Editor’s Note: A version of this article was first published in “Country” magazine. St. Lawrence River: Through the Thousand Islands: A different kind of island vacation on the St. Lawrence River offers a reflection of nature’s patience and majestic handiwork.
Any trip through the Thousand Islands is a journey through time.
The geology of the place calls to mind the ages of ice that have repeatedly passed over. The river is a metaphor for time. Each island is a moment in the time stream. The timelessness of the place—same river, same islands, same shore—speaks to the changes in the visitor over time. If time is a river, it is the St. Lawrence and the Thousand Islands that mark its passage.
The St. Lawrence River flows from the eastern end of Lake Ontario, out to the Atlantic, forming the United States-Canada border, for part of its journey. Strewn between its banks are the Thousand Islands. The river is a shipping conduit from the Great Lakes to the ocean and back, while the islands are a vacation playground and home to small towns with histories that stretch far back in time.
From Bluff Island.
Photograph by Chris Murray ©
Chris and I have gone to the River since our own time began. Our families toted us north from Syracuse each summer. Forty-five years after our first visit and almost three decades since our last stays there together, we planned a return to where our time in the islands began. We went to Rockport.
The small village of Rockport, Ontario has been a port for travelers since the late 1700s. Standing before St. Brendan's Church, at the edge of the rocks, high above the River, the statue of Mary, holds her child before her, his arms outstretched, blessing travelers, welcoming them to worship and give thanks to God, in the heart of the Thousand Islands.
Over a billion years of geologic activity—mountain building, erosion, and glacial activity—have resulted in the islands of our time. While the rock itself is some of the Earth’s oldest, dating back 1.1 billion years, the Islands are a product of the end of the last Ice Age, only 10,000 years ago. As the glaciers retreated northward into Canada, the deluge roared out of the newly formed Great Lakes, flooding the St. Lawrence Valley, creating the river we know today. A thousand hilltops, the roots of ancient mountains, became, in this flooded landscape, the Thousand Islands.
Photograph by Chris Murray ©
The years Chris and I have shared in the Thousand Islands are nothing on this geologic scale, but encompass all the time we have known.
Having driven up Route 81 North, past Watertown, over the bridges and the border crossing into Ontario, we drove slowly up the Thousand Islands Parkway paralleling the River. Chris pointed-out the iconic view of the suspension bridge we had just crossed. We saw islands around which we had boated and on which we had camped. We felt ourselves returning, through time, to Rockport.
The village has changed. The old stone archway was knocked down so long ago that the wooden replacement is old now. The pool near the campground has been filled in. The tour boat ticket booth has been torn down and two of the tour boats have been scuttled. But the buildings remain and seem almost untouched by the years.We checked into our motel and walked toward St. Brendan's. We passed the house in which Chris's grandparents lived, then climbed the steps to the church's locked doors. We tried to peer through windows, but the stained glass has been covered with opaque plexiglas. The outside of the church and our memories were sufficient to feel as if we were standing in the aisle awaiting services.
Beyond the church the old grove road stretches back into the woods. Chris pointed-out the remains of the dirt drive, over which our fathers had steered their station wagons. "There," he said, pointing at a rock, half as tall as me, that I could barely remember, but next to which my father had parked our car. We walked up a new driveway, around the bend and into the place where two cottages, one green and one yellow, had stood.
The green cottage, in which my family stayed, is long gone, its roof having begun to fall-in when I was still a child. Chris’s yellow cottage was moved into the space vacated by the green one and a newer house has been built where it stood. The landscaping has changed, but the rocks remain and I was travelling with a geologist. All his life Chris has looked at rocks and seen through time. He guided me back.
We stood on the point, off which we used to swim, and looked out at the black St. Lawrence. I've been on lakes in New Hampshire, the bright sands of Clearwater Beach, and on Maine’s rocky coast, but nowhere else have I seen the dark mystery that is the St. Lawrence. We stood on rocks looking down into River water, two hundred feet deep. Deep enough, there at the shore, to dock steamships at the turn of the last century. Deeper now even than our memories.
Chris and I stood looking across the river at Club Island and Mary Island. We laughed about Zavikon Island’s ridiculous claim to having the shortest international bridge in the world. We imagined the bridge upriver, just out of sight, like Alexandria Bay, across the channel behind Mary, Pine, and Yeo Islands, and all the years we have spent staring out at the river flowing by.
Up the road from the green and yellow camps, millionaires are building palaces. Walking past them, I felt myself slipping toward frustration or maybe envy. This opulence seemed to me an affront, to what I believe the St. Lawrence and the Thousand Islands are about. But turning back we returned to the familiar comfort of St. Brendan's Church, Mary and her child. This was still our place. No matter the passage of time, we could still find ourselves in the rock and the flow of the dark water.
