The Thousands Islands: a Memoir
When my family drove up to the Islands the car ride seemed so long. That was when I was young. The last week of July and the first week of August every summer since I can remember we would make this trip. My parents, grand-parents, aunts and uncles, and cousins would meet at Mil’s cottages— a simple and rustic riverside paradise. There were ten identical one room cottages arranged on a 50ft hill overlooking Round Island and the St. Lawrence Bay. These were the most memorable weeks of my childhood.
My grandpa was a fisherman. He’d bring his 10ft steel boat with him on the trip and every morning before the break of dawn he’d be out the door on his way to the docks. If it were up to him he would have stayed out on the river until dusk but after a few hours he’d always be back in time for breakfast.
This was when my brother and I would wake up when we were young. We’d be sleeping on a futon together that was smack in the middle of the kitchen while our parents and grandparents split the 10 by 10 bedroom. We would hear my grandma shuffling around. We would hear pots and pans clank. We would hear the water run and the stove click on. But we didn’t wake until the aroma of fresh eggs and toast arrived at our noses.
At the cottages we had very little water to bathe. My grandmother was very strict with my brother and I: cold water only, less than 5 minutes. I remember my grandma telling me a story about how my uncle Mike snuck in a 30-minute hot shower one day back in 1973. My grandfather was not happy. Needless to say, Mike wasn’t allowed to go fishing for the rest of the trip.
I wasn’t allowed to fish until I was about six— and that was just on the docks. My older brother was able to go out onto the boat with my grandpa every morning since I could remember. They would come back to breakfast and talk about trolling for pike and Muskie or about the hot spots to catch bass. I’d have nothing to stay but I always listened.
When I got older— about ten—I was already a good fisherman. I could rig my own lines with sinkers, split shots, lures, or worms. I could catch anything on the docks. Once I accidentally caught a snapping turtle the size of Texas. Another time on the docks I caught a rare prize: an eel. Even so, I needed a new challenge. I longed to fish the many nooks and crannies of the St. Lawrence River with my grandpa.
The first time my grandpa took me out on the boat for a morning fishing trip I remember smelling the stench of morning dew, dead fish, and the water. I unbuttoned the canvas cover of the boat and hopped in. There were a couple wooden seats with retractable lids. Under two of them there were lifejackets and under another was live fish caught from the previous night. My grandpa ripped the engine’s cord, we felt the rumble of the motor, and then we took off to one of his favorite spots.
We circled around to the far side of Round Island and we drifted in the middle of the river were the depth was between 50ft and 70ft. From there, we fished. It didn’t take long to feel nibbles. We would give the line a jerk if we did, hoping to snag them in mid-bite. After a while we would raise our lines to the surface to check if our bait was still intact. Sometimes it was, sometimes it was gone. Nevertheless, we kept on casting our worms and lures out into the sea hoping to bring in a nice catch.
We were out there for a few hours. The sun was shining stronger and the skies were a sheet of solid blue. We knew breakfast was coming soon so we let our lines drop down to the bottom in our last hopes to bring in a memorable catch. We both caught a few small mouth bass by this point but we really wanted something we could keep or flay. My grandpa’s prize fish still hangs in his shed. It’s the gnarly head of a 70in Muskie with the nastiest set of teeth you could ever imagine.
So as we were bringing our worms back to the surface I had a huge hit on my line. My grandpa helped me steady the line as we started to reel in the monster on the opposite end of the line. The fish was providing a hell of a fight. Our line was circling the boat in all directions. My grandpa’s little 10ft steel boat was rocking from side to side. We were afraid of the line snapping so we took our time reeling the fish in. As we got closer and closer we could begin seeing his outline in the water: it was the largest bass I ever caught. We had to haul him into the boat with my grandpa’s big green net. That monster weighted a good 15 pounds and measured just over 17 inches long. It was no world record but it meant the world to me (and my grandpa). I decided to let him go.
This was my greatest memory of the Islands I can remember. I haven’t been up there since my 17th birthday. That was the last time any of us went up there for vacation. After my Great-Aunt Lorie died from Leukemia and my grandpa got diagnosed with skin cancer again, it never really would feel the same up there. In fact, since she died my grandpa really hasn’t fished since. It’s a sad truth but we would have been foolish to think that our summer riverside paradise would last forever. The most I can do is continue the cycle with my family in the future. I want to take my brothers, sisters, and grandchildren to the Islands someday. I want to take the young ones out to the other side of Round Island to fish for their own river monsters. That’s what I really want to do.