Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/July 1887/Among the Thousand Islands

1014639Popular Science Monthly Volume 31 July 1887 — Among the Thousand Islands1887Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen



"THE humming-bird has now laid its eggs in the nest by the veranda," our friend wrote us from Gananoque; "come soon if you want to see them. And Miss Sinclair has tamed a chipmunk, which eats almost from her hand, by the big tree. I'm sure your boy would like to have a peep at him. Also, the Indian pipe plant is beginning to flower in the wood behind the house. It doesn't last long; you must make haste, or you will be too late for it."

We knew the hospitable chalet at Gananoque of old; and even if our friend's society had not been enough of itself to entice us (which it amply was), the added delights of a humming-bird's nest, a tame chipmunk, and the Indian-pipe plant in full flower might surely have sufficed to move the heart of the stoniest of parents. I don't go in, myself, for being what you may call stony; on the contrary, where the junior branches are concerned, I acknowledge myself but as clay in the hands of the potter; so the very next day saw us safely packed on board the Princess Louise river-steamer, three precious souls, and all agog to dash through thick and thin on the heaving bosom of the broad St. Lawrence.

And the broad St. Lawrence did heave that July evening, no mistake about it. A fresh west wind was blowing over the lake, and the spray was dashing up with sea-like violence as we steamed away from the wooden wharves of Kingston, heading down-stream for the Thousand Islands. Lake Ontario, when it chooses, can get up a very decent storm indeed; quite as fine a storm as any to be seen upon the German Ocean, with huge four-masters from Chicago stranding helplessly on the reefs and spits; and even the river can run seas-high in its broader reaches among the wide expansion known as the Lake of the Thousand Islands. Now, Gananoque is the petty metropolis of the Thousand Island district on the Canadian side, as Alexandria Bay and Clayton are on the American shore; and the Princess Louise is the little steamer which plies daily between Kingston and Gananoque during the summer season, when the ice is up and navigation is open. But I have always found European ideas as to the geography of Canada so very vague that I shall make no apology for beginning my story with some slight account of the Thousand Islands and their immediate surroundings.

Just at the point where the huge St. Lawrence emerges lazily from Lake Ontario—or where Lake Ontario narrows into the St. Lawrence, whichever you will—the bed of the river crosses a transverse range of low granite hills, whose bare summits have been ground into dome-shaped bosses (or roches moutonnées, as they say in Switzerland) by the enormous ice-sheets of the Glacial epoch. The granite of the chain is very hard and pure; it is quarried in large masses, indeed, for monumental and building purposes, among these very islands; and so the great river, unable to cut itself as profound a channel as it might otherwise have done in a more yielding rock, has spread itself out in wide pools over a broad and shallow bed, only deep enough for large navigation by river-steamers in two or three well-recognized currents. The main line of the Grand Trunk Railway, in fact, between Kingston and Montreal, traverses this same low, granite range, and exhibits very clearly the conditions precedent for the production of so strange and beautiful a phenomenon as the Thousand Islands. The range consists of numerous crouching, ice-worn mounds or hillocks, shaped exactly like a pig's back—or, to be more respectful, let us say an elephant's, or a basking whale's—while in between them lie deep grooves, or valleys, equally ice-worn, all running parallel and scratched alike, as is necessarily the case with the grooves due to the downward movement of a single great glacier or ice-sheet. Now, the average width of the St. Lawrence under normal circumstances, when it isn't trying, Yankee fashion, to do a big thing, is about a mile or a mile and a half. But when it encounters this belt of ancient ice-worn gneiss, with its accompanying dales, it spreads itself out into a sort of encumbered lake some ten or fifteen miles wide, filling up the grooves and interstices between the rounded humps, but leaving the higher mounds or hillocks themselves as tiny islands intersected by endless miniature channels. The name Thousand Islands is by no means due to characteristic American exaggeration: the official survey, made for the Treaty of Ghent gives the number as sixteen hundred and ninety-two, and they extend for forty miles down the river from Kingston to Brockville, in a perpetual succession of beautiful pictures.

