Jerry Huck is at the wheel of his Boston Whaler heading west out of his native Rockport on the St. Lawrence River towards the Thousand Islands Bridge near Ivy Lea when our destination – the “St. Lawrence” and namesake of this very waterway – greets us from a granite cliff with nary a hint of an expression.
“It’s becoming quite a tourist attraction,” Huck says with fatherly pride pointing to the statue of the St. Lawrence that stands tall with a watchful eye over boaters just east of Canadian span.
Huck, of the historic family-owned Ed Huck Marine Ltd. in Rockport, belongs to the fraternity of river rats who put the statue up on this perch two years ago. The project was the brainchild of the late Gananoque Boat Lines owner and Admiral Hal McCarney.
Nearly 500 years ago, French explorer Jacques Cartier entered the mouth of a river in the New World. It was the anniversary of St. Lawrence’s death. Cartier decided to chose that name for the river. And it stuck. To this day, we refer to it as the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River.
Belleville sculptor Jim Smith carved the approximately five-meter-high statue from Indiana limestone. The nine-tonne statue was erected at permanent location in an area known as the Pallisades, a cliff overlooking the river on the Canadian side, one kilometre (3/4 mile) east of the Ivy Lea International Bridge and is only visible to boaters.
McCarney, who died at 81 last September, and Jerry Huck are among over 160 U.S. and Canadian men bound by the river on both sides of the border that belong to the Admiralty of the Thousand Islands. Some are ship captains – including Thousand Islands Life Magazine’s contributor Brian Johnson, Captain of the Wolfe Islander III ferry, Canadian Empress Cruise Ship owner Bob Clark and Boldt Castle’s operation manager Shane Sanford on Heart Island.
The “Admirals” are equally divided on either side of the border and all make their living from the St. Lawrence River.
“Its mission is to promote tourism,” said Dan Morrow, of Syracuse, an Admiral for more than two decades and owner of Paradise Island in Canada. “We’re a pretty private organization.”
The group includes tour boat operators, restaurant and marina operators, ship captains and island owners.
“Everyone’s a river rat,” said Morrow, who acts as the organization’s ‘Piscatorial secretary.’
Members are chosen by other members and initiated in a secret hazing ceremony.
“There has to be a common denominator. It has to be the river,” he said.
These have long been familiar waters to most members including Huck. He has explored them from a St. Lawrence skiff as a child, from a first job as a teenage tour guide spinning folklore on demand for the hungover captain aboard The Falcon tour boat and from powerful speedboats but the Boston Whaler is his preferred mode of transportation in retirement these days.
And he knows boats. So much so that he was inducted into Canada’s Boating Hall of Fame earlier this year in Toronto held by the National Marine Manufacturers of Canada.
The marina celebrated a remarkable 120 years as a family business this summer with an old-fashioned celebration with ice cream and antique boats on the same lawn where his late grandfather Fred Huck started it all.
First established by his grandfather Fred Huck, a blacksmith and boat builder, it has survived four generations in the Huck family. Jerry and his brother Morris were the face of Ed Huck Marine between the early 1960s and 1994. Huck is a member of the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority Council and co-chairperson for the boat parade at the 50th anniversary of the Thousand Islands Bridge. He says his wife and first mate, Becky of 44 years who penned a column called Boating With Becky for Power Boating Canada Magazine, has made his life on The River a success. The two first met as young children while her parents from New Jersey were on vacation in the Thousand Islands.
Now their children, grandchildren and spouses are now active in the business and its neighbouring Scenic Lodge accommodations. Huck said the Admiralty of the Thousand Islands serves as a cultural bridge between two nations.
The members hold two social functions a year – one with their wives – and another to choose its new members.
They are presented with a certificate that reads: “Know that in recognition of his special attributes (the new member) is being constituted an honorary Admiral. Such appointment is to be effective during his good behaviour and lifetime, or which shall ever first cease.” It’s not all just socializing.
The Admirals of the Thousand Islands quietly does good works in the Thousand Islands helping to support a banding program with the river’s returning bald eagles at various platforms. They also have purchased a smaller group of islands to protect the shoals.
But it’s the statue of the St. Lawrence that will stand as a tribute to the group promoting tourism for both countries in the Thousand Islands and the man behind the plan.
McCarney was there to see the project through but died last fall. “He was just a go getter,” said Morrow. “He got things done.”
When I asked Bob Clark of St. Lawrence River Cruise Lines aboard the Canadian Empress’s Victorian-era saloon what the Admirals of the Thousand Islands actually do, he told me: “We drink, we spit and we swear.”
Clark, a member since 1984, said the fraternity has a history as “a brotherhood of people who make their living on the river.”
The organization was started by Grant Mitchell, the first executive director of the Thousand Island Bridge Authority, in 1940.
The Admiralty of the Thousand Islands is an unabashed boy’s club. The issue of allowing women to join has surfaced from time to time but never really caught on. “They raised the issue once but we said ‘Why ruin a good thing?” said Clark with a chuckle.
To be sure, they are men who know the shorelines of this river and the names of its islands, and most importantly its history. Many like Huck, grew up here and explored it as children only to keep navigating its channels today with the same enthusiasm.
“This is paradise,” Huck states as he steers his Boston Whaler through the International Rift and towards the Lake of the Isles heading back to Ivy Lea and Rockport.
He likes the “breeze in my face. I just like the feel of being on the water,” he says taking in the scenery along the mighty St. Lawrence that always takes him back home. “We’re all river rats, I guess.”
The statue of the St. Lawrence shrinks in the wake behind us against the grander suspension bridge visible only to boaters and birds. But at any distance it stands tall as a tribute to River Rats, a sight for tourists and a symbol to this special place.
By Kim Lunman
Kim Lunman is a member of our TI Life team. An award-winning Canadian journalist who lives in her hometown of Brockville, Kim has written a number of articles for our online magazine and we appreciate her enthusiasm and her ability to bring a story to life. Kim spent many hours this summer on the River meeting islanders, river captains and even Admirals. Over the winter we will meet many of them.
Our TI Life initial publication of this story on August 15th, indicated the Admirals were behind a Satellite Telemetry Study of bald eagles in honour of Hal McCarney. Bud Andress, co-organizer of the study notified us that the Admirals did not vote to endorse the project though several of the organization's members were among one of the many private donors who contributed.
Bringing the eagles back to the Thousand Islands was a project that Hal championed for many years. It was Hal's nephew, Neil McCarney Jr. and Bud who set up this science project with Bird Studies Canada which will see the movements of two Gananoque and Ivy Lea area eaglets, both named in honour of the late Hal McCarney. One is named "Hal" and the other "Moose". They will be closely monitored for up to four to five years via satellite telemetry.
Several other organizations also contributed to this project including the LCBO Gananoque Outlet Store fundraising initiative, the LCBO Natural Heritage Fund, Save The River, the Gananoque Lions and Rotary Clubs, the Thousand Islands Association, the Thousand Islands Accommodation Partners, Chris McCarney, the Bud Andress Bald Eagle Program Fund which included past donations from the Quinte Field Naturalists Association, the North Leeds Birders, and private donors.
Thousandislandslife.com has asked Bud Andress to provide the complete story about this exciting project for a Fall 2009 issue.