Not your average travel blog
Someone thought my word smithing was incredible (humour me a little) and I was requested to visit their sleepy town in a northern part of New York State. I was almost overwhelmed with just how proud this person was of their home, but with the same verve and nerve that I had written about previous places, they wanted my take on Thousand Islands. I had neither heard of it nor had any idea where it was. I assumed that because of an eloquent stranger’s enthusiasm and because in 1842 Charles Dickens took a steamboat through the Thousand Islands and noted the beauty of the place, that it would be rather pretty… No pressure on the next few paragraphs then.
While on such a long and relatively unplanned journey, through the USA (you should know where I am by now, I’ve banged on about it for ages), I will inevitably find myself in places which will struggle to capture my giddy imagination, that will underwhelm my nature-loving soul and completely dampen any romantic notions that I might have pre-programmed into my mind before visiting. I will see places that will sadden me, because after expecting such natural splendour, I will encounter a man-ruined spectacle. I expect I will come across many polluted vistas, riddled with tourist-friendly commercialism or over industrialised wastelands where we’ve juggled modernisation with naturalism and dropped too many balls. It’s inevitable that I will come across places that I seriously will never want to visit again. I tweeted a simplified version of this when I visited Niagara Falls.
I should have specified “man”, as what saddened me more, was that amongst all the development was one, lonely, small statue of a Native American. On the American side he was surrounded by dozens of square miles of industrialised jungle. The concrete, the commercialisation and the one-way, sheep-like cash generator turns this natural spectacle into an expectation of money-generating grossness.
I understand and can be persuaded that man needed the falls to advance into he 20th century. Harnessing huge amounts of hydro power, the town of Buffalo not too far away, was the first entire city in the states to benefit from electricity and Nikolai Tesla’s discovery of how to transmit it over long distances (more so than Thomas Edison’s method), won the contract to light up New York, hundreds of miles away. The falls still retain a huge source of power, however what can be seen today is diabolical. The falls have been sadly manipulated by the shallow and have had removed from them any romance or delight that I believe I should really have experienced. The flowing waters are incredible, a true, undeniable, magnificent spectacle, but on my feelings about Niagara Falls, that’s all I have to say.
Thousand Islands on the St Lawrence River, although far from noting any Native American roots, is, and promises to be the absolute polar opposite of such a “Niagara”.
The stranger who had urged my visit was Terra, the Executive Assistant to the elected Town Supervisor. Assisting in the administration of local resources, communications, research, political issues, budgeting and local economy performance, as well as being Chairman of the Thousand Islands Young Leaders Organization (TIYLO), providing opportunities for the community to embrace, engage and enhance the Thousand Islands region’s overall quality of life, its fair to say she’s a fairly important gal. Although I think we both agreed that she should have called her dog Steve.
To kick things off, I was introduced to, and had a two hour, in depth discussion with Lee Willbanks – a highly appropriate surname for a “Head RiverKeeper” and director of the non-profit organisation, Save the River, who are doing some wonderful political and environmental work, as well as engaging with local school groups to protect the public’s rights to a clean (swimable, drinkable and fishable) St Lawrence River – we could have talked all night about our shared environmental interests but Terra’s husband collected me for a “vital engagement”. I was taken to camp on Wellesley Island.
Wellesley Island is a state park, situated in the river between the USA and Canada. I was invited to join “The Annual Camp” (as grand as it sounds, I was to join a group of close-nit friends on their annual get-together), something that had been occurring for generations. I was to join this friendly rabble of quite frankly, loveliest, outdoorsy, welcoming and booze-loving locals you could meet (and I wasn’t paid to say anything nice). Obviously I sampled all the delights that were bestowed upon me, which amongst other things included a Buck’s Fizz breakfast, classy!
After two hours sleep and trying to avoid an inevitable hangover, which had clearly been the intent of my new friends, I was dropped off at my hosts for the weekend (bright eyed and bushy tailed as always). I think I did a terrible job of smelling like roses, just an unwashed smell probably would have done, and probably been expected. Thankfully, they were understanding of the party that was thrust upon me and like all good hosts endeavoured to aid the recovery of such a weary traveller…by informing me that that very night, I would be going to another “casual get-together” where there would be some of the local Eco-Warrioring Elite (as I like to call them). I was to hobnob with board members and founders of some of the local environmental organisations and groups at one of their riverside houses (I had a feeling I would be underdressed). I was reassured that I would be welcomed and that my travels would be of interest. I tried not to spend all night just filling my belly with all the incredible food that people had made, or drink too much so that I wouldn’t be able to smuggle my way onto someone’s boat for a little tour around the islands in the next couple of days (what? Everyone kept advising me to find someone that would take me). However, I wasn’t getting my hopes up because of the amount of dangerous ice that was still floating down the river.