If the islands and islets still remained merely in their original condition, as rounded, dome-shaped knolls, clad with pine and maple and Virginia-creeper, rising hump-like in slow slopes from the water's edge, they would still be extremely romantic and picturesque. But they are far more than this. The ceaseless action of the river at their sides, aided by the disintegrating frosts of winter, and the pressure of the ice-packs when the lake "breaks up" in early spring (exactly as if it were an academy for young gentlemen in the Easter holidays), has cut many of their edges into steep little cliffs, fantastically weathered, as granite almost always weathers, into beautiful broken crags and pinnacles. Thus the cliffs often spring sheer from the surface of the water, worn by rain and frost into quaint, jutting shapes, and with rare ferns and flowers and creepers hanging out here and there from their creviced nooks. The summits remain for the most part smooth and polished by the old ice-action; and the contrast between their bald, round surfaces, almost gray with age and lichens, and the jagged and ruddy outline of the more recent fractures, makes an extremely bold and effective element in the total picture. The islets are also of every imaginable shape, size, and grouping some of them big enough to hold two or three farms, and others of them rising solitary from mid-stream, crowned by a single waving stem of Canadian cedar. Here is one, for example, a mere bare pinnacle of moldering rock; and here is another, a craggy little island, yet covered with endless variety of timber, whose drooping foliage hangs over the bank and reflects itself placidly in the silvery mirror below. Thus cluster after cluster passes before one's eyes, all fairy-like, green, and romantic, but all as infinitely varied in shape and contour as intricate intermixture of rock and vegetation, and land and water, can possibly make them.

I must give the reader due warning, however, that on this ground I am perhaps a trifle enthusiastic. To say the truth, if I may for once be frankly personal, I speak with the pardonable partiality of a native. I am, indeed, an aboriginal of this very district, born at Kingston, the threshold of the St. Lawrence, and "raised" (as we say beyond the Atlantic) on the biggest and longest of the Thousand Islands. Hence, something of the glamour of childhood surrounds the region still in my eyes: sweeter flowers blow there than anywhere else on this prosaic planet; bigger fish lurk among the crevices, bluer birds flit between the honeysuckles, and livelier squirrels gambol upon the hickory-trees, than in any other corner of this oblate spheroid. I see the orange lilies and the lady's-slippers still, by the reflected light of ten-year-old memories. So the cautious reader will perhaps do well to take a liberal discount of twenty per cent off all my adjectives, to submit my eulogistic verbs to a strict ad-valorem drawback, and to accept the remainder as probably representing an unprejudiced view of the situation. I am not, I will admit, a patriotic Canadian—in so small a community patriotism runs perilously near to provincialism—but I must allow that a warm corner still exists in my heart for the rocks and reaches of the Thousand Islands.

The Princess Louise steams down the Canadian Channel—one of the two chief navigable currents—past Wolfe Island, where I spent a rustic boyhood with the raccoons and the sunfish, and on through endless groups of other wooded islets, with cedars sweeping low to the water's edge, till, after a couple of hours aboard, two white wooden lighthouses, guarding the entrance to the little harbor, announce our approach to Gananoque. A "creek," or minor river (pronounce it "crick" if you wish to be thoroughly transatlantic), here joins issue with the great St. Lawrence, and of course on its way indulges in some local waterfalls, once pretty, but now made to do duty, alas! with American utilitarianism, in turning the saw-mills which are the raison d'etre of the flourishing small village. I will not describe Gananoque itself—Canadian villages are best left to the imagination of the charitable reader; I will only say that its natural situation is absolutely charming, and its bay and outlook "as beautiful as they make them." The Princess Louise drew up at the rough log wharf, choked with immense piles of white-pine planks—"lumber," as the American language gracefully phrases it; and even as we reached the tiny quay we saw our hostess in her row-boat, already pulling round a granite bluff from her retreat to meet us. By private arrangement with the captain, indeed—so sweetly simple and domestic is life in these new countries—the engineer "scooted," or blew, his whistle three times as he passed the lighthouse whenever he had visitors on board for our friends' chalet. The moment the "scoot" is heard on the cliff, the chalet folks put out their boat at once, and row round to the landing-place to take up their visitors without delay on arrival.

