This is update #6 as we cover Fred and Sidonia St. Germaine's trip along The Great Loop in their Nimbus 405 Coupe. Links to the other updates are below.
I was excited to see Sidonia and Fred reach the Thousand Islands, rather than head directly west, following a traditional Great Loop itinerary. For people who spend their time boating coastal waters, they will find this area to be magical and quite unique. It has the physical beauty of the Pacific Northwest, yet the St Lawrence River is also different and all fresh water. During the season one finds low humidity, islands of every size and shape, some are populated, and beautiful forested landscape on both sides of the river. The area is simply spectacular.
The Thousand Islands played an important role in the history of both Canada and the United States, as there were many skirmishes between the British and Americans during the War of 1812. Sackets Harbor was home for an American fort to defend the area, as well as a base for boat building during the war.
In later years, the area became the vacation playground for wealthy families from the Midwest and East Coast, which explains the castles and mansions found on islands and shoreline. George Boldt, innovative general manager of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, built his Italian Renaissance-style stone castle on Heart Island.
Singer Castle on Dark Island was built for the president of the Singer Manufacturing Company. There is another mansion built for the man behind Life Saver candy, a stone home on Pullman Island owned by famous inventor George Pullman (as in the sleeper-style railroad car), and another mansion owned by one of the original investors of McDonalds. The list goes on.
There is even a stretch of island homes known as Millionaire’s Row.
It is amazing to be in a canoe paddling among the islands in fresh water, only to pause to take in the sight of a 1,000-foot ship pass by on its way west to the Great Lakes, or eastward out the seaway to ports around the world.
We pick up their story as they sit at anchor outside of Grindstone Island, a short distance from Clayton, NY. Clayton is a small, cozy town known for The Antique Boat Museum, the largest collection of wood and antique watercraft in North America. It is Tuesday, June 21st, for those who follow their travel timeline.
“Last evening, we saw a pair of common loons with two chicks near the boat. During the night Fred and I woke up several times to their sounds, sometimes their warbling chatter and other times their mournful call.
“At 5:00, a short squall came through. We bounced and swung around our anchor and got a little rain, but it didn’t last long. We stayed awake for a while and then fell back asleep. We didn’t wake up until 9:00, which is unheard of for us.
“Fred started bringing up the anchor and got it up to the surface when it stopped. He looked over the bow and saw that the anchor was completely covered with sea grass and clay-type mud. He took the boat hook and pushed, poked, prodded, and stabbed at the tangled mass trying to get it off. There was so much of it he couldn’t even see the anchor.
“He put the boat in gear, ran forward and then in reverse two or three times to loosen the stuff. He then poked some more and finally managed to get it all off. We’ve had kelp catch on our anchor before but never like this.
“We cruised over the short distance to Clayton and docked at the municipal dock in front of The Antique Boat Museum. We called several other marinas, but none had room for us. While we had no power hookup or other facilities it was fine and there was no dock fee.”
The distances from place to place in this section of the Thousand Islands are relatively short, and the channel narrows in places to under 400 feet from one side of the channel to the other. That is what makes it so breathtaking to see a large ship pass through the American Narrows part of the river.
The couple therefore did not need to travel far to visit the sights. For example, it is under two miles from Grindstone Island, near where they anchored, to Clayton. And the distance between the towns of Clayton and Alexandria Bay is only 10 miles. And many of the attractions, mansions, and castles are within that very small footprint of river geography.
“The Wood Boat Brewery, just a block from the municipal dock, served a very good pizza. After lunch we went to The Antique Boat Museum. They have a wonderful display of canoes, different makes of beautiful old mahogany speedboats, seemingly ancient outboard motors, small cabin cruisers and a very nice gift shop. There is also history and photos of ships that sank in Lake Ontario over the years. We spent an hour and a half without finishing and decided to go back the next day.
“As we learned the next morning, next to the municipal dock is a boat ramp used mostly by bass boats. They launch early in the morning and come back late in the afternoon, and there are lots of them. We found out that Clayton is a premier bass fishing area and important tournaments are held here.
“We walked around town waiting for The Antique Boat Museum to open the next morning and then spent two more hours there. There is one building just for racing boats including Gar Wood, Chris Craft, and limited and unlimited hydroplanes. We also toured the 106-foot houseboat commissioned in 1903 by hotelier George Boldt (of Waldorf Astoria fame). The second owner was Edward Noble of the Lifesaver Candy Co. The third and last owner was publisher Andrew McNally (Rand McNally Maps) whose family donated the boat to the museum. The houseboat has no engine and a tug towed it to wherever the owner wanted to go. It was not at all attractive from the outside, but the interior was very nice and seemed comfortable.”
