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Cruising the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands

Alexandria Belle tour boat

A thousand islands, one amazing destination

By Steven Bull

When my wife and I bought our boat in the winter of 2013, we immediately started talking about where we wanted to take it. I mean, there was the obvious “what do we name it?” and “at which marina should we keep it?” But we had those answers locked down the day we signed the paperwork so our focus turned to the inaugural voyage.

My wife, Jay, went to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and has, like every Queen’s grad I’ve met, a strong affinity for the city and the school. Since we are keeping our boat in Toronto, a Lake Ontario destination was a no-brainer. We didn’t want to tackle locks or canals until we were more comfortable with our new floating cottage.

After a few weeks of getting settled into our 2001 Sea Ray 380 Sundancer we recruited two crew members for the journey and were off.

Jay’s father, Brian, who was in the boat business for years, was not going to miss this trip. Nor was her mother, Cindy, who also loves the boating lifestyle.

It was a two-day journey from Toronto to Kingston with an overnight stop in Cobourg. There we received a welcomed visit from my stepfather and my mother, who was eager to stow away on board and join us for the rest of the trip. With the promise of another voyage in the future, she relented and returned to dry land.

We made our way to Kingston’s Confederation Basin the next day – a well-maintained, city-operated marina at the mouth of the Cataraqui River. In the heart of historic downtown Kingston and a short walk to a great selection of restaurants and pubs, we were slotted into a slip along the breakwall looking across the river to the Royal Military College of Canada.

a surprise fireworks display lit up the sky over RMC

The four of us spent some time in the cockpit with a cocktail discussing our planned route when a surprise fireworks display lit up the sky over RMC. In fact, it was coming from RMC’s historic neighbour, Fort Henry. It happens every Wednesday for a few months in the summer as part of the World Heritage Sunset Ceremonies. Who knew? We certainly didn’t and it was one of those great surprises you get when exploring new areas.

Our plan was to head from Kingston through the Bateau Channel and Admiralty Islands to Gananoque, and then onwards through the Navy Islands and under the Thousand Islands Bridge to Rockport. On the return leg, we took the Canadian Middle Channel which allowed for faster runs although the tradeoff is wider waters and, thus, less beautiful scenery. All in, our route plotted 54 nautical miles or about 100 kilometres.

Jay took the helm for the first leg on the sunny morning so I could nerd-it-up and take photos of the historic landmarks and tell, what I can only assume to be, riveting tales of their origins.

One of the most unique things you’ll find here is Kingston’s Martello Towers. The round fortresses were built in the 1840s because of something happening on the other side of the country. The Oregon Border Dispute threatened to plunge the British Colonies and the United States over the edge. Shoal Tower was built in what’s now Confederation Basin, Fort Frederick stands watch over RMC, Murney Tower guards the southwest shore of Kingston and on Cedar Island, stands Cathcart Tower.

Between the towers and Fort Henry (which was upgraded in the 1830s to replace the original fort of 1812) I got my fill of historical sites as seen from the water and my family had their fill of “fun facts” so it was back to the boat.

Cruising slowly through the glistening waters we passed a tall ship that looked, fittingly, like a pirate ship in the aptly named Deadman Bay. When we rounded the bow we saw people swinging off ropes and splashing down into the water, waving at our cameras. Clearly these modern pirates figured out their priorities!

The passage looks narrow between the peninsula and Whiskey Island but it offers plenty of room and water depth. Even passing between the small Whiskey Island and the larger Cedar Island is possible as a sailboat proved to us.

Cedar Island is part of the Thousand Islands National Park chain and boasts campsites, picnic sites and paid mooring at a small floating dock. In 2013 the official name of the park was changed from St. Lawrence Islands National Park and some of the signage still bears that outdated name.

Once through the pass, things open up a bit, so we did too, hitting the throttle to get up on plane. A flock of hundreds of cormorants stretched along the bay took that as a cue and they too took off, en masse.

Though there’s plenty to see as you cruise through this beautiful stretch of river, if you’re at the helm, you have to pay attention. We quickly came upon the well-marked Spectacles Shoal, but there are a lot of tiny islands, shoals and other potential dangers you want to avoid unless you’re looking for an excuse to spend some quality time with your insurance broker.

A little further downriver is Treasure Island Marina – another option for transient stays or a fuel stop. We were all good, so we kept on keepin’ on.