It is one of the charms of our vast England that here a man is lost in the crowd. The individual withers (much to the advantage of his own comfort), and the world is more and more. You can walk along the streets of London any day with the serene consciousness that no-body knows you or cares a pin about you, that to all the passers-by you are merely another nameless passer-by, that your personality is wholly merged in the recognition of your abstract existence as a single unit of assorted humanity. That, I say, gives a man a delightful sense of breadth and freedom. You feel yourself planted, as the inimitable Prince Florestan aptly phrases it, "at the strategic center of the universe, for so I may be allowed to style Rupert Street," with your individuality wholly obliterated, in the general consciousness of our common human citizenship. But once in a while, as an incident of a summer holiday, it is not wholly unpleasant, by way of contrast, to find one's self for a time in such a narrower world of mutual recognition, where the purser knows immediately you are going to stop with your friends in their summer quarters, and gives notice to the engineer to blow the whistle thrice accordingly as you pass the chalet where they presently abide. A certain patriarchal colonial note in it all attracts one's not unfavorable attention. If you were a duke in England, the constituted authorities would refuse to whistle for you; it is agreeable now and again to feel yourself a duke, and to be recognized and whistled for with more than ducal consideration. I much prefer it to the South Coast Railway style, where my urbane inquiry, "Is this the train for Brighton, please?" meets with the crushing response from guard or porter, "All right! third class forward!"

We disembarked from the Princess Louise, and took our seats in the chalet row-boat. Our hostess pulled; politeness compelled me to offer myself as an unworthy substitute, but, when she firmly declined to surrender the sculls, I felt a secret twinge of satisfaction, for though it's one thing to pilot a dingey from Oxford to Sandford Lasher, it's quite another thing to pull a heavy hen-coop against the big waves of the full St. Lawrence on a windy evening. Canadian ladies think nothing of a mile or two of rowing, or of a stiff breeze; and modesty recognized the palpable fact that the sculls were in far more competent hands. Practice makes perfect, however; and a few weeks in Canada soon brought back to me the old knack of rowing with thole-pins instead of rowlocks, though to the last the instinctive tendency to drop the wrist in the vain effort to feather—feathering, of course, is impossible with the pins—persisted always, much to my discomfiture.

The chalet, whither we were bound, stands a little removed from Gananoque village, in wild grounds all of its own, raised high among the woods, on top of a sheer cliff, beneath whose frowning crags we rowed into a little bay or haven, protected by a bold granite headland from the sea, that rolled high upon the open river. There we pulled up beside the floating wooden landing-stage, and disembarked on the grounds of Mossbank. (The real name was not Mossbank, but something very much prettier and more appropriate, only my friend's solemn adjurations have bound me down by inviolable promise not to reveal either its local habitation or its name too openly to the profane vulgar, or even, which is quite another matter, to the candid reader of this present magazine.) I forget how many steps, partly wooden, and partly cut into the solid granite of the headland, led up the face of the perpendicular cliff from the water's edge to the chalet platform. I was told at the time—something like one hundred and ninety, I fancy; but the beautiful picture of that calm bay, and the hanging woods, and the maiden-hair fern springing in wild luxuriance from the clefts of the rock, and the bearberry clambering over the ice-worn bosses, and the wild sarsaparilla raising its green berries on its tall, bare stalk, and all the thousand and one exquisite details of frond and foliage, and fruit and flower, distracted my attention from arithmetical facts, gradational or otherwise, and left me only eyes and mind for the beautiful scene that unrolled itself slowly, step by step, before me.

