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A Winter Islander Returns. . .

It isn't easy

When I first thought of over-wintering, I thought of all the free time to do just as I pleased. Perhaps a gift to myself after years as a doctor, of trying to provide care for others. In actuality, there is some truth in that. I enjoy sleeping in until after 5:30 AM; I enjoy a second cup of coffee; I enjoy looking forward to the phone ringing and hearing from friends and family; I enjoy being able to accept invitations to do something fun without having to check the “OR” or “on-call schedules”.

I enjoy the freedom to make my own decisions on what to do with my time. I eat when I'm hungry, sleep when I'm tired, come and go pretty much as I please. Clothing becomes an environmental issue rather than a social issue. The purpose of clothing is to protect the body; appearances count for naught. If I am cold, I put more on; if too warm, some come off. The value of a piece of clothing is not in its color or stylishness, but in its ability to protect me from the cold, the rain, the sun, insects, or whatever. It's an interesting concept when it first hits you.

Final preparations

This is stressful. You know that winter is coming, but you don't know exactly when. You try to think of all the places you have water that might freeze: garden hoses, fire pumps, lawn sprinklers, pressure washers, inboard engines. Everything needs to be drained or winterized. The final moves are to think of the things you will need for the two weeks of freeze-up when you can't get off  the island easily. Medicines, groceries, paper products, entertainment (e.g. books and puzzles, hobby supplies). And finally the consumables, fuel especially. Also, food for the pets and birdseed.

Fuel supplies become a special problem

The river is still mostly open, but the bays are freezing and many marinas are shut down or on a limited schedule. With this comes the onset of what you have heard me refer to as "seasonal inefficiency disorder". For example, yesterday was cold and windy with blowing and drifting snow. It looked like the last chance to top off the tanks. First you make sure the pets have food and water, then you check the stoves to be sure they won't overheat in your absence. Next is dressing, double-insulated everything; oops, forgot to stop at the bathroom first. Things off and back on again. Next you take the fuel cans and empty them into their respective tanks; gas for the snowmobile, airboat, and boat, and kerosene for the Monitors. Gather the empty containers, find the toboggan, empty the snow out, and lug everything off to the boat. Deal with the frozen dock lines. Did you remember to bring the dry ones that were hanging by the stove?

Take a section of pipe and use it to break the ice off the boat. The water temperature is about 32F, but the air temp and the temperature of the metal hull of the boat is only 8F. Therefore any water that touches the hull will freeze to it. This is like the opposite of the ring around your bathtub, as it is on the outside of the hull. The weight of the ice on the hull has to be considered in your mental buoyancy calculation. The added weight on the hull decreases the efficiency of the hull moving through the water and makes additional work for the engine. Next you start the engine and check to see if the steering or shifting mechanisms are frozen. Usually a few minutes of warm-up will break them loose, but it is important to check before you leave the dock. (How do you suppose I discovered that one?)

Under weigh, I headed for Bari Bryant's boathouse, as my car is there, and doing transfers in and out of the boat is safer in a boathouse than on an open dock. Unfortunately, the breeze had blown in pack ice and it was solid. Go to Plan B. That involves going to the town dock in Clayton. They kindly leave one floater in for the occasional “Grindstoner”  and me. Progress is slow to Clayton because you heard that Frozen Spray Warning this morning on the Canadian Coast Guard radio bulletin.

Spray hitting the hull will freeze to it on contact and the faster you go the more spray and the higher the spray lands on your superstructure. This gets you back to that buoyancy equation, Center of Mass, Center of Gravity, Metacentric Height, righting moments, periodicity of roll, and ultimately the likelihood of a capsize. Not really an issue; just something to think about as you chug to Clayton.

Now that floater I referred to. Did I mention that it is encased in ice and snow and sits low in the water because of the added weight? It too has an ice-skirt, so fenders may not be adequate to keep your hull from bumping. Therefore, of course, you land on the lee side of the dock. But the wind is brisk and wants to blow you off. The trick is to have a frozen dock line that you can bend in the middle and reach over whatever part of a cleat might be exposed through the ice. It takes a few tries and makes you appreciate the services of the dockmaster who is so helpful in the summer. No such help today. Get one line around something that will hold you against the dock a minute while you get an ice axe to expose a couple of cleats. Once secure, off load the toboggan and Jerry Cans and drag them up the street to the fuel station...

