This doctor doesn't just make house calls. Dr. Dick Withington, known around this stretch of the River simply as 'Doc,' makes island calls.
It wasn't exactly how the orthopaedic surgeon from Watertown N.Y. pictured retirement. But then the silver-haired resident of Round Island near Clayton never thought he would be living in the middle of the St. Lawrence River year-round.
I met Doc Withington on a sunny August day in Clayton, where he told me I could easily spot him by locating his tugboat, Stormy at the town's public dock. "It's the ugliest boat on the River," he said, in a tone that suggested a little pride in the fact. I had no trouble picking out Stormy as the description, though somewhat exaggerated was not entirely inaccurate, and because her name was emblazoned in screaming red letters that were even harder to miss than the, er, aesthetically-challenged vessel draped with ragged blue ropes.
Dr. Withington is known here for volunteering his emergency medical services and for spending the whole year at the head of Round Island, braving the winter months with his Siberian Husky, also appropriately named Stormy and a Siamese cat named Mylie. The local sheriff's office checks in on him once in awhile to make sure the island's lone winter resident is O.K. and he entertains occasional guests such as red fox and bald eagles who drop by for unscheduled visits.
Readers of www.thousandislanslife.com have become familiar with the doctor's tales of winter island life. This past year marked his seventh winter on Round Island in his historic estate's former caretaker's cottage aptly named Wintercroft. His wife Roseanne leaves for warmer climes in Florida while all the other neighbouring cottagers close up and leave the island to Dr. Withington to watch over for the winter months.
"Some of them say you're nuts but I envy you enormously," he said with a laugh.
The island doctor spends the kinder seasons next door in Rivercroft, a stately red Shingle style cottage built in 1888 and once owned by Jacob Hays, the owner of the grand New Hotel Frontenac. The 300-room hotel was a posh resort for the world's rich and famous during the region's Golden Age. It burned down in the summer of 1911, with some of its rubble still remaining at the core of Round Island along with its landmark Frontenac post office. Today historic 19th century cottages and boathouses dot the island's shores. (Read more about Round Island in the March issue of www.thousandislandslife.com).
Rivercroft, with its imperial lobby staircase, oak walls and tiled fireplace, is a famous Thousand Islands retreat, recently featured in The Summer Cottage, Retreats of the 1000 Islands by author Kathleen Quigley, published by Rizzoli International Publications Inc. When Hays sold the cottage in 1900, the New York Times described it as "one of the handsomest homes on the River. " The sprawling estate, once also owned by James B. Edge, a vice president of DuPont, until 1971, was boarded up when the Withingtons first took a look at the island property.
"We didn't ever want an island," said Dr. Withington. But the couple and their three children found themselves enchanted by the shuttered-up historic vacation residence when they first toured the property when it came up again for sale in the late 1970s.
"When we saw this place it looked like the Adams' Family house," said Roseanne in Rivercroft's cozy kitchen with a chuckle. "We came over and of course we fell in love with it. It was a wonderful place for our children to grow up. It was a wonderful experience for them."
"It was just like stepping into the previous century," said Dr. Withington, adding it took some creative financing for the family to be able to purchase the property. "We shook every piggy bank."
During the winter months, he relies on an airboat to get across to Clayton for groceries and necessities.
Dr. Withington has visited many nearby islands in the U.S. and even the Canadian side near Gananoque on emergency calls. He's a volunteer with the Clayton Fire department, whose members respond to calls aboard a boat named Last Chance. "It's my way of giving back to the River," he said during the tugboat ride back to Clayton as a ship slipped past, sailing into the horizon.
Rosanne and the family with the rest of the Round Islanders return in spring, drastically increasing the population on the island when they all rejoin its only year-round resident. Roseanne has left her own horticultural stamp on the idyllic grounds with her Blue Garden, Over the Hill Garden and Memorial Garden. But it's easy to see why Dr. Withington wants to make this island a home for all seasons even when its blanketed with snow long before its gardens' first blooms signal a return to summer.
"The River is a constant in our lives," he said, steering Stormy by Calumet Island towards the public dock. "Even though it's always changing, it's always the same. It's been this way for over thousands of years and it will be this way for thousands more."
By Kim Lunman, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kim Lunman is the owner and publisher of Island Life Magazine (http://www.islandlifemag.ca) based in Brockville, Ontario. Kim's 2012 magazine will be distributed in May in local newspapers in eastern Ontario and northern New York. A special Islander Edition will be on sale in local book stores in both the United States and Canada in the summer. Last summer Kim visited many islands and met their owners and we can all look forward to reading their stories in the coming months.
This article was first published in Kim's 2011 edition of Island Life Magazine. Since that time Dr. Withington's dog Stormy, left the River. He wrote to us last month saying, "Thank you again for using the picture of STORMY. my faithful huskie. She helped me through many winters here. Now I have a big black Lab who is very attentive, but not as much of a snow dog as Stormy was."