At the summit, on a rounded, rocky plateau of bare granite, overgrown in places by clambering shrubs and trailing Western creepers, the chalet itself fronted the Sunset Islands, and looked down from its aerial perch upon the intricate maze of russet land and purple water. To the right lay the lighthouses and the islands in their neighborhood; in front, one islet behind another stood massed in view, backed up by the low hills of the New York shore; to the left, the high cliff closed in the sight, with a single rocky island rising full in prospect, and the river stretching inimitably onward, broken by endless tiny archipelagoes, in the direction of the Cornwall Rapids. For the chalet itself, how shall I fitly describe it? A more charming summer-house was never devised for human habitation. Being meant for midsummer use alone, warmth and snugness were left wholly out of consideration; all the stress was laid upon coolness and breeziness in the sweltering heat of Canadian August. Inside and out, the chalet was scrupulously of wood, wooden; it was built of the native white pine, polished both sides, one thickness of boards only, and all the constructional details within and without were plainly visible to the naked eye in a way that would have delighted the honest souls of Scott and Fergusson. The inner walls showed the polished framework (like a good church-roof) that supported the single layer of planks, unpapered, and otherwise undisfigured; the polished beams and joists overhead bore the weight of the boards that formed at once the ceiling of the drawing-room and the floor of the neat little bedrooms up-stairs. Thus every room had six sides of polished light-brown pine-wood floor, ceiling, and four walls. A few delicate Oriental rugs and native fur-skins lay daintily upon the waxed floor; etchings and sketches hung upon the walls; light and graceful summer-like furniture filled up the rooms; but otherwise all was the clean wooden framework, and delightfully cool and appropriate it looked. Further to carry out the summer effect of the whole, the three reception-rooms on the ground-floor, instead of being jealously partitioned off from one another with the stereotyped formality of urban life, were thrown into one by broad archways, where folding-doors might have been, but were not, so giving an air of roominess and freedom to drawing-room, dining-room, and library alike, which was especially grateful in hot Canadian noontides. With doors and windows flung wide open, and roses and honeysuckles peeping in from the richly festooned pillars of the veranda, can one imagine a more delightful spot in which to spend a cloudless summer?

For, to complete the charm, a veranda ran round the house below, with broad shade and comfortable rocking-chairs, and creepers clambered up the posts around, making, as it were, a rustic frame for the exquisite picture of river and islands that lay beyond. Up-stairs, each bedroom opens out onto a continuous balcony, formed by the roof of the veranda, and running round the whole chalet, Swiss or Norwegian fashion, with a wood-work balustrade, overgrown with lithe sprays of native climbers. The view from the balcony was even finer than that from the platform of rock on which the house stood; it opened up yet wider vistas of the river, and gave a broader prospect over the blue hills of the dim American shore beyond.

I have been thus particular in describing the house at Mossbank, because it may be taken as a fair sample of the delicious little summer cottages in which Americans and Canadians lounge away the sultry months of the transatlantic season. Our hostess, indeed, who combines the artist's eye with the poet's, had been peculiarly happy in her choice of a site: Mossbank stood on, by far, the prettiest point we saw anywhere among those sixteen hundred and ninety-two fairy-like islands; but almost all the cottages we visited were picturesque and appropriate to their use and situation, though none other, perhaps, was quite so graceful in its design, or so dainty in its appointments, as the one in which we were fortunate enough to fix our headquarters. Dozens of such cottages now stud the prettiest parts of the various channels, and it is locally fashionable to run them down as disfiguring and modernizing a beautiful piece of rustic wild scenery. For my own part, though I have known the islands intimately from childhood upward, and can remember them when their only inhabitants were minks and musquash, and their staple products blueberries and wild-flowers, I do not think the quaint little cottages and the wooden bungalows are anything other (in most cases) than improvements to the district. And I am rather a Puritan, too, in this matter of wildness. I hate the intrusive foot of civilization. But civilization, as it shows itself among the Thousand Islands, is not intrusive; it rather heightens than detracts from the total impression. By themselves, the islands tend toward sameness; a graceful chalet, a light wooden toy farm-house, a white, gleaming lighthouse, judiciously planted on a jutting height, and well embowered in spruce-fir and maples, give individuality and distinctiveness to the picture, and supply the landscape with what it otherwise sadly lacks—points de repère—in the tangled maze of wood and water. Every view is all the better for an occasional landmark; the wildest nature is somewhat improved by a stray token of man's occupancy and the possibility of intercourse with the mass of humanity.