Together, we drove out of Rockport toward Ivy Lea, another tiny Ontario town, upriver from Rockport. Chris's family rented a place here in our teenage years and I stayed with them. Unlike Rockport, Ivy Lea has much less claim to our past. It is a vacation town that dries-up after Labor Day and doesn't flower again until May. Still, it has its charms, many having to do with another aspect of the River, its shoals and cross currents.
Photograph by Chris Murray ©
Ivy Lea is a place where the name Thousand Islands perhaps best applies. In a glance from the dock we saw dozens of islands. Scores more lay just behind those. Smaller than these islands are the hundreds of rocks just above, and shoals just below the surface, between which lie channels, which rise-up and drop-off, sending water spinning and crashing into itself. Were the River not so wide and deep, white water might bubble and roar here, but the River remains dark, swirling in whirlpools and eddies around the islands and dangerously hidden shoals. This rolling water, on its way downriver toward Rockport, has flowed-out of the open channels, near Gananoque, the larger town to which Chris I were headed next.
Gananoque has become home to a casino and was always our families’ place for groceries, laundry and fireworks. Chris and I drove through, remembering having to wait for our mothers,, to finish the laundry and shopping at the A&P. Back then we wanted nothing more than a sundae at Dairy Queen and to get back to Hill Island, where we stayed through our adolescence after the years at Rockport. Now, we ate the same Dairy Queen sundaes we ordered back then, and I touched the car keys in my pocket. Time changes some things. We no longer had to wait for our parents to get us where we wanted to go.
Just over the bridge on Hill Island is Stratford's Gift Shop. It sits in the shadow of the Skydeck Observation Tower, now 1000 Islands Tower, to which Chris and I used to sneak-off whenever our parents weren't paying attention. I smiled up at its height, but we turned and walked the gravel road down to the cottages we stayed in each summer, from 1977 to 1982. In Rockport, we were the smallest of children. Here on Hill Island we were old enough to appreciate the wonders of the place and call it our own. Those six summers and that place formed us.
The point at Hill Island juts into a channel, through which you can watch the strong River current. The surface is smooth, but like at Ivy Lea, the dark water hurries over underwater drops, rushing to fill chasms carved by time. Across the channel, Constance Island, a Canadian Park, and Huckleberry Island, sit in the River as they have for ages. The first day of vacation each year, Chris and I used to stand on the dock, wondering why Constance stayed the same, but Huckleberry seemed closer. All these years later, I was still tempted to believe Huckleberry was on the move.
Picton Island Sunrise
Photograph by Chris Murray ©
From this point, Chris and I swam, fished, and learned to drive the boat, with its ancient and grinding Johnson outboard motor. We lay on the grass in the sun by day and sat by the campfire into the night, until our parents hustled us to bed and talked their mysterious talks into the darkness. And there on Hill Island, Chris and I discovered the privacy of the forest.
We climbed-up, through a fissure in the rocks to the forest. The trees and rock muted the sounds of the outside world save for the whistles of birds, the soft shush of wind through the pines, and the softer sounds of our footsteps on the fallen needles. Chris led the way into a small clearing, where, as kids, we had cut trees, collected dead limbs and split logs for firewood.
Here we had experienced the quiet of the Thousand Islands. The forest, secluded from the River, separated us from our families as surely as time was making a deeper separation. The parents rarely visited this spot. It was ours then, and returning, it was ours again. Time had felled a few more trees. Logs we had left to season, had rotted and mostly disappeared. A house had been built not far from our clearing, but we kept our backs to it and the place remained what we had made of it decades before: a quiet sanctuary for two boys growing-up, and who would too soon have to leave that place.
Those two boys walked out of the forest long ago, just as we walked out of it now. Together, and without needing to talk, Chris and I walked up the road to our car. We drove back across the bridge, down the Parkway, to the motel in Rockport. We sat on the deck, while the sun peaked in and out of clouds, illuminating St. Brendan's above us. Mary and her child looked down, blessing the St. Lawrence River, the Thousand Islands, and our friendship. We sat together wondering, as we have so often, about the miracles of the River, the islands, and a friendship that goes on and on through time.
By Brian G. Fay and Chris Murray
Brian G. Fay has been visiting the Thousand Islands, from his home in Syracuse, for many years and takes any chance to get back here. He is a writer and teacher, father and husband. More of his writing can be found at bgfay750.blogspot.com.
Chris Murray is a well-known photographer and a part-time, geology consultant! His most recent work can be found in an issue of Life in the Finger Lakes Magazine and often on our TI Life Facebook page. See more at: Chris Murray Photography