The company was exceptional, and sharing my adventure and ideas seemed to go down well, although at this point I think most of the guests thought I was just on an extended holiday. I learnt about some of the environmental work the folks did, and over the course of the two evenings, most importantly had learned just how committed ALL members of the community are when it comes to the protection of the river and to make sure its cleanliness is sustained. It’s no mean feat when it’s the main shipping highway in and out of the Great Lakes and much of the Thousand Islands stretch is fraught with sand banks, submerged rocks and floating icebergs; cargo containers or oil spills are just some of the dangers they are faced with but current problems include non-native species of muscle and fish causing huge imbalances to the natural state of the river ecosystem.
I was invited to stay in the riverside town of Clayton with John, a talented local potter, who handed me a beer before I had even taken my arms out of my back pack, and his wife Lori, who owns the local River Wellness Centre, offering massage therapy and private yoga.
John is what I would describe as, on the surface, a typical American chap who likes a little sport (proudly wearing a new Baltimore Orioles cap with “John Dude” embroidered on the side: a gift from his brother). He’s a working man’s man, looking like if you gave him power tools, he’d know what to do with them. Delve deeper and he has a quiet, artistic soul, a placid temperament, a loyal heart for his family and a committed drive to do his best for them. Lori is a petit powerhouse of vitality, passion, pragmatism, business minded drive and devout, parental strength. She is also involved in both the new local co-op and community food garden. Their businesses boom in the pending summer months with waves of mainly American tourists.
Let’s not boost this place’s ego too much but it was the closest feeling to home that I’ve felt since being here, and probably why this blog post is a long one… The (extreme) seasonal changes, the excitement and the thrill of Spring being just around the corner, the green shoots popping out on the hibernating branches and the hustle around the rural town as people start gardening again now that the snow is on its holidays – ok so we don’t have ice bergs floating down the narrow River Ribble in Lancashire at anytime of year (yet), but with all that was happening around me and with the scorching welcome I received, it felt like my home in parts of rural England (albeit that Clayton has a river wider than the UK’s largest lake which is fed from an almost, natural wonder of the world).
I did wonder just how people coped with some of the ongoing struggles of winter, unable to travel south due to snowfall and physically disconnected from much of busy New York. Conditions are extreme in the north, on the border of Canada and people must prepare like sensible squirrels through the summer. However, on pondering what people do in the winter, I guess it wasn’t surprising that many peoples birthdays are around September/October…
Shortly after the Civil War, Thousand Islands was one of thee places in the USA for the insanely rich to holiday. Famous, über-wealthy men started buying islands so they could take advantage of the hunting and fishing which were a relatively short train journey from the cities. George M. Pullman, (famous for engineering the lavish sleeper rail cars) bought land in the area. In 1872, he invited General Grant, then running for the office of President, to his island home. The press accompanied the general and shortly after his visit, Thousand Islands was filled with train loads of Americans with disposable incomes.
Among the wealthy that swarmed the area were gentlemen such as Nathan Straus, the owner of Macy’s department store in New York City, the cigarette executive, Charles G. Emery, who patented cigarette manufacturing in the 19th century (cherching!), head of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, Commodore Frederick Bourne and the self made, hotel-building millionaire George Boldt. All of them dented their wallets setting up summer residencies (normally to only spend a couple of months). Many of the moneyed chaps built small (I can say small because I can compare them to British) castles on various islands. At the turn of the 20th century, just before the modern motor car had really been developed, the wealthy spent their money on castles, expensive Pullman rail carriages, large summer retreats and speed and cruise boats were the new thing to be seen with, especially in Thousand Islands. Entertaining your rich friends on a boat, often with crews to serve cocktails and nibbles was the best way to show off ones wealth. Boat trade, boomed.
It wasn’t just the super wealthy that came to the islands, with the development of steamboat travel, everyone wanted some easily accessible, summer love. Twenty trains a day would come and go and sleepers from New York City would make their way all the way up to the steam boats on the riverside, where now stands a mock station.
