To be accurate, 1000 Islands should be called Almost 2000 Islands. To qualify as an island, a piece of land merely needs to have at least one living tree and must be above water 365 days a year. Even Tom Thumb Island, with barely a few square feet showing above water and one lonely tree, makes the Legal Island cut in the breathtakingly beautiful seaway that meanders hundreds of miles between Canada and the United States.
Thanks to a certain pushiness in publishing my Bucket List, a gracious friend who shares my taste for places like Laos, Fogo Island, and the St. Lawrence Seaway, has invited me to whittle my list down by accompanying her when she explores a few sites off the beaten track. I haven’t always taken advantage of her generous invitations but this year, after reading a half-dozen obituaries for friends and relatives younger than I, I thought “Why the Hell not?” She’s always great company and my mirror provides proof positive I’m not getting any younger (or smarter, thinner, or healthier). My skin is not getting smoother, my lone breast is not noticeably perkier, and I see no evidence that I am more sweet-tempered than I was when I was fifty.
You get the picture.
So I said “Yes” to my friend’s offer of a riverboat cruise through the Thousand (plus) Islands so fast, I suspect her head is still spinning.
Just to give you a little perspective in case you did not study “Geography for Dummies” as carefully as I did, the length of the St. Lawrence River, the estuary and the Gulf is about 2000 miles. It’s one of the world’s largest water systems, beginning at the outflow of Lake Ontario, continuing past Quebec City and drains in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. That’s a lot of water and part of it flows over the worn tops of ancient mountains called the Frontenac Axis. These 1,864 worn-down granite mountain tops are now called 1000 Islands and begin to appear near Kingston, Ontario, and disappear before you see any Ontario or Quebec Big City skylines.
Many of the islands are just slightly larger than Tom Thumb Island but some are substantial enough to house small towns and recreational parks. Once a playground for One Percenters, a few of the islands boast castles and spectacular mansions. Others, privately owned, have one or two modest cottages and quite a few have hunting and fishing camps. And many are empty save for flocks of ducks, loons, turkey vultures, and various species of animals, fish, berries, bees, and wild plants.
Exploring these exquisite islands on a small riverboat has many advantages over large cruise ships, kayaks, canoes and private yachts. They also have a few disadvantages but at least from my cozy 85 square foot room in the quiet stern of the St. Lawrence Cruise Liner, the down side was dwarfed by the up side.
First of all, the menu was designed for the palate of a Maritimer. Prime Rib, Duck a l’Orange, Grilled Salmon, Roast Turkey with ALL the trimmings, Sea Bass, Roast Beef, and Lasagne made up a dream menu for a Nova Scotian/Californian who has eaten a little too much rappie pie, fennel and kale salad, and poutine. I felt sorry for the real Californians on board because California Cuisine never had a chance in the galley of the St. Lawrence Empress. No parsley garnish, no gluten free muffins, no beet and walnut salads.
A sorbet palate cleanser was served one night between our massive Caesar Salad and side of beef with a loaded baked potato but that was a rare concession to Wolfgang Puck. Well aware I was in for a month-long starvation diet following the cruise, I still loved each sauce, dessert, and every ounce of Thousand Island Dressing. I was, after all, born in Brighton, Nova Scotia, where no one ever met a New York steak or pound of butter they didn’t like.
My California host said she felt like she was in a Food Prison and spent hours each day scouring the riverboat for fresh fruit (there was plenty), rye toast, hard boiled eggs and yogurt. She gained no weight during the cruise while I, predictably, gained five pounds.(May I say with just a little defiance that I enjoyed every calorie I consumed?)
I think this may be yet another advantage of old age. With both calories and cruises, I am inclined to say “Why the Hell not?” and mean it.
The scenery was, of course, the stuff of daydreams and memories.
Every little cove was prettier than the one before it. Each castle and cottage and hunting shack was just right. No stately pine tree was out of place, every white sand beach was inviting, and the granite cliffs gave the granite cliffs outside my own Victoria Beach cottage a run for their money.
Even the historic sites, reproductions of lost villages and sunset reenactments of the War of 1812 battle were restrained and tasteful. One might even say typically Canadian (which may account for the actual outcome of the War of 1812).
The downside of being on a small ship with fewer than fifty other people is only a downside if you’re something of a loner. If you are normally warm and friendly with a preference for real, live people over characters in books, you’ll be in hog heaven on a small riverboat. Eating with the same people three times a day means that in short order, you will have almost fifty new life stories to add to your own collection of stories about your grandchildren, pets, and ex husbands. You will know all about and, in fact, have seen the video of the three-year-old that plays Mozart beautifully, a prodigy who, by the age of four, had adapted a half-dozen legendary pieces of classical music for jazz presentations by Wynton Marsalis, God help him. The toddler, a phenom while in utero, has already brought audiences to tears and to their feet and is destined to be triumphant on Little Big Shots. (God should also help Steve Harvey who may yet long for the days when he was homeless and living in his car.)
Another grandchild, a high school valedictorian on the fast track for major med school research grants, has a teenage sister who has won international competitions for writing, producing, and starring in Sixty Minutes simulations. Robin Roberts, Norah O’Donnell, Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper should all watch their backs because there’s a sixteen-year-old out there who already makes them look like dog meat.
If there were eight million stories in the Naked City, there are damn near almost as many on the riverboats trolling the St. Lawrence. All told and retold by lovely people, heroic and accomplished if self-descriptions can be believed. Fortunately, any group of forty or fifty probably has talkers AND listeners, the latter of whom may be on drugs. Or should be on drugs. They certainly looked almost comatose as they viewed recent photo albums of their fellow travelers’ grandchildren, pets, and X-rays of hip operations.
Still, the riverboaters had so many redeeming qualities, I found myself exchanging recipes and asking follow-up questions about their recent surgical procedures. The grandmother with the wretched grandchild who made royalty weep when he played Mozart’s early concertos, sewed quilts and made scrapbooks for each of her grandchildren, even presumably the twelve year old who only played Little League and made straight A’s. The grandparents of the next Diane Sawyer and Dr. Salk had adopted both children when their mother died and their father deteriorated into an alcoholic haze. Grandpa had been a record-breaking race car driver and through his own creativity and cutting edge designs, had amassed a small fortune. He is now married to the love of his life, a kind and lively former skier / career girl who took to adoptive grandmotherhood like Keith Richards took to cocaine.
The stalwart New Brunswick couple who volunteered for the Library Board in St. John’s and enjoyed their garden and each other clearly fell into the Listener role at our dinner table. They truly had no choice and listened with patience and grace until, about once every twenty-four hours, they felt a need to jump in during a rare pause in the conversation. During those brief and rare occasions, they talked knowledgeably about the environment, Canadian politics, and their gardens.
There are worse things than the company of the salt of the earth.
That said, if I ever talk to hapless strangers for more than sixty seconds about my grandchildren, my cat, current or ex husbands, friends and strangers have my permission to bitch slap me until I come to my senses.
In gratitude for that, I will offer the recipe for authentic 1000 Islands Dressing:
1 cup Mayo, 3 tablespoons of chili sauce, 1 teaspoon of chopped chives, 1 teaspoon of chopped green pepper, 1 teaspoon of chopped dill pickle. Salt and pepper to taste, mix everything in a bowl and chill.
OR…mix catsup and mayonnaise in equal parts. It’s not authentic but it pretty much tastes the same.
But please don’t share the official recipe. It’s supposed to be a Thousand Islands secret. Or at least that’s what I read on the post card I bought at a Gananoque gift shop.
(If you can’t trust the fine people of Gananoque, who CAN you trust?)