Photo © Ian Coristine/
 You are here:  Back Issues      Archive

Winter Island living - "How do you do it?"

In listening to the Inauguration, I was struck by our new President's call for individual responsibility. As I thought about it, what I had heard was a call for the independent, pioneer spirit that built this country and made it strong. The country was built by folks who were not afraid to get their hands dirty, and who toiled long and hard every day. There was no Wall Street, and leverage was applied with two hands on the end of a long metal bar. That spirit is alive today in the folks who winter-over in the Thousand Islands.

I don't know how many there are. Obviously, Wolfe Island and Howe Island, in Canada have a significant winter population, but they also have a ferry service. Our US most populous isolated island is Grindstone. There are 14 people wintering there this year. Since the school closed, there are no young families. They live in relative isolation from each other, but there is a spirit of community that cements them together. We could all learn something from their example.

One gentleman lives alone and has recently had replacement knee surgery. He heats with wood. In the late autumn, the able-bodied folks of the island got together and cut and split firewood for everyone. They delivered and stacked his share. By doing this as a community outing, the work got done promptly, and no one was inconvenienced. They look after each other.

Recently, the water pump died at the home of a lady who also lives alone. The young men got together and determined the nature of the problem, brought the replacement equipment from the mainland by airboat or snowmobile, and repaired the system for her. She was without water a few days, but she didn't call the Red Cross, FEMA, or Washington. All she needed to do was to call her neighbors, and the problem was solved.

I think this exemplifies what President Obama was talking about. Don't go to Washington to say "we've got a problem. What are you going to do about it?" The message he wants to hear is, "We had a problem, and this is what we did to fix it." The islanders take care of each other.

"How do you do it?"

Over the years I have often been asked what it is like spending the winter on an island alone. I'm not sure whether I thought the answer is too complex to discuss in detail or so simple it should be self-evident. In any event, I never seriously considered either the question or the answer. In response to my Winter Islander in the January TI Life issue, I received an earnest question from a Californian who summers in the Thousand Islands. His question was somehow more direct, and coming from a fellow islander, demands an answer. So for the benefit of those of you who may be contemplating something similar, here are my thoughts.

First, the nuts and bolts. There are some very fundamental requirements. You must stay warm and dry. You can live a long time without food, and a while without water, but immersion in ice water shortens life expectancy to minutes. That's an absolute. Let's take the solution apart.


Tenting or an igloo will work for one or two nights, but I wouldn't be comfortable beyond that. So in October we move from the cottage, which we cannot heat, to the guest cottage (Wintercroft). It is small, cozy, and has heat. We modified it by adding a full foundation to help keep the pipes from freezing and to make the floors warmer. Then we insulated to cut down the drafts.

We added a well with a submersible pump. When the pump shuts off, the water in the pipes drains back into the well to prevent freezing. It wasn't the whole answer, so we dug up the pipes, and added insulation around and over the pipes to help keep the frost out of the ground. This seems to have worked.

On really cold nights I have a light bulb in the crawlspace and a fan that circulates warmer air. Finally, of course, I leave the faucets dripping on really cold nights. Don't have to worry about the water meter here.

If I leave for more than a day, opening two faucets in the crawlspace will drain the whole system except the hot water heater. The baseboard electric heater will keep it from freezing as long as the power stays on. I can monitor the power from shore by leaving the front porch light on. If the light goes out, then the power is off, or I need to replace the light bulb!

I close off about half of the house after Rosanne leaves for winter in the sunny South. I keep the Monitors at 56F and then supplement with the wood stoves as needed. If I'm going to be in the house, I keep the stoves going, which saves on kerosene. Having the Monitors to keep the house from chilling down too much, is very important. When you come in from the cold, you need to have the house warm. Building a fire doesn't quite do it for me.


Speaking of fires, this is your second worst nightmare. (Remember, falling in the water was first!) I try to use seasoned hardwood. I don't burn papers, cardboard, or softwoods in the stoves. I keep the fires low and check them often. Magnetic thermometers on the stove pipes tell if the flue is getting too hot. I also keep a kettle with aromatic herbs on the stoves. If the fire gets too hot, the kettles boil, and you can smell the herbs quickly all over the house. Time to turn it down.

