I’d like to tell you about a book I just read.
It’s about the Thousand Islands.
In the 1950’s, an American writer called John Keats bought a small island in the St. Lawrence River. He got it from his brother-in-law, a stockbroker who had purchased the land for the three vintage boats that came with it. Keats was just a journalist, he couldn’t afford a faraway island with a run down boathouse and dilapidated cottage for shelter. But he knew when he saw it that he couldn’t afford not to buy it, either.
Pine Island was two acres of rock, birch and pine, just inside the Canadian channel. He bought it for $4,000 at a time when boats were still made of wood, when electricity had to be generated or gone without, and when inviting the neighbours for dinner meant firing up the outboard and going downriver to ask them.
During those first summers, Keats learned to read the water and clouds, caught bass off his dock for breakfast, and quit his job as a Washington Daily News reporter to freelance and write books in a small shack at the top of his island.
“His island.” That has a really cool ring to it, doesn’t it?
Keats saw the Thousand Islands change, as fibreglass boats replaced hand crafted wood, and as millionaires and summer people bought up the surrounding islands and turned a peaceful corner of the St. Lawrence into a watery speedway.
Perhaps my reading of it was filtered through a haze of nostalgia, but this wonderful book brought back so many memories of my St. Lawrence River childhood at the other end of the Thousand Islands — Prescott, the North Channel, Spencer Island, Drummond Island, and The Gut.
I remembered camping in lean-to’s on Prison Island with Rob Wilson, when our small clearing was invaded by dirtbags. They showed up uninvited one night in a massive amphibious invasion by boat, and they pitched tents all around us for their upcoming weekend barbecue. They scorned our handmade shelters: “We’ll set up the mess tent there, once these things disappear…” And they said things like, “If you guys get cold or scared, feel free to crawl inside one of the tents.”
But we had the last laugh. We waited until they went back to shore that night, and burned all their wood and the straw they’d stuffed beneath their tents. And then we slipped away in the pre-dawn hours in our borrowed canoe. We even took the precaution of talking loudly in French accents to throw them off our trail, just in case our voices carried across the water.
I knew the other islands in the area well, too. Me and Rob explored all of them by canoe, sometimes paddling right out into the shipping lanes. Thirty years later, you can still find the stones from our campfire just over the American side, on the island of the pigs (though we didn’t know it was the American side then).
And one summer I camped on Pier Island in the rain with my high school girlfriend, when a rainy weekend meant staying in the tent, which is what I wanted to do anyway.
All these islands were uninhabited. When my dad was chasing fish in the shallows, I was scanning the shore from the boat, trying to understand their geography and what they might look like behind the tangled line of sumac that hid their interiors from view.
When I asked around, I found that no one knew who owned them. “They belong to the Indians,” people would say. Which was just another way of saying that they must belong to someone, but it wasn’t any of us.
Keats writes about the nature of life on the St. Lawrence in the 1950’s and 60’s, and of a simpler time — the time of my father’s stories, grown nearly as vivid in memory as my own — and of a time when the River changed.
I found myself setting his book down every few pages to remember hot summer Saturdays at Lee’s in North Channel. The smell of sun cream and potato salad and stale beer from stubby bottles… And the click of billiard balls and the thump of the leather pockets as my dad and his friends passed another endless afternoon The Summer The Pool Table Arrived.
My birthday is around the middle of June, and that weekend usually coincided with the opening of bass fishing on the river. My dad was never around for those early birthday parties, and when I got old enough, neither was I. We spent it drifting through the fast waters of The Gut instead, flipping lures under the trees and around the rocks, or walking on the ice booms tied up to Drummond Island trying to catch a pike.
I’ll never forget the warmth of sun on my face reflected off the water, or the way an aluminum boat bounces over choppy waves, or how a bass felt when it took my line and skipped across the surface. I haven’t been on the river in years, but those things are in my blood, resonating through every cell.
Some of my best North Channel memories involved climbing around on the derelict boats and tugs at the nearby marine scrapyard. We weren’t supposed to be there, but the watchman was busy feeding his cats, and Carl probably didn’t care what we did anyway.
But most of all, we had stories and laughter and friends. Some of those friends are gone now, including Lee and Bruce and my dad, but their stories are told over and over each time we meet.
There are other river memories, too. In fact, I can’t remember a time when the St. Lawrence wasn’t in the backdrop: frozen cold in winter and dotted with ice fishing huts, white capped with storms, or glittering in summer and providing a compass point to orient the internal map of my world.
I will always associate my earliest summers with the thrum of the laker’s underwater as we held our breath at Kelly’s Beach and felt the big ships pass in the Seaway.
I remember one year we got obsessed with snorkelling. I must have been in 4th or 5th grade. We spent most of that summer not far from the boat ramp, looking for fishing lures and anything else that might have fallen in.
And sometimes we stood on the rocks by the pilings of a long vanished wooden pier at Centennial Park — the one with the big rusted piece of wire sticking out — and we held big stones in our arms and jumped in and plunged straight to the bottom, just to see what it looked like down there.
Once we were treading deep water, catching our breath, when one of my friends got a funny look on his face and a big brown turd suddenly bobbed to the surface. I never swam so fast in my life, before or since (…not mentioning any names Jason, you rotten bastard…).
There were long hot summers of water and green smells, and dark cold winters of frosted up glass. And there were so many days and nights spent in my tiny bedroom, listening to music and staring out the window, dreaming of the things I might do one day if I could only get out there into a wider world.
As I read this book, I realized just how much of my life was connected to that swiftly moving body of water, nearly two kilometres across at my hometown. Twenty years ago I did not know this. But sometimes you need to go far away to understand what has always been near.
Keats writes that islands change you. That they condition your responses, and alter your view of the world. Well, rivers change you too. And though I read this book in my flat in Berlin, I have always felt the pulse of the river, the relentless silent St. Lawrence surge, and it has always served as my internal compass point, and my symbol of home.
Buy Of Time and an Island HERE