Story and images by: Eric Ward, guest photographer
“This can’t be real!” “Has to be Photoshopped.” “Where is this?!”
Those were a few of the hundreds of comments I received on a photo I posted on my Instagram page (@littlecoal) featuring one of my favorite islands in the 1000 Islands region. The image went on to be viewed by millions of people around the world as it was picked up by multiple outlets in the weeks after. The image was real, but I understand the sentiment, because I felt the same sense of awe and wonder as I arrived in Alexandria Bay for the first time in 2017.
When can I go back?
That was the one question that kept running through my mind as I drove home from Thousand Islands early last August. I made the last-minute trip by myself after realizing I had two free days to explore. I knew it would only be a glimpse of the region and, at the time, I had no idea that what I experienced would be on my mind for the next 12 months and have me dreaming of castles, quaint island cottages, unique lighthouses and sunset boat rides along the beautiful St. Lawrence River.
The return to the 1000 Islands took me almost a full year to make and our stay was still too brief, but for this visit the timing worked out so that my youngest daughter, Jocelyn (11) and my son Cole (8) were able to share in the adventure with me.
Waking up around sunrise wasn’t at the top of my kids’ summer to-do list, but when the payoff includes a morning boat ride to check out a castle, they were all for it. What I found to be most enjoyable about the 1000 Islands region are the many contrasts you find all around you. This is a land where, a single room cottage on an island no larger than the cottage itself is neighbor to Heart Island, home of Boldt Castle. To see kayakers sharing the warm morning sunlight alongside a cargo ship destined for Europe is nothing out of the ordinary here. That diversity is one of the things that stuck with me over the last year and had me anticipating this return visit.
While Cole, in the bow, happily enjoyed the breeze in his face as we explored wide open water he also was amazed at how much the depth of the crystal clear water changed as the captain navigated some of the tighter channels. One of my favorite moments was passing through the International Rift, where only yards of water separate Canada from the US, and hearing Jocelyn joke about getting to go to Canada by herself as she sat on the opposite side of the boat from me.
While the differences in the depth of the water in places requires the captain to pay close attention, it also means that the 1000 Islands is home to many unique lighthouses such as Rock Island Lighthouse State Park and Sunken Rock Lighthouse, which has shown the way near Alexandria Bay for more than 170 years. From a professional team of speed boat racers in town for a competition to rowers in single sculls for their morning exercise, friends headed out for a day of fishing, or a family headed to a hidden bay to soak up the sun, this region has the diversity of landscape and activities to accommodate you.
While the physical environment of the 1000 Islands is quite unique and mysterious, the people and small towns along the river feel incredibly familiar and comfortable. During the afternoons, the kids and I spent most of our time wandering around the relaxed streets of Clayton and Alexandria Bay. Everywhere we went the people welcomed us with a smile or a “How are you today?”, whether we were sampling ice cream, enjoying the view of the river from a colorful Adirondack chair, swimming at the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel or sampling any of the tasty popcorn varieties offered by Nav’s Popcorn in Alexandria Bay.
After docking at a local restaurant for dinner, we stepped inside and were quickly greeted by a bartender who not only had a great day on the river catching bass but also mentioned that he saw us out on the water before coming to work. It doesn’t matter if it’s dining by boat in Fishers Landing or walking in to a packed breakfast spot in Clayton, the people here care about one another and take the time to see how your day is going. The sense of pride and responsibility the locals have for the river is evident and that pride makes the area feel even more special.
We left sharing stories with one another of our individual favorite moments and all agreeing that we now feel as if we’ve been included in a beautiful secret. One of rich history, stunning landscapes, unique architecture, friendly people and lasting memories.