I keep a supply of flu flares that can extinguish a chimney fire before it sets the house on fire. Ironically, these are now hard to get; apparently because the factory that made them burned down. ....That's what I was told....We now use dry chemical packaged in plastic sandwich bags. Drop them down the chimney and close off the air supply to the stove. Strict rule: Clean the chimneys first of every month if the stoves have been used. (There is a process for this, which I can provide, but suffice to say, it take time and effort, but is a "must".)


The boat comes out of the water in the first or second week of January. I use the airboat as little as possible. Running through broken ice is hard on the boat and hard on the driver. I plan to spend about a week on the island during freeze-up. Can get off if really necessary, but breaking up young ice can lead to rough ice for later in the winter.

Once the ice is solid, a snowmobile works well. This year there has been a lot of slush on the ice. This is tough on snowmobiles and their riders, so often I use the airboat to avoid bogging down in the slush. Sometimes XC skis work best. I use them when the ice is sound, but the surface is unfavorable. Each trip starts with two decisions: Is this trip really necessary? And, which mode of transportation will work best?

Most trips involve carrying supplies, kerosene, groceries, garbage, tools. In the airboat everything has to be tied in so it doesn't fly into the prop. On the snowmobile, I cant carry much on my lap, so I tow a metal dogsled to carry the gear. I keep an area clear on the island to facilitate helicopter landings if necessary. This is a safety issue, and is also used to maintain the utilities.


Rule #3 is: Don't ever go out of the house without communication; at least a cell phone, and usually a hand-held radio. It's important to be able to contact someone if needed. It is equally important that they can contact you. If you are out of touch for long, someone will become concerned and start a search. This can lead to unnecessary risks, and unnecessary wastes of time and resources. Stay in touch!


Pets do make the difference. They require your attention and prevent focusing entirely on yourself. They also are a good back-up alarm system. STORMY, my husky, sleeps out on the porch. But if she senses a storm coming, she comes in and goes upstairs under the bed. She is rarely wrong. The cat keeps "critters" out of the house. The birds like to be fed at 4 PM. Fresh seeds in your hand are definitely preferable to those cold ones in the feeder.


There is some psychological preparation that is helpful. You must realize that you are stranded only if you have somewhere you would rather be. Learn to savor peace and quiet. Prioritize that which must be done to survive, and let the rest go until tomorrow. Resign yourself to the virtues of hibernation, and the inevitability of SID, seasonal inefficiency disorder. I never make much progress on the "Yellow List" during the winter months. I eat less, sleep more, and spend my working day gathering and carrying supplies and doing household maintenance chores.

I try to work outdoors at least two hours a day, and STORMY and I take frequent long walks to see what is happening on the island. As I become more familiar with the surroundings, I notice little changes on every trip. I listen for the pileated woodpecker in the day, and the coyotes and owls at night.

Have you ever listened to the ice talk? When the wind is still, there can be an almost constant chatter of the river as the stress cracks run through the ice cover. It's like a hyped-up glacier. It looks very quiet and sedate, but there's a lot going on underfoot. Just listen!

Learning about the realities of hypothermia and cold injuries is important groundwork. Learn that prevention is really the only satisfactory solution to cold injuries. I was a member of the Ski Patrol for 25 years; I trained in northern New England; I made occasional trips to the high latitudes and learned from the people who live there. I did some winter hiking and camping in the mountains. I don't like the cold, but understanding it as a constant and predictable adversary, makes it less threatening.

The week or ten days of freeze-up is stressful. Windstorms can make escape from the island very dangerous. During this period I read Shackleton, and consider his expeditions to Antarctica. It makes Round Island look like child's play. The computer, satellite TV, scanner, and reading help to keep me connected. If the power fails, I'll be in survival mode almost immediately. I've been lucky, and the utilities take very good care of the service.

