Thursday, June 30, 2011

1000 Islands

Hello from Canada.  We crossed the St. Lawrence River on Tuesday, June 28 and officially checked into Canada.  Now we are wandering through the Canadian side of the 1000 Islands enjoying Canada's St. Lawrence Islands National Park.

The 1000 Islands have been a revelation.  It is a gorgeous area; many of the islands have homes on them ranging from fishing shacks to outright castles.  The area was "discovered" in the late 19th century by the nouveau riche of New York City, millionaires who earned their money instead of inheriting it.  Because they were in business they were not considered part of New York society, so they weren't welcome in the usual summer playgrounds of New York rich.  They came up here, bought islands, built homes and hotels, and made this a summer destination for many New Yorkers.  At the turn of the 20th century there were 12 trains a day from New York City to Alexandria Bay.  George Pullman (railroad cars) invited President Ulysses S. Grant to visit him here in the 1870s.  The resulting publicity put the 1000 Islands in the American mind.

Singer Castle Hunting Lodge
Boldt Castle
Many of the late 19th century homes are gone, but two remain as tourist sites:  Singer Castle and Boldt Castle.  Singer Castle was a "hunting lodge" for the president of Singer sewing machines.  We took a tour boat ride out to it and toured it.  It isn't nearly as ostentatious as the Providence Rhode Island homes from the same era, but it gives a new meaning to the idea of a hunting lodge.  We took our own boat to Heart Island to see Boldt Castle.  This house was built by George Boldt (hotelier) for his wife.  Unfortunately, she died before it was finished and he abandoned the project.  It sat empty, falling apart from 1904 to 1977.  In 1977 it came into the possession of the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority.  They have been rehabilitating it ever since, using the funds from visitors to cover the costs, working from the original architectural drawings.  Before 9/11/2001 they had over 250,000 visitors a year (in just five months); now they have only 150,000 a year because the U.S. insisted that Canadians now have to clear Customs first before visiting.  Even though the U.S. maintains a Customs office on Heart Island, it is still a hassle.  BTW, George Boldt is credited with introducing Thousand Island salad dressing to the world.  The local story is that the dressing itself was created by local fishing guides who served it to their clients when making lunch or dinner from their catch.  George Boldt managed the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City and took the recipe back to the hotel after one of his visits here.  In the Islands they called it Guide's Dressing, but in New York George renamed it Thousand Island dressing.

Although you can anchor in the U.S. islands, there aren't any facilities, you are just anchoring in front of someone's house.  On the Canadian side, there is the St. Lawrence Islands National Park, series of islands that can only be reached by boat.  Each island has one or more small docks, toilets and walking trails.  The islands are covered in trees and wildflowers, with voles, squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits, no big mammals.  We're at our third island now and each of them has been charming.  As the Canadians we have met have been.  Canadians are just nice people.  The park rules are that you can stay no more than three days on any one island.  Jim has asked people at each of our stops what happens if you stay more than three days.  No one knows, because no one has ever stayed more than three days.

It's Not Always Giggles and Laughs

Sometimes being a cruising boater can have its challenges, like when you need medical attention.  Shortly after we crossed Lake Ontario Jim developed a rash on his chest which got worse with each passing day.  Unfortunately we were in Cape Vincent, NY, a town with no doctor, no hospital, not even a pharmacy.  He called his doctor at the Cleveland Clinic and described the symptoms.  The doc was willing to call in a prescription but the nearest pharmacy was 13 nautical miles down river in Clayton, NY.  Not a problem, Clayton had a city dock only a mile from the pharmacy, so we boogied down river to Clayton.

But the rash got worse and the drugs didn't seem to be helping.  The Cleveland doc said "see a local doctor."  Jim had discovered that the next town down river, Alexandria Bay, had a walk-in community clinic.  So we went another 12 nautical miles on Sunday, planning to visit the clinic Monday morning.  But Monday morning the clinic said he couldn't be seen until "sometime later this week."  As we later found out, they were converting from paper to digital patient records that week and didn't have time to actually see patients.  There is one doctor (only one) in Alexandria Bay.  He sees same day patients on a time available basis (news the clinic didn't bother to share).  By the time we found out about him, his day was booked.

Fortunately, Alexandria Bay also has a small community hospital.  Neither of us was wild about taking a rash to an emergency room, but the local medical establishment didn't really leave us with many other choices.  The folks at the emergency room were wonderful, they were more focused on taking care of him than completing the paperwork, although they managed to do both very efficiently.  The doc took one look at it, diagnosed it immediately (shingles), and gave us a prescription (prednisone) that has worked wonders in clearing it up.  And we got six miles of exercise walking from the boat to the hospital, the hospital to the pharmacy and back to the boat.

Let's hope this is our only medical adventure this summer.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

North Coast - New York

We have made it as far as the village of Cape Vincent on the north coast of New York.  Cape Vincent is where the eastern end of Lake Ontario meets the western end of the St. Lawrence River.  For those who don't know (I didn't) the St. Lawrence River is the border between the U.S. and Canada.  The westernmost end of the river is an area called the 1000 Islands (although there are actually more than 1,800).  After the War of 1812, the British and the Americans drew the border down the river, zigzagging through the islands.  Each island is either Canadian or American, none are shared.  Because you have to clear in through Customs and Immigration each time you sail from one side of the line to the other, the recommended boating strategy for cruisers like us is see the U.S. side first, heading down river.  Then cross over and see the Canadian side, heading back up river.