As we neared the Bateau Channel I relieved my wife from the piloting duties and took over the helm, keeping my eyes peeled for the cable ferry.

It looks small and easy to avoid but this is a unique obstacle connecting the mainland to Howe Island. There’s no propeller, instead two heavy cables strung across the channel are used to move the ferry along. You need to give it a wide berth on both sides no matter the direction. The current ferry can hold 15 cars and is owned by the province, but there has been a cable ferry of various sizes and ownership at this spot since at least 1898.

where there is scenery, there are often very nice homes

The Bateau Channel is a popular route for boaters as it’s a more protected than the Middle Channel and offers great scenery from reedy marshlands in shallow bays to rocky outcrops and islands. And of course, where there is scenery, there are often very nice homes.

Leaving the Bateau Channel we went past Redhorse Island with its well-kept cottage and grounds and into the busy waterways of the Admiralty Islands, popular with larger cruisers and day boaters alike.

There are five good-sized islands that are part of the national park chain. All offer washrooms and mooring options, including deep draft mooring on Mermaid Island. So there’s no excuse not to visit – all boats are welcome.

As we arrived in Gananoque we wanted to get a splash of fuel and though there are nearly 400 slips and pump-out facilities, the Gananoque Municipal Marina does not have gas docks. I blame myself for not researching that ahead of time but given the size of it and its location, I just assumed. Lesson learned. A few choice words to make the air around the helm as blue as the water and we were on to plan B!

Brennan Marine up the Gananoque River has gas docks, but the historic swing bridge was too low for us to get under by mere inches. It was on to Plan C.

Gordon Marine, on the main channel, is now closed though its gas pumps sat, taunting us, as we pulled in next door at the Thousand Islands Playhouse. We let the thirsty Sea Ray rest while I got a behind-the-scenes look at this one-of-a-kind theatre.

“This started off as a canoeing club in the early 1900s here in Gananoque and in the ‘70s was converted to a theatre,” explained artistic director Ashlie Corcoran who met me on the concrete dock before leading me inside the old wooden building that stands watch over the St. Lawrence River. “I don’t know of another theatre like this.”

The old canoe club feel was alive and well in the lobby. It looked like you would expect something like it to look, with lots of wood, a very cottagey vibe and decor to match.

In the back, by the fireplace, photos of the old club and its most famous member, Henry Harper, still hang. The room was named after Harper, who competed in the 1948 Olympics.

“You can sail up or bring your powerboat up. We have five docking slips which can be reserved and, in fact, have to be reserved through the box office because they are popular,” Corocoran explained as she led me into the main theatre. “It’s really simple; you just call the box office say you want to use a slip. It’s free of charge if you’re coming to see a show and if you’d like to spend the night it’s 30 dollars including HST.”

You’ll be seeing top-quality theatre, too. We hushed the boat-talk as the cast ran through some scenes in the final rehearsals for the classic Oscar Wilde play, The Importance of Being Earnest. I’m no theatre critique, but I’d give their performance four anchors out of four! Enough of the Wilde life, there was more to see here.

If you choose to stay, it’s worth a few hours walking around the town of Gananoque. Like the Playhouse, it is full of stories. A house built 1831 for the McDonald family became the town hall in 1911. Today it sits just steps away from the river and Confederation Park which, boasts the town’s website, is home to Canada’s largest outdoor contemporary art exhibit.

American forces raided the town during the War of 1812 and canons and plaques mark its place in history along parkland, this time along the St. Lawrence. From here you can watch the famous Gananoque Boat Lines ferry sightseers and water lovers alike around the islands for, seemingly, non-stop tours.

We gave ourselves lots of time for leisurely sightseeing on our way to our next stop, the eastern extent of this journey: Rockport.

This is another area where you want to keep your eyes peeled. Between Jackstraw Shoal, the big tour boats, and the pleasure boaters, you’ll have plenty to contend with. Luckily, I had my navigator for assistance.

I really noticed the current, a new sensation for someone used to boating on small lakes

It was around here I really noticed the current, a new sensation for someone used to boating on small lakes in Ontario’s cottage country and around Toronto in Lake Ontario. It’s not overwhelming by any means but definitely something worth factoring in to your journey. Heading downriver will be faster, aided by the flow out to the Atlantic and heading upriver towards Lake Ontario will be a little slower as you fight the current.

