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An Essay: River Pilgrimage

What is it about the Thousand Islands region of the Saint Lawrence River that inspires a quiet sense of wonder” Certainly, there are colorful cottages, impressive homes, and the diversity of boat traffic, from lumbering ships to classic mahogany antiques, to skittering jet skis.

Yet the magic is along the miles of forested shores of the many islands (1864 altogether), with white pine, and white oak standing tall, and black willows arching out over the water.  Rowing along silently, close to shore, ever-changing vistas captivate one with a timeless sense of place.

Tom Cardamone capitonThese natural shorelines looked much the same when Iroquois paddled their birch-barks on food-gathering or territorial missions. Say “Kahnawa’Kye” and imagine the River through their eyes. It means “big waterway.” Far bigger than Cartier likely imagined in 1535, he arrived in the River’s estuary on Saint Lawrence’s Feast Day and gave the River one of the very oldest European place names.

James R. Miller TI Bridge captionCartier and his crew were in the world’s largest estuary, 90 miles wide at River’s mouth. They floated on the outflow of the Great Lakes which hold 20% of the world’s fresh water. It is nearly 2,000 miles from the River’s farthest Great Lake’s tributary trout stream headwaters to its mouth in the estuary, where ten species of whales live. Seven hundred miles upstream from the mouth, the comparatively narrow Thousand Islands region eventually required a seven-mile bridge system, to cross from shore to shore. This is the 1000 Islands bridge system, built 400 years after Cartier.

There, amongst the islands, in quiet monuments best experienced in a muscle-powered boat, the full import of where you are in the world, is a revelation as deep and broad and rich as the River itself. You’re connected to American’s heartland, the far North, the oceans of the world, the diversity of life, and the transformative power of water.

Big place; small wonder – the “The River” gets under your skin and draws you back like a pilgrim. Life affirming. Restorative. Pure pleasure.

By Tom Cardamone

Tom Cardamone has been returning to the Saint Lawrence River since the 1950s.  He holds a Masters Degree from the College of Forestry and Natural Resources at Colorado State University and a Bachelor of Science degree from Hamilton College. He served as Executive Director of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for over 30 years. Tom's beginnings at ACES go back to 1975 when he joined his wife Jody (ACES' first Director) as Co-Director and then became ACES' Executive Director in 1982.

Tom stayed in the Islands for 12 days this year and during his visit he rowed, in his Adirondack Skiff, all the way around Wellesley Island (22 miles). It took him seven hours.


Posted in: Nature
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Waltraud I. Mack
Comment by: Waltraud I. Mack
Left at: 8:50 AM Monday, September 18, 2017
Congratulation on a fine row around Wellesley Island, seven hours, that is quite an accomplishment. It sounds like fun, something I would do.

Greetings from LaGrange, NY

Waltraud I. Mack