The St. Lawrence River is actually the St. Lawrence Seaway, so called because Canada decided in 1950 to adjust the river so that ocean-going vessels could come up it to the Great Lakes.  Adjusting the river meant building locks, changing the flow of the water in some locations, flooding some areas, and deepening it in spots.  All the kinds of things that would never survive an environmental impact analysis in today's world.  It took three years after Canada started the work, but the U.S. ultimately decided it needed to be in on the commercial opportunities the Seaway represented, so when the Seaway opened in 1959, a couple of the locks had been built by the U.S.

Esskay Marina
We left two weeks ago from the boat's winter home, Esskay Marina, in Brewerton.  Of course, as with everything boating, we didn't leave when we thought we would.  We had to wait an extra day because one new fender and our Canadian courtesy flag were shipped late.  But it worked out well.  Had we left as planned we would have been traveling in grey, drizzly weather.  Waiting a day gave us a beautiful sunny day to enjoy the Erie Canal.  We only went 12 miles the first day, through one lock to the Oswego Canal.  We spent the night in Phoenix, NY, a town that averages 200 inches of snow a year.  Even for someone from Cleveland, that is an awesome number!  Phoenix (and many of the other towns) has a free municipal dock.  These towns have realized that boaters spend money, so they encourage us to stop by.  It is quite a refreshing change from Florida where the towns seem to do their best to discourage boaters.  We always try to return the favor by spending some money on a restaurant meal or grocery shopping.

From Phoenix we continued on to Oswego, arriving in time for the weekly farmer's market where we bought some of the best strawberries I have ever had.  Then east on Lake Ontario to Sackett's Harbor.  Like most of the waterfront towns up here, Sackett's Harbor is small in the winter (fewer than 2,000) and much larger in the summer (nearer to 15,000).  Sackett's Harbor has figured out that tourists come for cute and good food.  Main Street is a combination of good restaurants, a yuppie coffee cafe, an ice cream store, art galleries, antiques, and a boutique or two.  Nothing a local really needs, but all very attractive to summer visitors.  Since we were having annual maintenance done on the engines (which, as usual, took a day longer than it was supposed to), we spent several days here and enjoyed them thoroughly.  We also enjoyed doing business with reasonably priced, competent boat mechanics so we'll probably be back in Sackett's Harbor next summer before we set off on the adventure.

Jim working on the head
While spending our extra day in day in Sackett's Harbor we decided to re-live a task we last undertook more than five years ago -- rebuilding the head.  Last time we did this we ended up doing it three times in a single year.  It isn't a terribly pleasant job to begin with, add to that the fact that Jim has to get on his knees and hug the head to work on it (see picture), and you can see why we don't do it unless absolutely necessary.  Let's hope this rebuild lasts another five years.

From Cape Vincent, we'll continue on through two more New York towns, Clayton and Alexandria Bay.  Then we'll cross over to Canada.  We should be in Kingston, Ontario ready to head up the Richelieu Canal to Ottawa by July 1.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Summer of 99 Locks

The Erie Canal has finally opened.  The opening date, June 5, tied the latest date the Canal has ever opened.  We're off to an interesting year.

Ready to leave from Brewerton
This year we will be cruising from Brewerton, NY through Lake Ontario, the 1000 Islands in the St. Lawrence River, the Rideau Canal in Canada, Ottawa, Montreal,  the Richelieu Canal (also in Canada), and Lake Champlain before returning to Brewerton for another winter's storage.  As always, if any of that sounds interesting, guests are welcome.  Just give us a call.

There are lots of locks in that float plan.  Jim figures we will go through 99 locks during the course of this year, from very small ones with little lift to commercial docks designed for ocean-going ships that travel up the St. Lawrence seaway to the commercial ports on the Great Lakes.  We'll take pictures, time permitting, to give you a sense of what locking is like.  

View from inside a lock
The process of locking, in the US, involves calling the lock tender on the radio to let him know you want to go through.  When the lock is ready for your boat, he tells you to come in.  Jim drives the boat into the lock and I stand at the bow.  I reach out and grab a line hanging down the side of the lock, or loop one of our lines around a cable on the side of the lock wall, depending on the lock.  Then while I hold the boat near the wall, Jim leaves the engine in neutral and goes to the stern to grab another lock line.  We both hold the boat close to the wall, while making sure the fenders we carry on the side keep the boat off the wall (lock walls are filthy), pushing the boat away from the wall as necessary using boat hooks.  After the lock fills (or empties depending on if we're going up or down), Jim drops his line and goes back to the wheel.  Once he has control of the boat I drop the last line and we move out of the lock.

We understand the process in Canada is a little different because Canadian lock tenders don't have radios and they want you to turn off your engines in the lock itself.  I'll let you know once we start up the Rideau Canal.