Would you believe it? The weather had knocked out the electronics of the kerosene pump. All the others were fine. Load the cans back in the toboggan and it's up the road to Chris's gas station. There we took on 20 gallons of kerosene, (didn't need gasoline), and headed back. The load added up to about 160#, so progress was slowed, especially where the street or sidewalks had been sanded and salted. Fortunately, the trip to the dock is downhill from Chris's. I stopped at Reinmann's for some oil, and continued down Riverside Drive toward the ramp to the dock. That's when I noticed our Homeland Security forces at Frink Park.

We are all warned to report anything unusual occurring along the border. It was somewhat reassuring to discover that a seventy-year-old man, dressed in a survival suit with a Ninja hood, pulling a toboggan with four jugs of kerosene, down the middle of the main street, sliding them onto the dock, loading the whole deal into an outboard boat, and setting off downriver in a snowstorm, didn't impress anyone, including law enforcement, as being unusual for Clayton on a Sunday afternoon. (That may be a run-on sentence, but you get the gist). I guess I have truly been accepted as a native here! Where else could I have so much fun? Those who recall my description of taking two hours to change a light bulb will understand why it takes a whole Sunday afternoon to put fuel in the kerosene tank.

There are also the benefits

While there is a stressful aspect to life here, there are also benefits. The chickadees land on me before I can fill the bird feeder. Cardinals, mourning doves, tit mice, and woodpeckers consider Rosanne's Buffet to be home. Yesterday, I spilled some birdseed on the ground while filling a feeder. A young fox found the seed and wouldn't leave until he had eaten his fill. Poachers got our big buck a few weeks ago, but there are still enough deer here, sometimes too many!

I sometimes tire of the pants and ropes hanging by the stove to dry and the faucets dripping all night so the pipes don't freeze, but I love the peace and solitude. I know I won't be able to do this many more years, but I want to make the most of it while I can. I don't get sand in my bathing suit, and the next red fire ant that bites my ankle will have to swim to get here. I feel very much in touch with not only the other things that live here, but also with those that used to. I walk paths that were forged by Native Americans, and listen to their spirits. "Casey" O'Meara, a much-loved pet, is memorialized by a small monument on the shoreline. Last week the big pine above the monument was overseen by a huge bald eagle. Now that's "Homeland Security" around here.

Coming next, to TI Life I hope ... “The gift wrapping and shipping of a 27-ton Christmas present”.

By Dick Withington, MD


Dr. Dick Withington is a retired Orthopaedic Surgeon, living out a childhood dream spending his fifth 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.  This is the second year Doc Withington shares his Winter Island life with our readers.


Posted in: Nature, People
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.


Cary Brick
Comment by: Cary Brick ( )
Left at: 10:32 PM Thursday, January 14, 2010
Dick is a Thousand Islands treasure.
Rex Ennsi
Comment by: Rex Ennsi ( )
Left at: 9:03 AM Friday, January 15, 2010
Dick, I really miss Grindstone in winter, especially cards at Erma's and Betty's pizza parties. The three winters Jan and I spent there cemented some wonderful friendships, to say nothing of the beauty of the River in winter. Sometimes I think it more spectacular in winter than summer. Things change and my mom moved into a nursing home in Binghamton near my sister and my daughter move to Nashville. With our son lives in Holly Springs, NC, we decided to move to Rogersville, TN for the winter, it happens to be right between them. So this Christmas, we had them and the grandchildren here, it was the first time they we were all together for Christmas since 1996! It is a joy to be near them, but that doesn’t mean we don’t miss Grindstone and the River. I am working on three River projects from here in Tennessee. The Frontenac Flag preservation (see, Clayton’s Night to Remember (Aug. 23, 2011), and my Emery book. See you this summer.
Ellen Rye
Comment by: Ellen Rye ( )
Left at: 12:50 PM Friday, January 15, 2010
sue saiter
Comment by: sue saiter ( )
Left at: 2:56 PM Friday, January 15, 2010
We summer July and August on Manitouana where our family bought the island in1899 and it sure gets in your soul. I think of the inlands almost every day for all winter and have been up there for one February visit and my parents and I stayed with Ralph Parker back in the 1960's.
Your letters are so fascinating I stop everything and read them first and foremost when the Thousand Island Life comes on my email.