Every year, The Antique Boat Museum hosts an antique boat show and auction. The event draws wood boat owners and restoration builders who bring in their latest projects from around the country. It is an annual pilgrimage for anyone who loves the look, feel, and smell of antique wood boats. This year will be the 58th running of the show and auction. It is worth the trip just to see varnish expertise of the highest caliber. Many of the boats are works of art.
“This morning (June 23rd) we cruised over to Heart Island and docked at Boldt Castle, the only residence on the small island. George Boldt started building the castle as a gift for his adored wife. She unfortunately died at a young age before the castle was completed and he never went back or finished it. It remained unfinished for years, but in the 1990s, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority took on the task of reconstructing it.
“Boldt Castle is an amazing place to visit, and it would take a small book to describe all its wonderful features. We downloaded an app on our phones for a self-guided tour as there are no human guides. In addition to the house there is a ‘playhouse’ which contained a bowling alley, billiards room and swimming pool. There is also a separate stone power station, partly connected via a tunnel to the basement of the main house.
“After going through as much of the house as we could, we cruised across a small channel to Wellesley Island where George Boldt built his boathouse. This is no ordinary boathouse. There are several bays for some of his many (60) boats as well as very nice living quarters for a caretaker.
“One more small building held a dovecote for Boldt’s birds.
“We docked for the night in Alexandria Bay, NY where the town was getting ready for a bike festival, and we could hear the Harleys rolling into town.”
Alexandria Bay is about a mile south of Heart Island and is quite the opposite experience from Clayton. It is a bustling tourist town, with events scheduled seemingly every day during the season. The high energy level is due to its diverse tourism business, tour companies, and a downtown full of shops and restaurants. There are fishing charters, pirate tours for kids, municipal golf and tennis facilities, and scenic walking tours.
There is always something going on in Alexandria Bay.
Legend has it that during prohibition, clever smugglers would sneak alcohol to Alexandria Bay from Canada, which is only a few miles to the north. Given the many small inlets, islands, and coves, it was relatively easy to keep the law at arm’s length.
“The municipal dock here is $2.00/foot with no power. It is also very busy with many small boats coming and going, as well as bikers and others walking the dock. We felt a little like we were in a fishbowl. We off loaded our electric scooters and went off to where the bikers were gathering. We bought tee shirts at the Harley booth that say, ‘Thousand Islands River Run.’ We then biked over to where a group of bikers were gathered and asked them to be in a photo with us and our scooters alongside their Harleys. We all had a good laugh.
“After a tour of the town and a lunch of brisket nachos, we spent the hot afternoon inside the boat. Napping was nearly impossible as several cigarette boats with their thunderous, throbbing engines continually buzzed the area. Next weekend there will be a cigarette boat race from Oswego to Alexandria Bay. We’re glad we will be gone.
(Seen below: Even Ozzie found it difficult to relax with all of the commotion and noise at the dock.)
“After dinner, Fred walked up to a tented area where a talented band played for the biker crowd.”
Sidonia and Fred found the Thousand Islands a different experience from some of their other travels. With more islands than one can count, the area is well inhabited. Even tiny islands will have a small house and maybe a dock, as everything that comes on and off the island must travel by boat. Food in, garbage out. It is a definite lifestyle choice, made easier, of course, if one is wealthy and has staff to handle such mundane tasks.
It was time to tour some of the glorious homes on Millionaire’s Row.
“ABC - Another Bloody Castle (as one guide put it) but this one is truly a castle. Located on Dark Island, it was built by Frederick Bourne, fourth president of the Singer Manufacturing Company, maker of Singer sewing machines. Bourne built it as a surprise for his wife and children. It is known as Singer Castle. Though not as large or lavish as Boldt Castle, they built it to plans of a real European castle, and it certainly has that feel. There are secret staircases and tunnels, doors hidden in walls, opened only if you know the secret.
“It only took two years to construct Singer Castle, using many of the craftsmen who had worked on Boldt Castle and were left jobless when Boldt halted construction after the death of his wife. The Bourne family inhabited the castle until the mid-1960s.
“A nice, sunny Saturday brought out lots of boaters. The waterway was crowded with jet skiers, tour boats, cigarette boats, fishing boats, and yachts. The otherwise calm water of the river had chop coming from every which way.
