Thousand Islands, Three People, Many Memories
On Saturday, August 16, 2014, I joined two other members of the Albany (NY) Young Urban Professionals Meetup group for a once-in-a-lifetime day trip to the Thousand Islands.
For some two decades, I had harbored an interest was to go visit this area, and the impetus therein came from a travel guide I picked up at a New York Thruway travel plaza en route to visit my sister at college when I was but a lad of 11 years of age. I found it rather fascinating that an area split between two separate countries could offer so much in the way of attractions, lodging, and such — for some reason, I found the Canadian side of the border interesting, as all my journeys north of the border had all been to Montreal.
That travel guide, or at least how I procured it, came just a few short years before the Internet came into the Bullett household and long before the advent of the communication and information-seeking technologies that are part and parcel of our lives today. All it took was the Meetup iPhone app and I was in business.
Earlier this summer, the Albany YUP group had announced that a day trip to the community of Alexandria Bay, the self-styled Heart of the Thousand Islands hard by the banks of the St. Lawrence River. In addition, it was announced that this same trip would take place on August 9. Sensing the opportunity to spend an active, fun-filled day out rather than a somewhat comatose summer Saturday off work at the salt mines, I immediately made my RSVP.
Sometime later, I was rather shocked to learn that the trip would not take place on the 9th, rather the following week. After a successful request for that day off, the excitement and nervousness attendant to this type of a road trip began to swirl through the bovine-shaped mass that is my head. Twenty years of waiting had paid off; the opportunity had arrived at last. I could imagine the scene: Alexandria Bay, Boldt Castle, a fine summer’s day in Northern New York. Whammy Sammy, was I pumped!
In the weeks that followed, more details emerged about this adventure. Four other brave souls would join me, I offered to chauffeur and give them the granddaddy of all upstate New York roadies, meet at the Crossgates Mall parking lot in front of Ruby Tuesday and the Standard at 7 AM. The anticipation built and built with each passing day until…
The journey begins
I arose from the comfort of my bed at roughly 5:15 that morning. After a shower and a quick breakfast, I left just over an hour later, little knowing that I would not see home for another fourteen hours or thereabouts. I drove through the fog of an early mid-August morning. With the temperatures in the low 50s, there was a feel of early autumn in the air, and the lingering suspicion that summer had taken a brief leave of absence. While the forecast that day called for clouds to come rolling in during the early going, I hadn't the faintest idea of the meteorological shitstorm that was to befall our crew.
After a bathroom break and a partial fill-er-up at a Hess station, it was onto the Northway and straight ahead to Crossgates Mall, the pre-ordained meeting place. For a while, I thought everyone had already left, as I had seen a blue Jeep — I’ve no idea on the model; it wasn’t a Cherokee, that’s for certain — drive off. What I thought was a nasty rib turned out to be merely a stopping point. With two cancellations, our quintet was pared down to three. Also left in the pile of what might have been was my carpool ambitions. Safe to say that the iPod was left silent on the day.
Despite the dashed hopes, the three piled into the Jeep and took off at roughly five minutes past 7 AM, and thus the journey north began. A gentleman B., native to Chicago, was the driver and decided that the Interstates would get us to our destination in under the four hours posted in the Meetup synopsis, and by driving those same roads at a speed no faster than 75 MPH. Well, the travel time was 3 1/2 hours and upon arrival, we sought out and found street-side parking. However, after finding out parking meters were involved, we went to the gravel parking lot near the Uncle Sam Boat Cruises docks; a wise move given how long we’d be away.
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Out and about
Originally, the main focus was on a cruise to Boldt Castle, an opulent stone castle just a ten-minute boat ride away. However, when the departure time didn't jibe with the three of us, we ditched the $8.50 cruise for a longer, more-expensive jaunt at 21 dollars a pop for us grown-ups. It turned out to be money well spent, as you, dear readers, will eventually suss out.
With a good deal of time on our hands, we mucked about the neighboring side street laden with eateries, summer bars, and the ubiquitous tourist trap “gift shops”. After some asking people who we thought were locals, we eventually settled for having lunch at a restaurant nearest the docks, Riley’s on the River. I should also point out that this was the last weekend of Bill Johnston’s Pirate Festival, and there was almost a Jack Sparrow feel to the village of over a thousand year-round residents. At Riley’s, I opted to go down the healthy route and ordered the Uncle Sam Chicken Salad. It contained chicken, blue cheese crumbles, cranberries, and candied walnuts with honey mustard dressing on the side. Delicious!
Shoving off in not quite rough seas
After lunch and waiting on Pier #4 of Uncle Sam Boat Cruises, it was time to board the Alexandria Belle, Weather-wise, this is where things started to go downhill. Just before we shoved off onto the river, it had started to rain, and that would be the case for the majority of the cruise — it’s also worth noting that the rain and wind picked up shortly after we crossed into Canada, but lasted for a short while and forced me and the lone female on the trip, R., onto the sheltered second deck, where we spent our entire journey in Ontario. Our tour guide even went so far as to mention that on the original Saturday of our trip, the waterway had been thronged with motorboats, Sea-Doos, and the like. On this occasion, it was void of that activity save for a few brave souls who dared venture out in the fall-like weather.
Among the memorable sights were the Thousand Islands International Bridge — which I briefly saw upon exiting Interstate 81 at Exit 50N; the segment we went under was the portion between Hill Island, Ontario and mainland Canada. Another was Zavikon Island, the smallest portion of which is notable for two reasons:
- It was the only physical evidence of the imaginary border that seperates both the U.S. and Canada seen during the whole boat ride.
- There was a small footbridge on the island which marked the border proper; on the far left was the Canadian flag, and the Stars and Stripes marked the American side. In the middle, a Dutch flag marked the border, and also signified the namesake’s heritage. All this despite the technicality that the island is entirely in Canada.
Storming the Castle
Well, the fun really started when we got up close and personal with the aforementioned Boldt Castle. All the passengers were told that they would be able to debark at Heart Island, but would only be able to board another boat from USBC to return to the mainland, provided that the ship had Old Glory flying off the stern rather than the Maple Leaf.
We went as close to the whole hog on Boldt Castle as we possibly could, especially with B. taking an interest in the architecture. We even took the boat shuttle to the nearby Yacht House. The 1000 Islands has a rather rich heritage of boat racing, and the races held there yearly were the spiritual forerunner to the Gold Cup speedboat races held every July at Madison, Indiana.
By the time we finally debarked from the Island Duchess, the hour had gotten late — it was roughly half past five — and thus, the long journey home began. It essentially rained the whole non-stop trip back to the Crossgates Mall parking lot. After settling up the gas money and Thruway tolls, it was homeward bound in my own ride. It was quite a trip; if only the date hadn't been changed, it would have been a bit more enjoyable. But still…