It is definitely fascinating and makes great bedtime stories for the grandkids next summer. Keep them coming.
Nancy Del Borgo
Comment by: Nancy Del Borgo ( )
Left at: 11:11 PM Friday, January 15, 2010
I can identify with this, even from here in North Port, FL. Solitude=peace with nature. Mmm. Life is good on the St. Lawrence.

One thing, though: I happen to know you're not 70.....yet.
Judy Kiernan
Comment by: Judy Kiernan ( )
Left at: 9:50 AM Saturday, January 16, 2010
Vicariously enjoying your wonderful adventure. For many years I hoped we could winter at our landing (Westminster Park, Wellesley Island) for peace and solitude . . . and lots of reading by a fire! But you can drive a car to that island!!! You're amazing. Hope this winter goes well for you and we look forward to your postings in the Thousand Islands Life.
Comment by: Stephen ( )
Left at: 10:00 PM Sunday, January 17, 2010
The difference between Doc and River time leave me challenged, not yet retired and inspired by your sample of winter activities of daily living.

Love the summer because everyone is around, and winter because no one is.

Feel blessed to never miss at least some days in every month for years. In time, will reverse that and choose whether or not to visit anywhere else on any given month.

Great share, thank you!
Amy Smith Linton
Comment by: Amy Smith Linton ( )
Left at: 11:45 AM Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Sounds like a peculiar slice of heaven -- thanks for sharing some of your adventures!
John Bourne
Comment by: John Bourne ( )
Left at: 7:42 AM Saturday, January 23, 2010
Hi Doc,

Another interesting article, for which many thanks.

After a scattering of snow in El Paso, we landed to a blizzard in London. Snowed up for all of one week.

A book that may interest you to read is "Jungle Soldier" by Brian Moynahan. (ISBN 078 1 84916 076 6 HB or 282 1 TPB). The first few chapters are possibly right up your street and not as you may imagine from the title.

Best wishes.
John Bourne
Comment by: John Bourne ( )
Left at: 7:44 AM Saturday, January 23, 2010
Hi Doc,

Another interesting article, for which many thanks.

After a scattering of snow in El Paso, we landed to a blizzard in London. Snowed up for all of one week.

A book that may interest you to read is "Jungle Soldier" by Brian Moynahan. (ISBN 078 1 84916 076 6 HB or 282 1 TPB). The first few chapters are possibly right up your street and not as you may imagine from the title.

Best wishes.
Jerry McHenry
Comment by: Jerry McHenry ( )
Left at: 11:45 AM Saturday, January 23, 2010
After spending all of my summers on Watch Island we moved to Watertown to be close to the St Lawrence all year long. It was the best years of my life aside from Small Bowel Blockage which hit me on Christmas day 1970.

I did have thoughts of spending Christmas on the river, but God had other plans for me so I never had the opportunity to do so. Thus, I have enjoyed your stories and friendship over the years.

I have memories of easter egg hunts in your stone house with snow and the North Wind blowing all day long. Hilary asks about Dewitt, Mary Stuart about Marcie and Jay who lives in Denmark had good times with Matt.

Your Christmas gathering with lots of snow, candles, and carols will also be remembered as well.

We are looking to next year with another story and how Doc Withington left another epsiode for the River Rats to share.

Best wishes,
Jerry and Molly McHenry
Comment by: JOANN PATTON ( )
Left at: 8:12 PM Friday, March 19, 2010
I remember Dr. Withington back in the 70's and early 80's before I moved to TN. As a nursing student I remember doing a rotation through Orthopedics and got to know him a bit then. I used to take my young daughter to his office on Washington St. for her orthopedic shoes and checkups. Of course the actual shoes came from Avon Shoe Store on the square, but you know what I mean. I recall seeing Dr. Withington a lot on the news in the summertime, on the river and ready at a moment's notice for water rescue. Inspirational, I'lll tell you. It does not surprise me that he is still on the island. He is a treasure to the area. My family had a cottage between Clayton and Alex Bay and my growing up years were spent there, so I too am drawn to the river as a moth to a flame, and I'm glad that folks like Dr. Withington are still there.