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Summer Eco-Tours

There is a place where cool, swift water flows through a generous sprinkling of lush green islands. It is a unique place, located far north of the equator, and hundreds of miles from the ocean coast. Here, the water and islands are teeming with an abundance of wildlife and natural beauty that has enticed people for hundreds of years. Welcome to the Thousand Islands Region of the St. Lawrence River.

The greatest way to experience the Thousand Islands is from the water. Each hidden channel, quiet cove, and marshy bay holds little secrets and treasures that smaller boats can uncover. At Clayton Island Tours, our pontoon boats hold forty-nine passengers and have shallow drafts, allowing guests to sit closer to the water and get closer to the islands for a very personal experience. We offer specialized tours that are fully narrated by our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides, including an Island History Tour, and the popular Boldt Castle Tour. This past summer we were happy and very proud to launch our Nature and Ecology Program, which proved to be a resounding success.

The Wilder Side

Dave Kay, owner of Clayton Island Tours, spends part of each year as the Captain of the National Geographic Sea Bird, an eco-cruise ship that tours the gorgeous waters off Alaska and Baja.

He was inspired by the beauty in his own backyard of Clayton, NY, to create a boat tour program that highlights the natural features of the St. Lawrence River. Dave approached Save the River! and the Thousand Islands Land Trust with his idea, and asked for their help and expertise to make the tours factual and educational. Together, they created a boat tour program that focuses on the ecology, habitats, wildlife, and environmental issues that are unique to the River.

In July, Dave brought me on as the staff naturalist to guide the ecology tours and expand the program. We were also very fortunate to have a naturalist from the National Geographic Sea Bird visit for a week to lend her knowledge and skills to make the program even stronger. 

The Nature and Ecology Tour is a three hour boat tour that includes a nature walk on Grindstone Island. While on board the boat, we cruise by the nesting areas of several bird species including Ospreys and Common Terns. We are very conscious of keeping a respectful distance, especially during the nesting season when the adults are nervous and the young are vulnerable.

Though we would love to get as close as possible, scaring the adults off their nests could give predators an easy opportunity, and we want to observe the birds without agitating them. As the hatchlings get older, we can bring the boat in closer without disrupting the adults. We drift into a marsh cove that is home to an active beaver lodge, and where we often see painted turtles sunning on a submerged log and red-wing blackbirds flitting through the cattails. Halfway through the tour we dock at Picnic Point and enjoy a pleasant thirty minute walk on the Grindstone Island Nature Trail. The trail winds through state park land and property belonging to the Thousand Island Land Trust Island Preserve.

This is a wonderful opportunity for guests to see migratory songbirds in the forest preserve, amphibians and reptiles along the trail, and to learn about the Thousand Islands Land Trust’s conservation efforts in the Thousand Islands Region. I spend a considerable amount of time talking about the environmental issues concerning the St. Lawrence River, including invasive species, seaway expansion, winter navigation, and wind turbines. Guests are often concerned about these issues, and after experiencing the beauty of the River, many have expressed interest in learning more and becoming involved. This is a wonderful opportunity to direct guests to Save the River! and the Thousand Island Land Trust, both located right next to our dock, where there are always opportunities for eager volunteers. We wanted to create a fun and educational program that inspired people to care about the Thousand Islands, and we have certainly succeeded.

The River at Twilight

My absolute favorite tour is our Twilight Bird Watching Tour. The boat leaves the dock at six-thirty in the evening for a very special hour and a half tour of the River. Twilight exposes the beauty of the River and the Islands in a way I have never seen before.

On very calm evenings there is a magical moment, after the sun sets, when the sky and the water are the same tranquil hue and one melts seamlessly into the other. The birds and mammals are very active in the coolness of the evening, and we observe many species fishing. This past summer we saw a loon pair with their young in the same location on nearly every Twilight Tour. Often, we heard them before we could see them. There is a primitive stirring, buried in an ancient piece of your soul, that is awakened by the wail of a loon at dusk. I saw it time and time again on the delighted faces of guests when the loons called. Our boat Captain would cut the engines, and as we drifted slowly past the loon family, we watched as the adults taught the young how to fish and dive. Being able to get so close to these beautiful birds and watch the young grow up was the highlight of my summer, and I know I will never forget the experience.

Summer Sun to Fall Colors

As I write this article, our season at Clayton Island Tours is coming to a close. Many of our summer bird residents have begun their south bound migrations, and a few of the trees are blushing and coloring deep oranges and yellows. I am looking forward to next season, and I will be spending the winter developing new plans, activities, and tours for the summer. I will continue to maintain our website,, and check my email at, where I welcome any ideas and suggestions for next summer.

I am thinking of adding a monthly sunrise tour that would be a spectacular opportunity for nature lovers and “early birds” (forgive the pun) to witness the River waking with the morning sun. Lastly, I would like to thank the people at the Thousand Islands Land Trust and Save the River!, whose continued help and support will expose people to the Thousand Islands Region, and educate them about this special and unique place. I hope to see you on the boat next summer!

By Star Carter,

Star Carter is the naturalist for Clayton Island Tours. Originally from Hawaii, she is now a permanent resident of northern New York. Always drawn to water and wildlife, she feels lucky to be working on the beautiful St. Lawrence River. Star has a degree in Animal Science from the University of Hawaii, and has recently started her Masters program at Penn State.

Posted in: Nature
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Arnita Woods
Comment by: Arnita Woods ( )
Left at: 10:34 AM Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Star, Great article---Made me want to see All of it !!!!!! I long to go to Hawaii too !!!