Back in the days before our husbands retired, my island neighbor, Kate, and I were alone on the island most of the summer. We had a routine of going kayaking nearly every night after dinner. Actually, I always referred to it as “ki-YAKKING” because we talked more than we paddled.
One calm evening sometime in early July, we decided to head down River from Grenell with no particular destination in mind. Kate had recently lost her sister-in-law to cancer and we were more involved with talking than we were paying attention to where we were going as we slowly paddled along Wellesley Island’s channel side shoreline. Suddenly, I looked up. We were just about to go under the Thousand Islands Bridge. How long had we been talking and paddling? I wasn’t concerned about the paddle back until I realized that the sun was down.
We immediately turned around and started paddling hard for home, focused more on paddling than yakking on the return trip. The Thousand Islands Bridge is nearly three miles downriver from us. While the light lingers for nearly an hour after sunset in July, we both realized with growing concern, that we wouldn’t be able to make it back to Grenell before dark.
“What are we going to do?” Kate asked.
We weren’t equipped to be on the River after dark. We didn’t have flashlights, headlights or any sort of light.
“It’ll be okay,” I said. “We’ll stick close to the shoreline. Then, once past Thousand Island Park, we’ll head for the two shoals. Boats will be avoiding the shoals. From there, we only have a short paddle from the shoals to Pullman Island, and then we’re home free.”
It sounded simple enough, but it was that short paddle across the open water between the shoals and Pullman Island, that concerned me most. This was a busy stretch of water for boats cutting through to Murray Isle. I quelled my anxiety by reminding myself that we could see the boats, even if they couldn’t see us and hopefully, we could maneuver out of their way before they got too close.
By the time we made it to Thousand Island Park, it was dark. Without a moon, it was hard to make out anything. It was hard to find the reflective tape on the shoal markers without a light. But knowing this section of the river we instinctively paddled in the correct direction. All went according to plan and we were relieved when we reached Pullman Island. I felt the tension pour from my shoulders as we started the last leg of our paddle across the dark waters of our little cove.
We heard a boat, but unless it was one of our neighbors coming home after dark, we were safe. Then, I thought I recognized the sound of the motor. It sorta sounded like Tinker II, our neighbor’s boat.
I glanced over at his cottage and noted he had left the boathouse light on and his slip was empty.
We both started back paddling hoping to get out of his way. He flew right, past us and then slowed, his wake pushing us back a little more. He had no idea of how close he’d come to hitting us. Unfortunately, I still remember.
This incident was nearly two decades ago. I’ve never ventured out on the River without a light since then. Perhaps this incident, more than any other, cemented in my mind the perils of navigating the River at night.
Even though I knew where I was at every moment that particular night, that’s not always the case. I’m easily confused on the River at night, especially early and late in the season, when there aren’t a lot of cottage lights on the island to help orient me.
One night we were crossing the shipping channel, coming from our Grenell Island cottage to Fishers Landing to pick up a late arriving guest. Suddenly, the mainland shore looked “different.” There weren’t any lights. I slowly came to realize that there was a freighter directly in our path blocking the lights on the mainland shore. Some ships are decked out in lights and look like floating Christmas displays. Others, like this one, have only a bow and a stern light.
Other islanders have given me tips: how to look at the silhouette of the island on the dark sky, how to line up channel markers, and other secrets of nighttime orientation. They tell me the best way to learn night navigation is to run the River at night. It’s a learn-by-doing process.
The River is a different experience at night—almost magical. We often go for sunset cruises and return after dark. The tranquility of the flat water, the beauty of the star-bejeweled sky above, and the purr of the engine at low speed is soothing. I’ve learned that when venturing out on the River day or night, I should heed the Boy Scout motto and always be prepared. We always check our navigation lights before we leave and a spare spotlight, just in case. As always, the River teaches us lessons and I learned mine one night while ki-YAKKING—thankfully without catastrophic results.
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island.
This is Lynn McElfresh’s 119th article for TI Life. This editor waits with anticipation each month to see what Lynn will give to our River community. This month we are not disappointed. It is true, summer nights are magical on the River!
Lynn came to Grenell Island for the first time to meet her fiancé’s family, in 1975. She became part of the family and the island became part of her life. Lynn and her husband, Gary, spend their summers in the Thousand Islands and their winters in Dunedin, Florida. To see all of Lynn’s island experiences, search TI Life under Lynn McElfresh.