A giant reminder of how close we were to the American border to came into sight. The New York-based Alexendria Belle tour boat rounded the corner with the American flag waving from the stern and the American tourists waving from the upper deck.

The friendly waves were coming from boats of all sizes as we headed through Fiddlers Elbow between Ash and Wallace islands, sliding in behind the Alexandria Belle.

As we neared the Thousand Islands Bridge there was a unique section of the river to traverse where small and deep holes drop more than 100 feet. That causes what are essentially underwater waterfalls and currents that manifest themselves as tiny whirlpools and churning waters. It could appear daunting but in a 38-foot boat it felt like nothing more than a few ripples.

All of this passes under the Thousand Islands Bridge, which is actually multiple bridges spanning 14 kilometres from Ontario to New York. Once we were under the huge bridge Jay spotted an unexpected figure watching over all the boat traffic.

Tucked along the top of a tree-lined cliff is a stone statue, which, thanks to some iPhone research, we found out to be a representation of St. Lawrence himself and is only visible from the water. It seemed to be a good omen, so we opened up the throttle and closed in on Rockport and headed for Ed Huck Marine, a century-old staple of boating in this region.

“History was, it started with actually Fred Huck, late 1800s. Fred was a boat builder. It went on to Ed Huck and Fred and Ed actually cast Invictus engines to power wooden river skiffs they built,” explained Scott MacCrimmon, part of the fourth-generation of family ownership.

They no longer build those skiffs; instead the company has evolved since 1889 into a full service marina from sales to maintenance to gas dock. Just beside the marina is a house that once served as a lodge and was, in fact, the primary business years ago as well as being the family home. I was told all generations of the Huck family have lived there at one point or another. Today it’s still rented out as a cottage.

“Certainly there’s a respect for what was built and what was left for us to work with here and we don’t forget that,” MacCrimmon said as we climbed to the roof of the service building to have a better look at the entire property. “This was somebody’s vision, specifically the third-generation, Jerry and Morris built a great foundation for us to work with.”

They’re doing a great job. The seasonal slips were full, the gas dock was a constant hub of activity and their sales and service departments were running at full tilt when we visited. But they no longer have transient dockage and after filling up our fuel tank we popped into one of the waterfront restaurants of Rockport before finding a spot to spend the night.

The next morning we started our leisurely cruise back towards Kingston. Going under the Thousand Islands Bridge we slid in behind a Gananoque Boat Lines tour boat and weaved through islands, past Ivy Lea, through the Gananoque Narrows and then keeping south of the town and the islands, into the Canadian Middle Channel for a boot back to Confederation Basin.

You could spend weeks here, island hopping between the Thousand Islands National Park, doing a mix of anchoring and mooring at the dockages. It’s a very popular destination for boaters, especially with Quebecers during the summer “Construction Holiday” in late July, so call ahead and where you can, pre-book spots.

It can be a daunting area for any boater with the, well, thousands of islands, shoals and obstacles like cable ferries. But if you spend a little time pre-planning, take it at your own pace, and keep your eyes peeled you’ll be fine. It’s worth all that preparation because this is a destination that should be on every boater’s bucket list!

This article is featured in the Summer 2015 issue of Boats&Places and in Episode 3 of the 2015 season of PowerBoat Television.

Steven Bull: Steven Bull is an Associate Producer and Host of PowerBoat Television. He grew up boating on runabouts and PWCs on the lakes around Huntsville, while his wife grew up on cruisers. It only took months after getting married for Steve to adopt that lifestyle. Together, they purchased a Sea Ray 380 Sundancer they keep at the Toronto Islands. A graduate of the University of Windsor’s business school, Steve worked in the front office of OHL and CFL teams before moving to Europe and working as a Ski Guide in the French Alps. He returned to Canada get a Master of Arts in Journalism from Western University (formerly UWO). Steve’s broadcast experience ranges from the BBC World Service in England, to business reporter with NTV in Kenya, and from 2010-2014 as a multi-platform reporter and host with CBC News. In 2014, Steve combined his passion for boating with his skills as a broadcaster by joining Lifestyle Integrated where he contributes to Boats&Places Magazine, BoatTest.ca, BoaterNews.ca, and of course, PowerBoat Television.

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