I never forgot my first trip to the Thousand Islands, an archipelago of over 1,800 islands sprawled across the Canadian and U.S. borders. Located in the St. Lawrence River as it emerges from the northeast corner of Lake Ontario, the islands are a northern paradise. My roommate and I drove from State University of New York (SUNY) Oswego, rented a rickety motorboat and cruised through deserted islands and ones with castles and mansions built when the area was the playground of the rich. On our last night, the heavens opened into ribbons of green, white and pink streaked across the sky — the only time I ever saw the Northern Lights.
The Iroquois and Algonquin Indians spent their summers fishing and hunting on the islands. Lore has it that the Indian spirit Manitou promised his people he would give them paradise if they stopped fighting. When they kept on warring, Manitou put paradise into a bag and threw it into the horizon. A thousand pieces fell from the sky into the St. Lawrence River, creating the Thousand Islands. Science maintains that the tops of several mountains fell off and began the chain.
To say that the Thousand Islands is a boating mecca is an understatement. The islands support a spectacular array of wildlife including many types of birds, snakes, salamanders and more, all living happily undisturbed in their northern paradise. The fishing is considered topnotch with an array of freshwater catch such as bass, northern pike, walleye and yellow perch. After a long day of exploration, boaters can be lulled to sleep by the eerie trill of the eastern sea owl.
This May, we plan to finally return to Thousand Islands, when most of the attractions reopen in mid-May before the summer crowds fill the waterways. Here is our itinerary.
The most breathtaking islands on the New York side can be found in and around Alexandria Bay. We will visit wine trails, craft breweries, lighthouses, castles and museums and just hike the islands themselves. A must-see is the Thousand Islands Winery started by a retired army major. Launched in 2003 amid much skepticism, the thriving business now produces more than 50,000 gallons of wine each year, mostly Riesling and more recently a port.
The Clayton Harbor Municipal Marina has 49 floating slips and T-ends accommodating vessels up to 88 feet. We can dock and dine as ramps connect to the public riverwalk leading into a downtown of about 1,000 people.
Our first night will be spent on dry land at the four-star 1,000 Islands Harbor Hotel, which offers outdoor dining and balconies with sweeping views of the St. Lawrence River. At the back of the hotel is an outdoor gathering area with gas firepits where we can relax and meet other travelers. We’ll spend plenty of time on the boat as well.
Clayton is also home to the Antique Boat Museum, which harbors more than 320 boats, thousands of artifacts and archives chronicling boating history throughout the region. North America’s largest collection of antique and classic wooden boats are housed in the museum.
The museum is comprised of several buildings, and each holds different types of vessels ranging from canoes and skiffs to vintage boats that you are allowed to board. Exhibits are not just confined to boating, and one popular section explains life on the water during the winter exploring ice skate sailing, ice farming and ice fishing. One building offers a boat building workshop. Afterward, we will stop at the Old Boat Brewery across the street, the perfect respite post museum.
Estimated mileage: 9 NM
Our next attraction will be Boldt Castle, commissioned by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt in 1900 and constructed over four years on Heart Island, so named because it is shaped like a heart. After his wife Louise died suddenly in 1904, Boldt never returned to the island and construction of the castle was abandoned for 73 years. Today, the 120-room, six story castle is owned by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority. Inside are two completely restored floors as well as antiques and other exhibits about the islands in the less perfected rooms. Boldt Castle opens for the season on May 15, and we expect to dock there. The Heart Island dock can take boats of more than 40 feet and drawing upward of 10 feet. Heart Island is also the U.S. Customs & Immigration check-in point that provides what you need to cross to the Canadian side of the Thousand Islands.
Estimated mileage: 18 NM
The St. Lawrence River is an excellent spot for freshwater diving, and the Canadian side of the Islands is home to many shipwrecks. The underwater, extremely rocky geography of Ontario was treacherous to ships, and many did not make it through. You can explore dozens of wrecks, with some going as far back as the early 1800s.
While the water will still be quite cold in May, the dives are worth a wet suit. Zebra mussels (an invasive species) have created waterways with amazing visibility, in some spots up to 50 feet. Dive shops offer gear and underwater dive tours as well as lessons. If you want to stay snug and warm on a boat, consider glass bottom boat tours.
Our plan is to head to Brockville, Canada, where more than 10 wrecks between that area and Rockport are located. Inexperienced divers often go to the site of the Robert Gaskin, because the water is quite shallow and only reaches a maximum of 70 feet. The current is relatively light and not an impediment. More experienced divers can visit a 220-foot freighter on the Henry C. Daryaw site 90 feet below the surface.
Estimated mileage: 11 NM
We plan to spend a couple of nights in this small national park, because many of its 21 islands can only be visited by boat. Granite islands and rugged shorelines compete with snow-capped mountains and historic fishing villages as some of the most beautiful places to visit in Canada. The area’s first known inhabitants date back 10,000 years. Many artifacts were found in the area including a 2,500-year- old pot unearthed by a diver in 1979. Pictographs, one of the earliest forms of writing, can still be spotted on shoreline cliffs.
Estimated mileage: 16 NM
To end our trip, we plan to visit the village of Gananoque and its 5,000 residents. The name means “Water Rising over Rocks” or “Garden of the Great Spirit.” The area is bursting with musicians, visual arts, crafts, dance, theater, boat building, storytelling and photography. Much of the Thousand Islands’ past is exhibited at the Thousand Islands History Museum. For those who want to enjoy 21st century fun, test your luck at the Shorelines Casino.
Stay up to date with the latest articles, news and all things boating with a FREE subscription to Marinalife Magazine!