geese. We pass by several parks including the St. Lawrence Highlands National Park, and McDonald, Forsythe, Hay, Lindsay, Leek and Bostwick Islands.
Water clarity improved noticeably in the mid-1990s with the arrival of zebra mussels, which feed on algae. The area offers several shipwreck sites, and although most are over 100 feet (30 m) deep, some are a mere 15 feet (4.6 m) down, seen from the surface.
Tim and Ryan report that muskellunge are the most prized fish here, the remarkable record, just one ounce short of 70 pounds; however, 20-30-punders are much more common. Pike, pickerel, bass and several other species are abundant here.
Boat Slips, Uncle Sam 2 Nation Boat Tour, photo by Mike Keenan
Towards the end of the cruise we come upon an unusual sight off our starboard. Upon a minuscule island, there is a cottage and boat parked at the dock and wedged miraculously between the two, a small helicopter that I would like to watch just to get into and out of its remarkable postage-stamp sized pad.
On the American side at Alexandria Bay, opposite Boldt Castle, I take the early morning Uncle Sam's Two Nation Tour, a 2.25 hour cruise with Kenneth Belfield, our captain.
Ken adeptly steers our impressive looking (and quite full) stern wheeler along myriad geographical highlights such as Millionaire’s Row (at the beginning of the tour to set the tone), a marvelous grouping of opulent summer residences for the super rich of the 1920s, each millionaire trying to outdo the other in size and grandeur, with Boldt's Castle leading the way.
In 1900, George Boldt, GM of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City and the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, started to build a huge structure, one of the largest private homes in the United States, a six-story castle as a present to his wife.
Equally distinctive is a huge yacht house on a neighboring island where the Boldts enjoyed another summer home and a vast estate, incorporating farms, canals, a golf course, tennis courts, stables, and a polo field. I feel certain I might bump into F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Great Gatsby," walking about on one of the islands.
In 1904, disaster struck and construction ceased abruptly after the death of Boldt's wife, Louise. Sadly, he never returned to Heart Island. For 73 years, the castle and other structures exposed to theft and harsh weather.
The Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired Heart Island and the nearby yacht house in 1977 for one dollar. All revenues obtained from the castle operation are applied towards restoration such that the island is preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. They have spent over $15 million for restoration and improvements, and work continues annually.
We pass several islands with suggestive names such as Devil’s Oven, the tiny cave-like hiding place of pirate Bill Johnston used during the Patriot’s War of 1837, Tom Thumb Island, Fiddlers Elbow, and Smugglers Cove. We cruise by the Summerland group of islands, Grenadier Island, the Canadian Palisades, view the imposing Skydeck on Hill Island, a 400′ tall observation deck and take in the Whirlpool Channel.
We observe international ships heading upriver to ports ringing the Great Lakes or downriver to the ocean and distant lands. Kayaks cruise along the shoreline and high performance powerboats criss-cross the main shipping channel.
At the end of the cruise there is an option to disembark at Heart Island to enjoy a self-guided tour of Boldt Castle and return to the mainland (every 30 minutes) on smaller vessels.
Tour Guide, Uncle Sam 2 Nation Boat Tour, photo by Mike Keenan
Stern Wheel, Uncle Sam 2 Nation Boat Tour, photo by Mike Keenan
We cover 22 miles round-trip through American and Canadian waters, the heart of the 1000 Islands while listening to informative talks by our tour guide, a young lady who provides a lively narrative.
For me, the two cruises were timely. I had just finished Anne Michaels' novel, The Winter Vault which deals with the widening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, recognized as one of the most challenging engineering feats in history. Seven locks were built in the Montreal-Lake Ontario section of the Seaway, five Canadian and two U.S., in order to lift vessels to 246 feet (75 meters) above sea level.
An odd factoid is that Thousand Island dressing was named for the chain of islands by May Irwin, an actress who popularized the dressing, stating that she thought the chopped vegetables in the dressing looked like the Thousand Islands region.
Boldt Castle, Uncle Sam 2 Nation Boat Tour, photo by Mike Keenan
Mike Keenan writes for Postmedia Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune, Niagara Falls Review and Seniors Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.