1000 Islands

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The 1000 Islands…..one thousand, seven hundred and ninety three to be exact, depending on whose definition of an island you follow. Canada requires land to be above water year-round, and at least one tree or bush. The United States is pickier, requiring 2 trees or bushes, or 1 tree and 1 bush. Being as 2/3rds of the islands are located in Canada, their definition carries the most weight ;-)

The islands are located on the St. Lawrence River, on the US and Canadian border just east of Lake Ontario. The Canadian border is about 150 yards from our campsite out in the river. It’s a lovely area, and long known as a playground for the wealthy. In the late 1800’s it became fashionable for the super-rich to build extremely large summer ‘cottages’, which in reality were closer to large hotels just lacking a check-in desk. Many still survive, although quite a few fell prey to fire and/or lack of upkeep over the years.

We are staying at Wellesley Island State Park. Wellesley Island is the 2nd largest of the islands, and is 9 miles long and a couple of miles wide. Most of the islands are much smaller, with the smallest (Tom Thumb Island in Canada) checking in at the disputed single bush ;-)

Family after family we talk with up here mention how they have been coming here for years. The campground offers a wide range of activities – marina, beach, a wonderful nature center, and a recreation barn. Unfortunately, most of the rec programs scale back after mid-august, so we were unable to take advantage of them, but we were able to make full use of the nature center. The season here is very short, as the St. Lawrence River freezes over in the winter, and temperatures reaching 20 below zero are common.

The Minna Anthony Commons Nature center is located on the western edge of the island along Eel Bay. One program they offer is a 2 hour ‘Voyageur’ canoe trip. The canoe, which is a 36 ft recreation of canoes used by French ‘Voyageurs’, or traders, seats up to 17 people. It’s big, and it’s heavy – the center requires 8 adults at a minimum, and after paddling the thing all the way around the bay, I see why! French traders would take similar canoes, constructed out of birch bark and loaded with 5000 pounds of trade goods and supplies, would make multi-month trips to the interior of North America, coming up the St. Lawrence, crossing Lake Ontario, portaging around Niagara (hence the later importance of Fort Niagara mentioned in an earlier post), and following water routes along the other Great Lakes. Beaver pelts were highly valued, and England and France skirmished for years attempting to control the beaver trade.

The US/Canada border is the longest unarmed border in the world, and based on our experience at Niagara, is simple to cross as long as you have proper id – drivers license and birth certificates will suffice. In 2007, the border crossing requirements will tighten to require a passport.

Yesterday we took a several hour boat cruise around the 1000 Islands, cruising the waters on both the American and Canadian sides of the border. The boat takes you past ‘Millionaire’s Row’, which is a series of islands whose ‘cottages’ were built by the likes of Pullman (Railcars), Proctor (of Proctor and Gamble), etc, etc…it would be the equivalent of having a row of houses belonging to Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, etc… today.

While in Canadian waters, Vance got to pilot the ship for about a min, which was rather cool. The cruise finally dropped us off at Boldt Castle on Hart Island, which is the biggest of the big of the island homes.

Boldt is the classic immigrant success story – arriving as a penniless child, he worked his way up to manage the Waldorf-Astoria, and later owned the Bellevue-Stradford Hotel in Philadelphia. The castle, 4 years under construction, is huge… but was never completed. Bodlt, who also owned a 1000 acre dairy farm on Wellesley Island and 3 other ‘cottages’ in the islands, built the castle for his wife Louise. However, just before completion of the house, tragedy struck and Louise died. After spending $2m in 1904 dollars on the castle, Boldt ordered construction halted, and never set foot on the island again. The family later sold the structure to the creator of Lifesavers Candy, whose estate later donated it to the 1000 Islands Bridge Authority, which started restoration in 1978.

The castle is undergoing a renovation funded by entry fees. It’s a strange renovation, in that it is in many cases restoring what never was, as the building was never completed. While Vance and I tend to suffer from SOBHSTA syndrome (Seen One Big House Seen Them All), viewing Boldt was interesting to see the contrast between rooms that have been ‘restored’, and the bare walls of the uncompleted structure. The amount of work shuttling materials to the island must have been staggering – the Boldt Castle is almost as large as the Biltmore House in Asheville, and contains 120 rooms – all on a small island.

There is some controversy over the future of the castle – proposals have been floated to turn it into a casino, or a high end resort hotel – which basically is what it was built to be in the first place, considering Boldt’s background managing and owning hotels. Others wish to leave the house as is, remaining a tourist attraction.

If you plan on camping at Wellesley, and you need hookups, be warned that the Canadian Geese share a fondness for that portion of the campground, and have been known to leave their ‘mark’. Goose poop is everywhere! We opted to go without power for these few days, having been forewarned about the geese. Other than some loud honking during the occasional overflight, the geese aren’t an issue on our side of the campground.

This is a short stay – we are only scheduled for 3 nights, as we are trying to reach the Catskills for Labor Day. I can see where this area would be a great vacation spot – it’s beautiful, laid back, and there are plenty of activities both in the islands and along Lake Ontario. Wish we had more time to hang around…..

Vance: The 1000 Islands region was very beautiful. Lots of geese swam on the St. Lawrence River by our campground. When we got there I went to the next campsite and made a friend with a boy named Jason. Jason had brought his border collie with him, her name is Oreo. On the next day I met Jason’s sister, Rachel. It turned out Oreo had a ball, and if you threw it in the water, she would fetch it. She also enjoyed catching imaginary chippies up in trees. On the island there was a Nature Center where you could learn about mink and otter.

Next we went on a lunch cruise in a large boat. They also taught us about some of the islands. I also got to drive the boat for a minute in Canada! We stopped by Boldt Castle and explored the buildings. While we were at the castle I met a sweet dachshund named Minnie. Finally we took a small boat back to the dock.


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