I use the snowmobile to keep the trails on the island packed and passable. The deer and foxes use the paths too. Each year the deer herd leaves the island by early February. They'll be back when the ice starts to break in late March. In the meantime, I enjoy reading the tracks in the snow, caring for the island trees, and listening to the river as it grumbles through the winter. The sun is already setting north of Bartlett Point, and the days are getting longer. Soon the River will awaken, and with it, the island from its winter rest. It's like watching an ongoing miracle.


So that's the answer. That's how it's done. Each person will have his own tricks and refinements, but that's the skeleton. Dare to give it a try;  you'll not be disappointed.


Dr. Dick Withington is a retired Orthopaedic Surgeon, living out a childhood dream spending his fourth consecutive winter alone at the head of Round  Island. His wife Roseanne heads to Florida when "Rivercroft" is closed in October and Dick moves into the former servants' quarters, "Wintercroft". His old but faithful Siberian Husky STORMY and a rescued Siamese, Mylie, keep him company. Dr. Withington has an airboat, which he keeps at his own dock in winter ready to help. The Sheriff's office will call him directly if and when there is a problem.

Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Dorothy Topping
Comment by: Dorothy Topping ( )
Left at: 7:50 AM Sunday, February 15, 2009
We enjoyed your article and are a bit envious we can't winter on Maple Island. We will be in the area March 6-8 and hope to walk to Maple Island from South Bay on Wellesley. Our question is always - is the ice thick enough? We may try to contact you to find out. We printed off your article and am sending it to Bob's sister, Betty Schatz. She doesn't have a computer.

Happy Wintering,
Dorothy and Bob Topping
joyce  davenport
Comment by: joyce davenport ( )
Left at: 8:39 AM Sunday, February 15, 2009
enjoyed your article last month and this. have a place on dingman point rd an d miss being up there, maybe when retirement comes. watch the webcam to get and idea of the weather and how the river freezes. many years ago as a youngster went with the family in feb. to our place. wilddle of a snowstorm no water, and 10 people in a trailer. we did have snowmobiles though. it was an exciting time.
Rex Ennis
Comment by: Rex Ennis ( )
Left at: 12:11 PM Sunday, February 15, 2009
Dick; I sat here on Grindstone looking out the window at Endymion and a white frozen river reading your article. It reminded me when Jan and I decided to move to Grindstone year-a-round three years ago. I remember discussing the move with you. Your positive guidance gave Jan and I the confidence to make the move. One of the our reasons for moving was the since of community one has living here. You, Dick, are no small part of that community, even though you do live on Round!
Rex & Jan Ennis
Grindstone Island
Bob Digel
Comment by: Bob Digel ( )
Left at: 7:15 PM Sunday, February 15, 2009
We are delighted to see Dick Withington's expertise and experience in print. We have a file, termed Withington's Musings, bulging with prolific and acutely descriptive writings of his recent solitary winters on Round Island. Possibly we can get Dick to submit some of these to Thousand Islands Magazine.
Adams McHenry
Comment by: Adams McHenry ( )
Left at: 12:19 PM Monday, February 16, 2009
Dick, as you know Sandra and I did not make it to The 1000 Islands last summer as we took a cruise on The Baltic Sea instead. It was the first time, since I can't remember when, when we did not make it to God's Country. There sure are 4 seasons up there and here in Houston we have 1 and 1/2 seasons. We do plan to come back in August this year and if you run across a cottage that is available let me know. Sandra would prefer to be on Wellesley Island where one can drive a car home instead of a boat. Your friend Bill Monnet is visiting my brother Jerry as I write this email and I am off to have lunch with them. Stay warm in The North Country and I look forward to seeing you this summer. Best wishes, Adams
Sue Smith
Comment by: Sue Smith ( )
Left at: 12:25 PM Monday, February 16, 2009
Dick what a wonderful article obout life on the river in winter. As much as I love the river I don't wish to winter their. I have a picture of your boat house, during that wind storm a few years ago, on my slide show on computor- beautiful and scarry. Enjoy the river in the winter for all of us!
Sue & Dave Smith
Swifterwater Point
Grindstone Island
Alan Manfredi
Comment by: Alan Manfredi ( )
Left at: 7:47 PM Monday, February 16, 2009
Dear Dick, I was sent a link to and I read your article. I always wondered what it was like to live on an island but I never thought about what that would be like in the winter. Thank you for letting us in.
I have a picture of that terrible wind storm a couple of years back when the winds were blowing 90mph. The picture I have was taken from a web-cam on the main land and is of your boat house. The water was going right over the roof and there was quite a bit of damage when it was all over. The islands are one of the most beautiful places on earth but the river can turn in a second. I have a small place in Clayton and have only been up a couple of times during the winter over the past 30yrs.
Maybe someday when I retire I will try and spend a winter up there.
Feel free to write me if you like. I enjoy hearing from my river neighbors. Helps pass the winter along. Take Care
Alan from Rochester