For, except the cottages, the islands have been mostly left by the common good taste of their owners and occupiers in their native wildness of rock and foliage. No foolish attempts have anywhere been made at the outrage known as landscape-gardening: the granite crags and the festoons of wild-vine or Yirginia-creeper have been wisely retained in God's own handywork. The grounds of Mossbank, in particular, were especially charming. In front of the house the bare platform of rounded granite gave place here and there to irregular patches of shallow greensward, in which a few bright flowers grew as if naturally, while native shrubs found a firm foothold in the deep dikes weathered at joints in the solid rock. All round stretched rich Canadian woodland, carpeted with undergrowth of blueberry and poison-ivy. From the edge of the cliff, which toppled over sheer I know not how many hundred feet into the river below, one looked down into pellucid depths of limpid water, where even from so great a height the bass and pickerel might be distinctly descried waving their restless fins against the black background of rock at the bottom. Everywhere around lay delicious spots where one might fling one's self at one's ease on the smooth gneiss, almost as polished as if by a lapidary's wheel, and pick sweet flowers from the crannies between flowers of that beautiful exotic Canadian woodland type, so different from our weedy European pattern.

On one side, a little back of the chalet (which could practically be approached by water only), lay a deep ravine whose bottom was filled with rich peat-mold, the home of innumerable exquisite ferns, a paradise for the botanist, pregnant with hints as to Nature's ways among the flowers and insects. I could linger here for hours discoursing of the strange and lovely plants that grew profusely in that shaded dell, only I'm afraid the courtesy of the proverbially courteous reader would scarcely survive so severe a strain upon its well-known indulgence. I will hurry on to the boat-house, therefore, which lay at the riverward mouth of the deep ravine, and formed, so to speak, the embarcadère for everywhere; for the river is, of course, the true highway of the Thousand Islands, and the boat is the gig by which one effects communication with the outer world, and pays one's visits to friends and neighbors.

Indeed, among the islands one lives upon the water. By a certain tacit understanding between the islanders, every resident has a recognized right to explore every other resident's petty domain. No obtrusive notice-boards flaunt before the innocent face of heaven the anti-social and wholly uncalled-for information that trespassers will be prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the law. On the contrary, the usual formula painted on the neat little placard beside the tiny landing-stages assumes the optative rather than the imperative mood: "Parties landing on this island are requested to kindly abstain from damaging the ferns and flowers." The fact is, all the islanders are there as summer visitors only; each possesses but a tiny realm of his own, often beautifully varied, but always readily exhausted of its native interest; and the whole charm of the spot would evaporate entirely if proprietors insisted with ingrained British churlishness upon their legal right to shut themselves in from landless humanity with the effectual protest of a high brick wall. Accordingly, everybody always lands freely, no man hindering, upon everybody else's private island; and the day is mostly passed in wandering (afloat) in a delicious, aimless, listless fashion down tiny channels between islet and islet, stopping here to pick a rare wild-flower from a cliff on the side, and halting there to explore and climb some jutting rock whose peak promises a wider view over all the surrounding little archipelagoes.

