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That first step is a doozy at the aptly named Just Room Enough Island, one of the Thousand Islands scattered across the St. Lawrence River between New York and Ontario.
That first step is a doozy at the aptly named Just Room Enough Island, one of the Thousand Islands scattered across the St. Lawrence River between New York and Ontario. (Gail Mooney-kelly)
Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Thousand Islands region is straightforward in location - the southern portion of the St. Lawrence River, near the mouth of Lake Ontario, with New York to the east and Canada to the west - but wiggly in terms of exploration. After the War of 1812, the Treaty of Ghent divided the real estate equally, giving each country the same total area but Canada two-thirds of the islands. The boundary follows a ragged course, as if it were plotted by a fish evading a predator. "At the time, they thought it was equitable to keep the line at the river," said Norm Wagner, historian at the Clayton Historical Society. "They didn't want to split the islands."

The archipelago covers 100 miles of the St. Lawrence Seaway, but the largest clustering of islands falls between Cape Vincent and Alexandria Bay in the United States and Kingston and Rockport in Canada. From the shore, the nationalities are often blurred, with properties waving both the Stars and Stripes and the Maple Leaf. But sometimes you can guess the allegiance by the island's name: Amherst, Simcoe and Howe, for instance, were all British admirals and generals. Quirky monikers such as Fairyland, Toothpick and Pot Hole are all-American.

By definition, the islands must remain above water year-round and be sturdy enough to support at least two trees. But the shapes, sizes and amenities of each vary wildly. Wellesley Island, the cushion beneath the Thousand Islands International Bridge, is one of the larger landmasses, featuring three golf courses, two state parks, a former Methodist revivalist camp (now a historic district), the turn-of-the-century Wellesley Hotel, an ice cream shop and the Boldt Yacht House. By comparison, Just Room Enough is just that: The speck of land squeezes a house and a couple of wrought-iron benches pushed hard up against the shingles onto its banks. One misstep and you're swimming.

Most of the islands do not accept visitors, and it takes a boat to reach many of those that do. Fortunately, I was not pegged to the earth: By the end of my trip, I had ridden six vessels, including two ferries that linked Canada and the States via Wolfe Island. I could've knocked back seven had the captain of an oil tanker noticed my hitchhiker's thumb.

For the most commercial experience, day cruises travel up and down the St. Lawrence. I chose to set off from Gananoque, a Canadian town downriver from Kingston, because of the company's promise to show us all the islands. The boat also has Canadian perks, such as bilingual commentary and North of the Border brews. "You have to come here for the good beer," said captain Paul Davis.

The informational recording aired over the loudspeakers confirmed what I'd been hearing from the start: that theatrics of Shakespearean proportions have played out on these islands, especially during the Gilded Age, when America's millionaires summered here, flaunting their wealth and dysfunctions. The area was the stage for murders, broken loyalties, troubled hearts, shipwrecks and unclaimed skeletons. Is that a floating stick in the water or . . . a fibula?

As the vessel chugged along on a loop, I scrambled from starboard to port, bow to stern. Stay idle and you'll miss the visuals to the stories. On Maple Island, for instance, an 1865 fire engulfed the cabin of a recluse who was found nearby with his throat slit. Some say he was John Payne, an alleged conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Deer Island is affiliated with Skull and Bones, which sounds like a pirate fan club but is actually a secret society at Yale. And as we passed the lordly Boldt Castle, the speaker intoned the well-known tale, with the Option A ending of Mrs. Boldt's death. On the return to port, an announcement gave the hoi polloi hope: Years ago, a couple won Paradise Island in a $2 raffle. Less than the price of a Molson in the boat's snack bar.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some companies would drop passengers on Heart Island so that they could rattle around the castle, then hail a ride when done. But now it's more difficult. If you depart from a Canadian port, you need a passport. For an easier transfer, I drove over to Wellesley Island and caught a shuttle from the boathouse to the castle. Quickie ride, $9, no immigration.

Modeled after a Rhineland castle, the Boldt pad is a popular wedding venue, due in part to the hearts embedded in the architecture, the Italian gardens and the Cinderella-style descent down the stone stairs of a fairy-tale tower. On a Monday, four sets of vows were pronounced here.

"This is the most romantic place to get married," said mother of the bride Elaine VanOverbake, who first came to the islands as a teen. "The whole time, [my daughter] was saying, 'I feel like a princess,' " (Countered the new missus, Sandi: "I'm not a castle kind of girl.")

The scene inside the 120-room castle was less enchanting. Despite renovations in the lower portion, the upper floors show evidence of its past incarnation as a party place for boozy trespassers. The graffiti-covered walls read like a subway station bathroom. "Sarah + Chris 4ever 2002," "7/17/77 Terry Dixon was here." Before leaving, I jotted down the phone number of Barbarito, who had unwisely scrawled his/her number on the wall. I had a short lecture on vandalism that I wanted to share.

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