Stories, stories everywhere

Sunday, September 5, 2010; F1

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.

Back at the boathouse, a wet parking garage showcases antique models from the 1900s, on loan from the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, that conjure images of dapper gadabouts toasting the wind and the waves with their highballs. Tuesday nights, the museum invites guests to go for a spin in skiffs and classic wooden sailboats, toylike with a single sail and a hollowed-out cockpit.

The line for a sailboat was deep, so I wandered over to the skiffs, where I had no competition. Apparently physical exertion keeps people away. I boarded a St. Lawrence River skiff, settling into the middle seat where I could admire her fine lines and sleek design. I tugged at the oars, which heaved like a net full of fish, and took off, my internal GPS set on Governor's Island in the near distance. Surveying the scene, I imagined early life on the river, with the skiff as my only form of transportation. If I wanted to visit my island neighbors, I'd have to row. If I needed ice, a haircut, a Band-Aid for my blistered hand, I'd have to stroke. To participate in any activity, errand or pleasure, I'd have to displace some water.

When I started to admire the speedboats, I knew it was time to come in.

Eventually the land calls you back. For one of my forays on solid ground, I wanted to probe the mystery behind Thousand Island dressing, curious about its provenance and whether it's really just the union of Italian and Russian. The answers sat behind the front desk of the Thousand Islands Inn in Clayton. "There is a legend and there is the real story," owner Allen Benas said of the competing tales regarding the dressing's genesis. The actual story "doesn't have the notoriety or the romanticism, but it's real."

The history Benas disputes credits Oscar Tschirky, maitre d' of the Waldorf-Astoria from 1893 to 1943, with the culinary invention. Benas refers to this as the "Madison Avenue story," drummed up by ad executives who hoped to increase tourism to the area by attaching the dressing to Boldt's establishment.

After sleuthing around, including contacting the progeny of principal players, Benas concluded that the wife of a local fishing guide was the true originator. Sophia LaLonde prepared lunch for her husband's clients, and during one outing, New York stage actress May Irwin took a liking to the dressing, naming it after the region. (On my cruise, the recording said the chopped pickles represent the islands, and some of the other ingredients a TI sunset.) Irwin shared the recipe with Boldt, who started serving it in his hotel. At the same time, LaLonde supplied the inn with a batch, making the establishment the first public place to drizzle the dressing.

"Who gives a hoot about a long-deceased fishing guide and his wife?" asked Benas, who clearly does.

The first mystery solved, I moved on to the deconstruction of the dressing. What exactly is in it? Benas wasn't talking. Only four people know the recipe, and the inn makes only 5,000 bottles per summer season. (Benas decries the mass-marketed varieties sold in supermarkets.) Once they're gone, the secret is smothered for another year. But when he left the room to bring me a sample taste, I grabbed a bottle of the dressing resting on his desk and scanned the list of ingredients on the label.

You want to know the secret, really desperately badly? You'll have to go to the Thousand Islands and find out for yourself, because I'm not telling.

To spend the night on an island, you need to know someone, have boat "troubles" or stop by with a fresh catch of walleye and linger a little too long. That's not a foolproof plan; the owner could still send you away without offering a bed. But not Phyllis Gardner, who runs the only bed-and-breakfast in the Thousand Islands.

Gardner rents out the boathouse, the companion structure to the main house on 21/2-acre Occident Island. She picked me up in her peppy watercraft, driving in the dark without night goggles. She knows these waters the way a homeowner knows her backyard garden.

She showed me to my lodging, an apartment-size dwelling with woodsy, sportsman-like decor, then invited me to join her in the main house. We sat at her dining room table surrounded by kitchen utensils, tools, magazines, even medicine bottles that her ancestors stocked but never tossed. She lives in a museum, and I was allowed to touch.

As we talked about the island, she reminisced about her youth, the ice runs in the skiff, water-skiing as a college student. She pointed to a painting of a muskie (a freshwater fish), which led to a story about scofflaws breaking into the house in 1964 and wreaking havoc, slashing feather pillows, spreading glue on the countertops, breaking lamp shades and slicing artwork. But that was just one low point in a history of highs.

"This island is mine, but everyone has ownership of the river," said Gardner, who spends the colder months in Clayton. "We all share it, and it's a nice shared."

Before heading to bed, she armed me with journals that started on July 2, 1874, and continue to the present. Sitting on my bed, the window open to the river air and the sounds of puttering engines, I flipped through some of the entries.

On Aug. 11, 1910, there was a family reunion. On July 27, 1907, the visitor was "cold and hungry." June 17, 1923, was a fruitful day of fishing, with a catch of 19 pike, three bass and six perch. On Sept. 13, 1935, the "most shocking party ever" was held for Mrs. Wight's birthday. "One cake was not sufficient," wrote the reveler, "so we had 2 cakes. Much fun had!"

I wondered however how that fun compared with Aug. 15, 1920. "We don't claim, we know we had one hell of a time (see Page 143)." And so I looked: "Closed our eyes at 3:59 a.m., up at 7:01 a.m." Roaring times, indeed.

The next morning, before my ride back to the mainland, Gardner held out the logbook and encouraged me to write an entry. I added my story, becoming part of Thousand Islands history.

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