The summer day was made to order, the blue sky punctuated with fluffy white clouds, a crisp breeze ruffling the water as we stepped into our rented houseboat for the first time.
We were beginning a Thousand Islands holiday, three preadolescents and three adults, and as we listened to the instructions on how to navigate our 38-foot flat-bottomed craft, we were unaware of the magic and madness that lay ahead.
Our destination was the tree-topped islands that we could see in the area between Kingston and Brockville, and the 22 islands of the St. Lawrence Islands National Park, where we could dock or drop anchor after a day of exploring. We were aware that we must navigate within the channel markers and that all larger boats took the right of way; that was abundantly clear when we saw the massive cargo ships and lakers plying the central channel. But we were unaware of the perils of docking.
At first, I thought how friendly the boaters were, rushing out to greet our houseboat as we steered toward dock, sometimes in an awkward sideways angle as we tried to contend with the chop caused by the brisk winds. I realized after a few forays that those dockside boaters were motivated more by concern than friendliness; they were trying to protect their yachts and motorboats from our careening craft.
The rest of the time we slowly chugged along, sometimes dropping anchor for a swim in an inviting bay, and one night, anchored safely at an island dock, we clambered on the houseboat roof to watch the July 4th fireworks light up the shores of New York state, just across the water. Mostly I remember the sweet, dreamy feeling as we meandered among the wooded islands with their myriad outcroppings and bays.
There are actually 1,865 islands in the Thousand Islands chain. They cover an 80-kilometre range between Kingston and Brockville, from the largest, Wolfe Island, encompassing 30,000 acres with four towns, many generations-owned farms and a beautiful circuitry of bicycle paths to a one-acre island with a rustic cottage and dock and quite a few rocky shoals rising up, the tops of submerged mountains that form the chain.
“These islands are unique in the world, a range of mountains left by receding glaciers where you find unique species of flora and fauna,” says Linda Mainse, who heads the Arthur Child Heritage Museum in Gananoque, a riverside town known for its boat cruises – and houseboat rentals.
UNESCO designated this region a Biosphere Reserve in 2002, recognizing a unique confluence of land and river in the so-called Thousand Islands-Frontenac Arch region, which they describe as “an ancient ridge of granite that sweeps across the St. Lawrence River forming a corridor between the Canadian Shield and the Adirondack Mountains.”
The intersection of the ridge between the formation of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River rendered the Thousand Islands corridor and at the area where the Frontenac Arch meets the river, five forest regions meet – “making it the most biodiverse region in Canada,” they write. “First Nations called the Frontenac Arch ‘the backbone of the mother’– Mother Nature’s spinal column.”
In addition to the folk who visit the Thousand Islands – and many thousands come each year to ride the boats, bicycle, kayak, sightsee and hike – there are the river and island folk, who have found the area in their retirement or preretirement years, or have been here for generations. “Life on the river moves at a different pace,” Mainse says. “Many of the islands have been held in families for many generations. People love it for the quality and pace of life.”
One of those people is Susie Smith, author of the book The First Summer People: Thousand Islands 1650-1910, about those very folk who have over the years called the islands home. An indefatigable booster of life on this spectacular landscape and an island dweller herself, Smith is also editor of the beautifully rendered Thousand Islands Life magazine, launched by architecture professor and avid Thousand Islander Paul Malo, who died in 2007.
In a monograph written in 1976 for Parks Canada, Smith describes the evolution of the islands and their heyday in the so-called Gilded Age in the late 1800s when industrial magnates built ornate “castles.” At the same time, the islands were home to many families without the means of the owners of the Waldorf-Astoria or Pullman railway cars; they boated over to their small domaines with their tiny docks and spent their free time exploring the area.
These days, there is likely no explorer more attracted to the Thousand Islands than Ian Coristine, landscape photographer, publisher and author of a number of books on the region. Born and raised in Montreal, Coristine moved to Hudson and started a flying school, becoming the distributor of Challenger ultralight aircraft across Canada.
It was in one of those planes, in 1992, that he discovered the Thousand Islands.
“I had no idea anything so stunning existed in this country,” he says. “I’ve seen all 1,865 of them. Then I found this little granite island with an abandoned 100-year-old cottage and a natural harbour, wingspan wide enough that my amphibious float plane could be taxied out of the water and tied down to bedrock.”
Coristine had spent years marketing airplanes and writing articles complete with photographs for aviation magazines. He had become an expert at techniques where he would fly in close to his subject – in this case other planes in flight. Now he turned his attention to the island paradise he had discovered.
