Boating In The Thousand Islands

By Kim Luman

It may not have always been smooth sailing, but island life finally turned this enthusiast into a real boater.

Photo of the Thousand IslandsEach of the Thousand Islands is a unique kingdom, adorned with cottages, shacks, or castles, and there are almost two thousand of them between New York and Ontario on the St. Lawrence River. (Photo: Ian Coristine)

My voyage through the Thousand Islands began more than four years ago when I started writing stories about the region, and founded Island Life Magazine. Writing about islands without a boat became something of a challenge. I had a kayak, but that wasn't going to get me far, so I explored the St. Lawrence River as a nautical hitchhiker, aboard tall ships, yachts, Sea-Doos, skiffs, and powerboats. The more I was out on the water, the more I began to love boating.

The Thousand Islands are world famous for its castles and cottages, its boathouses and storybook bridges. There are 1,865 islands, spanning two countries along this storied 50-mile stretch of the St. Lawrence River. You can see two castles on two islands in one day here: Boldt Castle on Heart Island near Alexandria Bay, New York, and Singer Castle on Dark Island in Chippewa Bay, New York. There are islands with idyllic names like Fairyland, and more menacing monikers like Deathdealer, and enchanting water worlds to explore like the timeless tranquility of the Lost Channel. So, it's not surprising the perfect way to truly discover this destination shared by Ontario and New York — between Kingston and Cape Vincent and Brockville and Morristown — is by boat.

Photo of Boldt CastleBoldt Castle, a millionaire's gift to his wife, is now open to the public, with docking and tours.

The islands here are rugged creatures, pink granite and wind-swept pines slumbering under blankets of snow in the winter, but a boater's paradise in summer. Many islanders, a hearty breed of cottage owners on both sides of the border, return to the river as soon as the ice thaws. Boating is not just a recreation for them — it's a necessity of island life. I discovered this firsthand in the summer of 2011. I rented a small island on the Canadian side of Blacksnake Passage, with a rustic cottage in an area of the river known as the International Rift. What If Island (yes, "What If" is its name!) was 69 feet from New York's Wellesley Island. My golden retriever Stella swam to America on more than one occasion. What If looks out onto Lake of Isles, a favorite boating destination en route to the Rift, which takes boaters under the Thousand Islands International Bridge, bustling with traffic overhead, and transports them to an amazingly tranquil narrow ribbon of river between Ontario and New York.

A Hard Start

What If Island came with an aluminum boat named The Red Fisherman. There was only one problem: I didn't have much experience driving a boat. Bob, who rented me the island, gave me a few pointers and a test drive. The mainland dock was near the village of Ivy Lea and the 15-minute voyage to What If seemed an eternity. I held my breath and steered carefully behind tour boats of camera-toting tourists that left Stella, clad in a neon-yellow dog life jacket, and me bobbing in their wake. Sometimes it seemed impossible to get the pull-cord motor on The Red Fisherman to start, and on trips back to the mainland, I had to get through the choppy current running among a string of little islands including Virgin Island with a statue of the Virgin Mary perched atop a hill. "Hail Mary," I'd mutter as I passed the statue toward Smuggler's Cove and braced for my clumsy docking attempts, which involved slowing right down, bumping the dock, killing the engine, grabbing the dock for dear life — and hoping for no witnesses.

Boats of all kinds — merchant ships, center-consoles, cruisers, classics, and luxury yachts — ply the Thousand Islands. Over a century ago, steam yachts belonging to millionaires who built the first grand summer estates during the region's Gilded Age were common on the river. Waldorf Astoria hotelier George C. Boldt built Boldt Castle on Heart Island near Alexandria Bay, New York, for his beloved Louise, but halted construction when she died in 1904 at 42. It was left vacant and vandalized, covered in graffiti, for decades. Now, every summer, tourists descend from tour boats and flock to the refurbished castle operated by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority. Singer Castle on Dark Island, New York, is a popular tourist destination operated by Dark Island Tours. Frederick Bourne, then-president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, built the 28-room castle with secret passageways and turrets as a hunting and fishing lodge in 1904.

The Death Of The Love Boat

I wasn't exactly on a yacht-and-castle budget when it was time to get my own boat last summer, and asked one of my magazine's marina advertisers if he had something I could afford, "just a boat that will get me around."

As a matter of fact," replied Lucas Pearson, owner of Village Quay Marina in Ivy Lea, "I do!" The 17-foot Starcraft runabout with a 115-horse motor, which had clearly seen better days, had the unfortunate name of Love Boat. I could start her with a key, a step up from The Red Fisherman. Despite acquiring a boater's license in Canada, I didn't have the courage to take Love Boat out on my own until after lessons from Lucas. Even so, on one of my earlier cruises near Ash Island, I misread a channel marker and managed to run into a shoal near a particularly picturesque area known as Lover's Lane. It was a quick trip back to the marina for a new prop. A veteran boater at the marina made me feel better when he showed me his footwear on the dock. One red Croc, and one green. He had one pair of each color and switched them accordingly when boating up or down the busy river — red, right, return!

Photo of the Love BoatThe unfortunately named Love Boat.

I had many solo voyages in Love Boat without incident, but one evening for dinner I visited some friends, who had a cottage on the mainland. Another friend, a seasoned boater and islander, joined me for the ride. On the way back, under a calm moonlit August night, Love Boat's engine stopped. A tow back to the mainland was my last ride in her. Lucas grimly informed me the next day that the motor was shot. This took me a moment to process. Love Boat? Dead? This was decidedly premature, occurring just two days before I was to take up residence on Lindsay Island near Gananoque. I'd rented a cottage on a 12-acre island shaped like a butterfly to write a story.

Lucas kindly offered his marina's workboat, a zippy little center-console KMV. I climbed aboard with my waterproof nautical chart, groceries, supplies, bags of clothes, and started the engine, heading for the Middle Channel under a postcard-perfect blue sky. By the end of that hot summer afternoon, I'd navigated my way 10 miles through this beautiful archipelago, with only a few wrong turns, docked at Lindsay Island, and slid the boat into the century-old, green boathouse. Sailboats dotted the bay. A blue heron swooped over the shoreline and into the horizon. It wasn't an epic voyage, but I'd made it on my own to this island, one of more than a thousand. 

Kim Lunman, award-winning writer and publishes Island Life Magazine, She winters in Brockville, Ontario, and travels the St. Lawrence River the rest of the year.

— Published: April/May 2013

Cruising the Great Lakes

To travel around each of the Great Lakes with experienced boaters, who will whet your appetite to explore some of the most spectacular cruising grounds in the world see these other stories:

Boating On Lake Superior
Tips From The GLCC: Lake Superior
Boating On Lake Michigan
Mackinac Island Is A Step Back In Time
Boating On Lake Huron
Tips From The GLCC: The Detroit River To Saginaw Bay
Tips From The GLCC: Port Huron


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