John Bourne
Comment by: John Bourne ( )
Left at: 12:50 PM Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Hi Dick,

I really enjoyed your latest article and felt that I was actually there with you.
I can see that you are kept pretty busy.

Made me think what are the opportunities for sustainable power...wind, solar or the river under the ice.

Thanks for the forward about the Belgian boy. It was great. Some time ago I saw a video of the homecoming of Canadian soldiers, who had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. The streets were lined with Canadian citizens, who had dropped everything to pay their respects. We were all very impressed. If I can find it I shall forward it to you.

Best wishes,

Peter Charron
Comment by: Peter Charron ( )
Left at: 8:27 PM Wednesday, February 18, 2009
I was expecting for few sentences in response to my posting on the first article. I checked several times in January and I must admit I was disappointed there was no response in the blog. Wow, instead I solicited an entire article!

Thanks for another great article.
Peter Charron
Fairyland Island
Mark Bond
Comment by: Mark Bond ( )
Left at: 11:11 AM Thursday, February 19, 2009
While I enjoyed your piece on the winter in the Isles, and applaud your bravery, I do think you are way off base about Obama. What he is advicating is MORE dependence on government & NOT self sufficency. He believes that we are not responsible for our own actions & that the answer is more government assistance. I remember this same nieve notion from a certain peanut farmer, who was a lame duck within a year of his presidency. Lets see how many people are still dancing in the streets for the new United Socialist States of America in 9 months from now. Back to the Isles, I was on Hill Island over New Years weekend & it was plain MISERABLE! Our cottage was frozen solid, the beautiful southwestern summer breeze was now a razor filled nasty wind that had even the bravest animals deep under cover. (I could not find even one set of tracks in the snow that had fallen the day before) This will be my last winter trip to the Thousand Islands. I'll stick to this place as a summer spot & have made plans to spend my new years celebration somewhere warm.
eric hahn
Comment by: eric hahn ( )
Left at: 10:57 PM Sunday, February 22, 2009
i really enjoyed your article forwared to me by my daughter maybe its her way of encouraging me to winter over at our summer home its surely a great adventure
Comment by: JOY WISNER ( )
Left at: 11:56 AM Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Waltraud Mack
Comment by: Waltraud Mack ( )
Left at: 3:19 PM Sunday, July 3, 2011
Fascinating, and thank you for answering all the questions I had of what it is like to winter on Thousand Island. I can see it takes a lot of hard work, courage and pioneer spirit to survive. If I was 20 years younger I would almost certainly become an Thousand Islander. Enjoyed your article tremendously.

Wishing you a happy summer,

Waltraud Mack

Yuvon marra
Comment by: Yuvon marra ( )
Left at: 7:51 AM Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Hi dr. Withington. -- Christmas morning sitting here with my little apple I was looking for some information about the fire on grindstone island. I came across your life in the 1000 islands in the winter. I read all the comments and am so impressed with your winter life. I lived on Grindstone when there was more population all year around.loved my life then but do not have any desire the winter life at 80 years old. Love our summers but did my share of traveling over the ice in the old ice boats that we got out and pushed when we came to solid ice
Yes,I learned a lot as a youngster.We are in the middle of an ice storm right now and I am doing o. K. We learned to have nesseties in case
Still have extended family still living on the Island and they love it.I talk with them often.