Humongous hotels were built on many islands to cope with demand and the masses flocked to enjoy the sites; some companies even advertised boat tours just to gawp at the many grand houses. I can’t be surprised, its exactly what I did when I was taken out on a tour of the river by Dick Withington (who had taken an interest in my travels when I met him at the suave party the night before).
Doc, as he is locally known wears many hats. He’s a bit of a local legend and when I told people that I was going out on a trip with him, their first reaction was to tell me how lucky I was – they weren’t wrong. Doc and I talked for hours about the local ecosystems; issues with the non-native zebra muscles covering every rock in the river with their sharp shells, the aggressive goby fish that would eat them, pike and sturgeon populations and the trout stocks that would be distributed into the river using an old WW2 landing boat! The granite industry where rock now lines the streets of Chicago, boating accidents, world war history involving a german submarine turning up in the river and our travels abroad were all on topic. He and his wife are the only residents that live all year on their Round Island, another of the larger St Lawrence islands. We walked his dog around the isle, where conditions in the winter are simply too extreme for the other house owners. Spending the afternoon with Doc was an absolute fascinating pleasure, and when when I emailed him to thank him for his time, he remembered we had spoken about the almost-extinct American chestnut tree. Doc happened to have half a dozen he had grown from seed a few years ago, which he hopes being isolated on Round Island won’t succumb to the terrible blight. He informed me that one would bear my name and should I ever have grand children that they would be welcome to visit to see its progress.
As with all booms before the First World War, Thousand Islands’ didn’t last. With the development of the motor car, the average middle class had a plethora of holidaying options and the super wealthy spent the last of their lavish summers in the islands in the early twentieth century. Most of the hotels and homes caught fire and what is left as you travel around the islands now is a more modest vista, but one filled with natural beauty, a mixture of lavish and more rustic homes, as well as evidence of historic intrigue.
On my last day I was called to meet with TILT, Thousand Islands Land Trust. Jake Tibbles, the Director invited me join him on an owl rescue mission. Often getting calls from locals to help with eco-related issues, Jake was happy to help, the sun was out after all! Sadly, although probably a good thing for the owl, it was no longer where it was reported to be. With no clues that it had been eaten by a passing coyote. We had to assume it had already been picked up and taken to the vet.
I was shown some of the TILT land by The Legend of Ken Deedy (I just love the name and it should be a movie), one of the TILT founders. I was very impressed with their work through land purchase, creating large corridors of habitat and linking pieces of land to encourage growth of healthy ecosystems. They also have ensured that the land is sensibly accessible to benefit visitors. TILT work very similarly to the charity I am raising money for, World Land Trust…(of which you should have donated to through my blog or JustGiving page…you really should).
Thousand Islands now, is still a place where the river is of the greatest importance. It’s not the renowned playground for the wealthy that it once was, but, with a new hotel, a rejuvenated vintage boat museum, and a new lease of energy each spring stacked onto the previous summers positivity, efforts are pushing the towns towards a renewed era. A local co-operative, community gardens, new restaurants, many buildings getting a face-lift, as well as dozens of non-profit environmental organisations working hard, the reputation and reasons to visit and enjoy Thousand Islands are becoming more popular. What’s important however, is that the locals are not interested and are completely against turning it into a new “Niagara”. It must be enjoyed and remembered for its natural beauty with the small, local community and its at its core.
Before leaving to make my way south (north would mean Canada and theres no way I want to go through the detention I experienced again when I landed in Boston (you’ll have to wait till I’ve left the country to read about that), I received a couple of gifts from John from the pottery and managed to get myself onto the front page of a couple of local newspapers. Raising awareness of the importance, the beauty and the usability of the river is so crucial to the community. Making sure it’s enjoyed and managed in an eco-friendly way is vital, and accomplishing one without the other is pointless.
Every opinion of every person I encountered and every story of what had occurred on and around the river was filled with intrigue and passion. Every historical practice or event in the area has had a bearing on the positive decisions being made today. The community is dedicated to a healthy and clean river, not only so it can be admired aesthetically, enjoyed socially or as a feature to keep environmentalists happy, but more importantly as a reliable, practical, pure, and constantly flowing source of provision necessary for a healthy and thriving population.
It’s so inspiring to witness an entire community’s support and passionate approach to something so vitally simple, so etching which is required for a prosperous existence – one beautiful, vast, wonderfully clean river.