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A Walk on the Thousand Islands Wild Side

Listen to the audio version as read by Jan Eliot

It's easy to see why the Thousand Islands is a naturalist's playground. Take a look around and you'll spot evidence of one of North America's most biodiverse regions everywhere: On its granite outcroppings, forests, beneath the River's surface and in the sky. You don't even need binoculars.

I got an inadvertent lesson in this last summer touring islands and interviewing the region's human inhabitants unintentionally encountering non-human inhabitants of its unique landscape and waterscape along the way.

I accidentally crossed paths with deer, wild turkeys, snakes, turtles, minks, butterflies, loons, bald eagles and blue heron in my travels, all a reminder of the species that reside in this amazing archipelago.

Anyone who has spent any time in the Thousand Islands becomes accustomed to its creatures above and below the mighty St. Lawrence River. In the same way the region is world famous for its 1,865 islands drawing tourists from around the globe to see its castles, cottages and shipwrecks, it is now getting some much-deserved recognition for its most natural attractions.

The Thousand Islands on the Canadian span is located in the Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve, which covers a nearly 3,000-square-km region including the Rideau Canal and much of the Land 'O Lakes area. The reserve is the ninth region worldwide -- and the first in Ontario -- to get a geotourism charter from the National Geographic Society.

The National Geographical Society is presenting the biosphere reserve with the distinction at a ceremony in Gananoque Jan. 15 at the Playhouse Firehall Theatre. National Geographic Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations defines geotourism as tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place: its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.

Biosphere reserve executive director Don Ross, a Thousand Islands author and former Parks Canada naturalist, said the Thousand Islands are the "stepping stones" between islands and natural environments on the mainland. He said the honour sets the stage for the area including the Thousand Islands to showcase its special status to the world while attracting international tourists to see the sights for themselves.

It's impossible to spend any time in the Thousand Islands and not appreciate its wildlife as part of the wonder of its natural scenery.

The iconic blue heron, a popular species across North America is as much a symbol for the region as Thousand Island dressing and the St. Lawrence skiff. But while it's a familiar sight, its diminutive cousin, the Least Bittern is the rare and smallest heron in the Americas and can be found here.

To my dismay, I never did manage to catch a decent photograph of a blue heron. Every time I spotted one, the at once graceful and gawky bird fled the scene like a celebrity avoiding the paparazzi. I have countless images of specks of blurry blue feathers as evidence of the ones that got away.

By sharp contrast, Thousand Islands photographer Ian Coristine beautifully captured this blue heron on his island west of Brockville. He was returning home from taking photographs from his kayak when he spotted the bird.

All sorts of winged residents make this region a birder's paradise. There are wintering bald eagles as well as several nesting sites as part of a revived summer population, blue heron colonies, loons, and owls.

Not to mention all the other winged residents. A rusty orange butterfly with dark brown spots appeared out of nowhere on Bostwick Island on a granite rock next to me while I was taking photographs of the historic Half Moon Bay Sunday services for boaters. The Eastern comma butterfly blends into the woods when perched as the underside of its wings form a clever camouflage making it look like a brown leaf.

There are nearly 40 estimated mammals here include mink, flying squirrels, the red fox, and deer, beaver, and raccoon.

White-tailed deer do their own island hopping, swimming the channels to shore. I encountered this doe on Hickory Island while riding shotgun in a golf cart for a tour of the island by my gracious guides, brothers Bob and Raymond Pfeiffer. On the same trail, nine wild turkeys also beat a hasty retreat into the bushes after spotting us, leaving a trail of feathers in their wake.

The Thousand Islands has one of Canada's richest diversities of reptiles and amphibian species including the rare stinkpot turtle and Blandings turtle. There are of course frogs, toads and five species of salamanders including the elusive bottom feeder appropriately named mud puppy, a species I would be happy to continue to admire from afar. Very far.


It is also home to Canada's largest and rarest snakes, the black rat snake which can grow up to 2.5 metres long.

One resident of Sugar Island, an island near Gananoque owned by the American Canoe Association, for which I truly needed no introduction, was a little snake that slithered onto the shores of the busy encampment. 

A mink was making mischief on the same hot summer day on Sugar Island. I was in a Zodiac approaching the island when I heard the high-pitched screams of four girls jumping off a rock into the water. The mink who sent them scrambling watched the splashes below from his perch.

And naturally, there are plenty of fish in the River - as many as 90 species - to lure fishermen from around the world with signature species like the Muskie, northern pike, perch and walleye.

Beyond its wildlife, the Thousand Islands is a unique terrain on both water and land with its trillium meadows, cattailed marshes, pink granite cliffs, sleepy bays, songbird forests, hemlock groves and towering pitch pines.

This place is a moving canvas, its picture ever changing. And sometimes the most ordinary of species can seem extraordinary against its backdrop. Like a seagull and a map turtle I spotted sharing a rock in the River, temporarily transformed into a little island, amid so many others but for a fleeting moment its own.

by Kim Lunman,

Kim Lunman is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, National Post, Reader's Digest and other newspapers and magazines. She is a team member of TI Life and the owner of Thousand Islands Ink, which is publishing Island Life magazine this May - just in time for summer.

Editor’s Note: No article about Kim’s excursions would be complete with her Stella!

Posted in: Nature
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Star Carter
Comment by: Star Carter ( )
Left at: 9:06 AM Friday, January 15, 2010
Wonderful article, and it makes me impatient for the warm months so I can get out there and enjoy the wildlife, too. It's much easier to look through binoculars when your teeth aren't chattering! Lovely pictures, thank you for sharing them.
Bill Beaulieu
Comment by: Bill Beaulieu ( )
Left at: 1:27 PM Friday, February 12, 2010
"This place is a moving canvas, its picture ever changing" what a lovely discription for the River and its Seasons that are always dynamic by nature.
Most years I'm witness to a different or prominent resident species of wildlife presenting itself on the Island and call it the year of the.... So far I've seen the year of the Fisher, my first ,year of the Coyote, porcupine, black rat snake and twin fawns and Eagle. I look forward to discovering each new spring and year on Hill Island and the gifts of the forest and islands both aboundant wildlife and rare plants like the ladies slipper and Jack in the pulpits. Capturing images on camera to share with those that may not take notice is a passion. I agree and appreciate your article and thank you for your insight.