Many of the islands are still uninhabited, and these are the best of all for botanizing purposes. It is there that you may find the Indian-pipe plant, known also by the still stranger and truer name of corpse-weed; a beautiful drooping white flower, as pale and soft in its material as a fungus, of which our hostess said to us prettily: "When I first saw it I was half afraid to touch the uncanny thing. I thought I had found the ghost of a flower." It is, in fact, a lily-like flowering-plant; a heath by family, which had adopted the habits and mode of life of a fungus, living entirely like a parasite on the decaying foliage beneath the forest-trees, and has therefore lost its green leaves and assimilated in all unessential particulars to the other fungi whose ways it mimics. But I have promised not to be botanical here, so I will refrain from cataloguing all the other wonderful and lovely things to be found on these little island Edens. I will only say in passing that the scarlet columbines, the pinky-white water-lilies, the crimson baneberries, and the snowy anemones combined with the creepers, the ferns, and the club-mosses, to make as beautiful and varied a carpet as any I have ever beheld anywhere.

Others of the islands have chalets or cottages perched upon their tops, and to these we often rowed through devious channels, trailing a spoon, for black bass, behind, and catching for the most part nothing more valuable than water-lily leaves and Canadian river-weeds. Sometimes a cottage will occupy a single rocky islet, and its grounds will extend to two or three adjacent ones, connected with the home island by rustic bridges, just arched sufficiently to allow a boat to pass easily beneath them. On the American side, the picturesqueness of the scene is occasionally marred by too profuse a display of the national bunting: Canadian loyalty, though sometimes also a trifle obtrusive, seldom indulges in so lavish an ostentation of the British ensign. There are islands, too, where an ill-advised proprietor has had the bad taste to paint up the name of his domain on a big board—"Idlewild," or "Sunnyside," or "River Home"—as though the rock were a railway-station, and the porter were at hand to shout out in incomprehensible syllables, "Change here for Montreal and Chicago."

Few modes of life could be more graceful or humanizing than summer life in these delicious archipelagoes. Here and there, to be sure, as at Thousand Island Park, a whole big island has been bought up by speculators (oddly mixed in the making with camp-meetings and other revivalist religious gatherings), and laid out as a sort of exclusive Bedford Park, where none but approved members of a particular sect may take a cottage. One such little summer village is exclusively Methodist, while another is wholly given over to serious Congregationalism. But in most parts of the group (and it must be remembered that the islands cover, roughly speaking, an area of forty miles by ten or fifteen) each house occupies a little insular kingdom of its own, where the boys and girls can swim, and fish, and play, and flirt, unmolested; where the seniors can lie in hammocks under the trees, and ruminate on politics, philosophy, and the tender affections; where callers can be espied from afar as they approach the shore; and where hospitality on a simple scale is as universal as it is unexacting. Note, also, that big black bass and muskallonge still lurk among the cracks and crannies of the submerged granite, and that on many islands you can sit on the jutting end of a tiny promontory and drop your line for them, plump from the shore, into twenty feet of clear green water.

One last word to the British tourist who, stirred by my natural and indigenous enthusiasm, may perhaps contemplate some day visiting and exploring the Thousand Islands. Don't for a moment suppose that the islands can be adequately seen from the deck of one of the big lake-steamers that ply up and down between Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto. This is the stereotyped British-tourist way of seeing them, and nothing could be flatter or more disappointing. If you take them so, I do not doubt you will come away objurgating me by all your domestic deities. The steamer sticks to one or other of the two main channels, which are wide and deep, and comparatively unencumbered by rocks or islands; it avoids the tiny minor reaches, rich in endless surprises and varying vistas which constitute the real charm and beauty of this fantastic, fairy-like region. No, no! to see the islands properly, you must live on one of them for several days at least, and row up and down among the lost side-channels and tangled back-waters, exploring the petty bays and inlets, and occasionally losing your way altogether among the endless intricacies of that maze of water. But if you can not afford the time to see them thus, you should at least spend a day or two at Clayton or Gananoque, and take the "round trip" on the little excursion-steamer, Island Wanderer, which threads its way in and out through the loveliest windings of the landlocked river.—Longmans' Magazine.