1000 Islands: In the Garden of the Great Spirit

Mermaid Island - 1000 islands

Parks Canada Overnight docksBy Mark Stevens • Photographs by Sharon Matthews-Stevens

It’s dawn on Endymion Island in Thousand Islands National Park: a stand of pine and granite, a bastion of paradise nestled in a cobalt blanket decorated by whitecaps.

It’s dawn on every one of the roughly eighteen hundred members of this iconic archipelago named (with questionable math) the Thousand Islands.

We’re sipping coffee in the cockpit of “Tankard,” a C&C 30’ bareboat we’ve booked through Ahoy Rentals in Kingston, Ontario, although we’ve included Ahoy’s proprietor, Andrew Kelm, and his dog, Mischa, on our manifest.

Kelm’s providing an “insider’s guide” to this cruising ground straddling the western expanses of the St. Lawrence River, stretching east from Kingston. Mischa’s just darn good company.

Islands radiate from here like a Victorian fan – across waters glittering in the morning light. A neighbour (a power boater from Quebec) fries up bacon. The vistas and the aromas are equally delicious.

Now I disembark, coffee mug in hand. I laze at a dockside picnic table, reprising yesterday’s passage from Gananoque, through Wanderer’s Channel (passing a rustic cottage completely filling one island, a Victorian mansion with dormered windows, wraparound porches, teal-painted clapboard façades and twin towers capped by candle-snuffer roofs, dominating another) into the open, exhilarating conditions adding to all those other factors that comprise an irresistible cruising ground.

Next we skimmed the waters of Forty Acre, winds growing in the late afternoon, whipping the uneasy surface into white meringue, growing seas gilded by the falling sun belying the idyllic scenery all about us.

We trimmed sails, we reefed the jib but continued heeled – toe rail nearly buried. We lost the jib but twenty knots of wind kept pushing us, reminding us that we were on a major international waterway. No mere bubbling brook for us. This was one of Canada’s great rivers.

We turned at a green marker into the lee of Camelot Island, seas suddenly smooth as glass.

And we glided to a dock built just for us – courtesy of Parks Canada – in a setting that could hold its own in a Group of Seven painting. No coincidence that these islands are basically part of the Canadian Shield.

And then yesterday transformed into last evening. The sun fled behind granite outcroppings; it spotlighted wind-crippled pines. Kelm grilled chicken on a tiny barbecue while I listened to waves lapping the rock shore like a geological marimba.

We were ensconced in paradise.

Fast forward: three days later. We’re driving through a forest on Hill Island east of Gananoque, stopping for fifteen minutes to check out a family of deer checking us out, apt metaphor for the appeal of this area.

The sails of “Tankard” have long been flaked and we’re about to further explore the area in a runabout skippered by Don Ross, Hill Island resident and author of Discovering the Thousand Islands.

Downtown KingstonTen minutes in, Ross throttles down and lets the current carry the boat through a narrow strait swathed in the green of a thousand pines.

“According to First Nations legend,” he says, “the Great Spirit deeded this paradise to the people if only they would return to peace.” Ross shakes his head sadly.

“Never happened.”

Now he throttles up and makes for an undulating shoreline of steep rugged bluffs, deep forest and cottages rustic and elegant at the same time.

“The Manitou sent warriors to gather up paradise in an animal hide but they dropped a corner of the hide. Thousands of rocks fell to earth, fragments of that Promised Land. We’re cruising in the middle of the result: Manitouana, a wonderful land of plenty.”

The boat’s engine roars now, as he makes for the open waters of the St. Lawrence, hard by yet one more necklace of emerald islets, this one an idyllic oasis called the Navy Group, protected and maintained by Parks Canada.

“Welcome,” Ross yells, “to the Garden of the Great Spirit.”

Seems like the perfect name for this little piece of paradise.

Mark at the helm of How else could you describe a cruising ground boasting pristine island docks like this – places to drop the hook surrounded by both beauty and history? (“More anchorages than dock berths,” said Ross, shifting into neutral and drifting past Ancaster Island. “Maybe three hundred transient berths. More than two thousand anchorages.”)

But that’s only part of the appeal. Besides being an oasis of sheer natural wonder, the area’s a repository of history, a ransom of attractions for the whole crew.

Kingston offers up history like a gourmet meal, a series of great pubs housed in historic limestone buildings and secreted in little courtyards, and the best shopping between Toronto and Montreal.

Spend a night docked at Confederation Basin and do a pub crawl (worth the trip here in its own right), tour the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes, a Coast Guard icebreaker, get a bit of culture at one of the myriad of festivals and summer celebrations held here. Or survey the expanse of water joining Lake Ontario to the river itself from the ramparts of a limestone fort that was the crowning achievement of British engineers a hundred and fifty years ago.

Explore the American side – visit the Antique Boat Museum at Clayton, sip a cool one beside the water in Alexandria Bay, stop and explore a real castle – two castles, for that matter (Singer Castle lies further east; Boldt Castle guards the water just off Alexandria).

GananoqueDock at Gananoque at a marina reclining in the shade of oak trees huddled at the bottom of a great green bowl. Browse historic shops at water’s edge; sign up for a tour of a microbrewery. Catch live theatre at the Summer Playhouse Theatre, even book a trip with 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours – getting a bird’s eye view of this inimitable chain, getting a jump on where you’ll drop the hook or choose a dock to tie up to next time around.

For by this time, there’s no doubt that there will be another trip – though in my particular case that will be another other trip. This is our fourth passage in the Thousand Islands.

Halfway through Day One, making five knots through the Middle Channel on a broad reach, my wife, Sharon at the helm, Kelm and I perused both Ports Guide and paper charts.

“Death Dealer and Camelot. Dumbfounder,” said Kelm, tapping the chart with his index finger. “Gotta get to Mulcaster some time, really pretty spot. Won’t get to everything this time around.”

He grinned. He knew we’d be back.

And late on Day One, we did make landfall on one of my favourites: Mermaid Island.

And then, safely lashed to the dock beside a big Beneteau, we set up the barbecue and we ignited the charcoal.

Lights twinkled on nearby islands as daylight faded, skies daubed with lavender hues. A loon called out.

Kelm and I sipped drinks on the dock while we monitored the coals. A lady sat nearby in a chaise longue beneath a big purple umbrella. She nursed a Bloody Mary.

“We have been here since Thursday,” she said. “What day is it today?”

“Today?” I said. “Just one more day in paradise.”

Just one more day in the Garden of the Great Spirit.

• Even if you’re not a Lake Ontario sailor you can experience the Garden of the Great Spirit. www.ahoyrentals.com has a Tanzer 26 and the C & C 30 available for bareboat charter. Or book accommodation ashore and just rent a dinghy, canoe, kayak or bike from their lakeside location.
• For more information on this cruising ground – and the surrounding area – check out http://tourism.kingstoncanada.com and http://www.1000islandstourism.com

Photo Captions:
Photo 1 – Parks Canada maintains a number of overnight docks (or anchorages) on numerous islands here. Common denominator? Sheer beauty and solitude.
Photo 2 – Snugged down at Mermaid Island in the 1000 Islands National Park chain.
Photo 3 – One must-do activity – which will keep everyone on the boat happy – is shopping in downtown Kingston.
Photo 4 – The author (Mark Stevens) at the helm of “Tankard”, a C&C 30 chartered from Ahoy Rentals in Kingston.
Photo 5 – Gananoque is another great waypoint. Great strolls along streets boasting historic and charming shops.


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