“I started taking photographs to show friends and family why I was so enamoured with the place, and people began encouraging me to publish something,” he says. With an eye to the best quality he could get, Coristine published the books himself, selling many thousands more than any professional publisher would have agreed to produce.
His first book, The 1000 Islands, published in 2002, sold out its first printing in four months, eventually selling 33,000 copies over the next three years. “People are deeply connected to this place,” he says, “and the view from above allows you to see beyond the next shoreline to the labyrinth below.”
He was most impacted, he says, by the surprise of this discovery so close to Hudson. “Then I saw the quality of it all, the natural beauty, the ancient mountains, the species that have figured out how to survive with very little nutrients and soil. We have pitch pine on these islands, Canada’s rarest pine, way farther north because of the microclimate.”
Over the years, he has shown his stunning, awardwinning work at photographic exhibitions and produced four hardcover books and a booklet, with total sales of 100,000 copies.
He is a booster for the islands, contributing expertise and photography to Thousand Islands Life magazine. Then Coristine decided to create something completely different and technologically superior – and so the One in a Thousand eBook was born, created for the iPad, published with great fanfare at the Apple app store on May 1.
Co-written with Donna Walsh Inglehart, this is the interactive tale of “resurrecting this 100-year-old cottage on an island,” an experience he says has transformed his entire life. “The next thing I knew I had a new life, career, interest and love affair – with an island.”
He has combined his story about the place with music by the Great Lake Swimmers, who recorded some of their work at Singer Castle and Rockport, and on Coristine’s Raleigh Island. “The eBook has words, pictures and music, video slide shows and a section purely for the haunting folk rock music of Great Lakes Swimmers,” Coristine says. In total, it contains 455 photographs, 21 minutes of video, 63 minutes of instrumental tracks by Great Lake Swimmers, two music videos, three slide shows, and 85,000 words of text.
Some might live on the islands, others might read the eBook, but up until now the vast majority would drive down to one of the river towns and make a weekend of it, enjoying a boating excursion through the Thousand Islands. At Gananoque Boat Lines, in operation for 61 years, the 22 departures each day can last as little as an hour or as long as five, including a stopover at Boldt Castle on Heart Island.
“The longer cruises show you 80 per cent of the islands,” says marketing manager Kathy MacRae. “We’re open from May to just after Thanksgiving, and last year we carried just over 280,000 passengers. Every Saturday night we have themed dinner cruises.”
Visitors also come to enjoy the riverside environment, says Mainse of the heritage museum. “They visit the towns, the myriad lakes and trails, they backpack, bike, canoe and kayak.”
These days, there’s a real focus on the environment and “on appreciating what we have locally,” she says. “We have a road map that allocates the local farms, called Local Flavours, and we’re in the process of developing the format for local artisans. The river is far healthier now than it was a few decades ago; we’re rebuilding the muskie population, one of the real game fish in the river, and an eagle program has started, to reintroduce the bald eagle back to the river.”
But some practices have never left the river, like vesper services at the eastern end of Bostwick Island on Half Moon Bay that take place during the summer months. Susie Smith is certainly aware of its significance, when the research she did so many years ago turned up this information: “Vesper services have been held here every Sunday during July and August since 1887 when a ‘group of summer campers began to meet on Sunday evenings in the Bay for divine services.’”
Not only a recorder of the past, Smith was uncannily looking into the future when she wrote these lines in her 1976 Parks Canada monograph: “Perhaps the most important people in the Thousand Islands today are the conservationists and the naturalists. It is through their research and recommendations that the Thousand Islands will hopefully remain a recreational paradise.”
For more information on Ian Coristine’s eBook, visit oneinathousand.ca or access it at the App store at itunes.apple.com/us/app/ one-in-a-thousand/id518088485?ls=1&mt=8.
Thousand Islands Life magazine, edited by Susan W. (Susie) Smith, can be found online at ThousandIslandsLife.com.
Arthur Child Heritage Museum of the Thousand Islands is located at 125 Water St., Gananoque. Visit www.1000islandsheritage museum.com or phone toll free 877-217-7391.
Houseboat rentals begin in May, to coincide with the opening of fishing season, says Pete at Houseboat Holidays. “Pike and walleye open first, then at the end of June bass and muskie,” he says. For information, call 613-382-2842 or visit www.houseboatholidays.ca.
To find out more about Gananoque Boat Lines daily cruises, call toll free 888-717-4837 or visit www.ganboatline.com.