“At one point, we were following a boat throwing a big wake. As we got closer, Fred slowed down to cross over its wake, but we still got slammed around. We went a little farther when we heard a radio call about a dinghy coming loose. We hadn’t heard our boat name, but we turned around to look and, sure enough, it was our dinghy. It was hanging by only its stern strap to the swim platform while the bow trailed in the water.
“We stopped immediately and grabbed the boat hook to pull the bow back to the stern but the outboard motor’s skeg was stuck on the swim platform. We were being tossed around from the wakes of all the passing boats which made it very difficult for Fred to lift the dinghy stern and motor clear. I pitched in as much as I could, and we eventually got it free without falling in.
“It was too rough to try and get the dinghy back aboard and secured, so we towed it a little way and then went behind an island to escape the worst of the motion. It was when we hauled the dinghy back aboard that we noticed the motor’s cowling was missing. We were too far from where we had lost it to go back and look for it and it most likely sank anyway. (If we’d known then how much a new cowling cost, we might have gone back to look for it.)
“We also lost a 30-amp power cord we stored in the dinghy. Fred assumed the bow ratchet strap had broken but discovered that the strap had unspooled in the ratchet which freed the bow to swing off the swim platform. We don’t know how it could have come loose but somehow it did.
“We headed back to Clayton, topped off our fuel tanks and tied to the municipal dock again. Then we were off on our scooters to the Ace Hardware store to buy some garbage bags so we could use one to make a temporary motor cover. It looks a bit tacky, but it will keep water out of the engine until we can get a replacement.”
To continue their Loop from here meant it was time to enter Canadian waters. There are several places on the Canadian side of the river where one can clear into Canadian customs, known as CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency). Entry into Canada from the U.S. side of the river for car travelers in this area is at the Canadian side of the river at the Lansdowne Bridge, north of Wellesley Island. Boaters have many more choices. The closest point of entry for boats heading north from Clayton is to travel around Grindstone Island and clear in at Gananoque, Ontario, northwest of Clayton and about six miles away as the crow flies.
They entered Canada on Sunday, June 26th. And they missed the biker rally.
“The trip into Canada took us 40 minutes around the southern end of Grindstone Island. We initially stopped at the kayak dock in Gananoque and waited 20 minutes on the phone for customs, only to find out we were at the wrong dock. ‘Please hang up and call us again when you get to the municipal dock.’ After moving into a slip and waiting another 20 minutes, we cleared into Canada without a hitch.
“Being about as far out on the very long dock as one could be, we were glad to have our scooters to go into town. We enjoyed a good burger at the Stonewater Pub and then cruised around town. We had been told that Gananoque was a ‘sleepy little town’ but it was larger than I thought and very busy on this sunny Sunday. The neighborhood has nice houses with tree-shaded streets. Like other St. Lawrence River towns, the harbor was buzzing with boating activity.
“On our way back to the boat, we got busted for riding our scooters on the dock. We had not seen the sign with that warning. It was a very long walk back since the man who shouted at us was on his boat near the beginning of the dock.”
Gananoque is a small town of about 5,200 full time residents, located on the Gananoque River and the banks of the St Lawrence River. Its location in Ontario makes it a popular summer destination, where its population swells with summer residents.
Tourism is Gananoque’s most important industry. It has beaches, museums, tours, kayak and other boat rentals, and the town has many restaurants and shops that cater to summer vacationers. There are many festivals and other events during the season and hosts one of Ontario’s largest outdoor art exhibit.
Like many resort towns that lost tourist revenue when the bottom dropped out because of Covid, the town is currently focused on rebuilding and reconnecting its tourism, general businesses, and special events. It recently published a four-year tourism recovery plan to chart the direction and goals of this combined community effort.
While in Gananoque, Fred washed the boat while Sidonia struggled to pay some bills as the internet service was spotty and unreliable. They did take a break, however, and took a taxi over to the Gananoque Golf and Country Club. Over 100 years old, the club has a casual atmosphere, and they played golf on what turned out to be a challenging course.
One thing they forgot to buy ahead of time was a Canadian courtesy flag. Unfortunately, the marina store didn’t have any, so they rode several miles out of town to a marine store to get the flag. As they were now in Canada, they also stopped at a bank to exchange some money for Canadian currency.
And then it was time to leave. Time to continue their Loop adventure.
“We left about noon on Tuesday, June 28, heading for the town of Picton. There was a low chop on the water until we were closer to Kingston and the waters open to Lake Ontario. Then we were in two and three-foot waves with a strong wind blowing spray off the waves. Fred washed the boat yesterday, but he shouldn’t have bothered as it was getting washed all over again.
“We had to slow down to around 7 knots to keep from slamming into the waves. Once we got into Adolphus Reach and the lee of Amherst Island, we were able to turn off the windshield wipers and speed up again. We were well protected the rest of the way to Picton.
“Picton Harbor sits at the very narrow end of Picton Bay and isn’t visible until you are practically there. We wondered if we’d made a mistake as we thought we should be seeing some signs of a town from farther out. We were relieved when we finally saw boats docked at a couple of marinas.
“We docked at the Picton Harbor Marina. They have nice new floating docks and very courteous, friendly staff. A nice feature are the moveable cleats on the docks. If the spacing for tying down isn’t right for a particular boat, they move the cleats to accommodate it.
“After getting the boat safely tied up, we rode up a hill into town. We were surprised to see a very busy town, full of shops and shoppers, many of whom were tourists like us, and we heard people speaking French. After talking with some others, we learned that this is a popular destination for tourists and tourism is its main resource. We had been referred to Slicker’s ice cream shop which, seeing the lineup, appeared to be a very popular place. It was good.
“Shortly after we got back to the boat, the couple on the boat across from us stopped by to say hello to fellow Loopers. We chatted a few minutes and then invited them over for happy hour.
“Rick and Teresa are from Durango, Colorado but bought ‘Elaine May,’ their Monk 36 trawler, in Michigan. It is the first boat they have ever owned. They started their Loop in 2019 but had to lay up because of Covid. They will be finished when they reach Michigan.
“Because Fred and I have been around boats most of our lives, it absolutely amazes me that some people will buy a good-sized boat and make a trip like this with no experience at all. I admire their ambition and daring. Rick and Teresa are the second couple we’ve met on this trip to have done this. Since they have nearly completed their Loop, we got some tips about places along the way they thought were special. We had a delightful time with them and hope to meet up with them again along the way.”
Picton is a small town, located about 100 miles east of Toronto. The waterways that connect with Picton Bay form one route for cruisers to reach Trenton, Ontario, and the start of the Trent-Severn Waterway. They were now getting close to one of their must-experience sections of their Great Loop.
“This morning we rode our scooters to Birdhouse City, a park with over one hundred creative bird houses. Some are miniature replicas of local buildings but there were others, such as the leaning tower of Pisa. There are pathways mowed through the tall grass for getting around to view the different houses with a sign near the entry warning to watch out for ticks. We did not venture into the tall grass.
“For lunch we rode down the main street and found the 555 Brewery & Pizza Co. We had a delicious pizza and one of their own brews called ‘The Judge’ was particularly good.
“Picton was founded by Loyalists in the 1780s. On the way to the Picton Golf Course, we passed some of the beautiful, historical Loyalist houses. Unfortunately, I did not get any photos of them.
“After golf and lunch, we got back aboard Last Item and continued our journey, this time headed for Belleville. We docked at Crate’s Marina which is the closest marina to town. We rode down Front Street looking for a place to have dinner.
“Belleville has a very different feel from most of the other towns we have visited and, in our opinion, was not very inviting. We did have a good dinner at Capers, however. We will tour some more tomorrow and maybe form a different opinion.”
Belleville is about two-thirds of the way from Picton to Trenton, so Last Item is closing in on the start of the Trent-Severn Waterway!
See you next time.
Here are links to the LAST ITEM's previous Great Loop updates:
Update #1: Let's Go On The Great Loop!
Update #2: "Last Item" Begins The Great Loop
Update #3: Up The Hudson To Waterford
Update #4: Last Item Heads To Rome
Update #5: Big Water Ahead As LAST ITEM Heads to Oswego
Update #6: This Post
Update #7: Into The Trent-Severn Waterway
Update #8: Deeper Into The Trent-Severn
Update #9: Georgian Bay
Update #10: The North Channel
Update #11: Into Lake Michigan
Update #12: Gunkholing Down The Wisconsin Coast
Update #13: Visiting Kenosha
Update #14: Great Loop Trip Continues Into Illinois
Update #15: Exploring The Heartland
Update #16: Heading Into Tennessee
Update #17: Cruising In The Tenn-Tom