Sporting a weathered Commodore's cap to Sugar Island's opening encampment ceremonies complete with traditional bugle playing, flag-raising and cannon firing, Larry Zuk is ready to race again. By his own account, Zuk, 88, has been coming to this Canadian Island in the Gananoque Narrows for 89 years.
"I was conceived on Sugar Island," he states matter-of-factly while seated at a picnic table in the pavilion during a break in one of the opening festivities held under a blue July sky over Headquarters Bay. That, he explains, is why he is named after the St. Lawrence River.
In any event, Zuk, of Concord Massachusetts, has been coming to this island since he was born. His parents raced here for years with other pioneering paddlers. There is no doubt he is a veteran Sugar Islander. The American Canoe Association (ACA) has owned the island for 110 years. Zuk has likely spent more summer days sailing around its shores than anybody else.
World champions come from across North America to compete in International Canoe Sailing while generations of families return to enjoy the regattas and camping in the scenic Thousand Islands. Sugar Island is considered rugged by today's standards but most of the ACA members here like it that way. There is no electricity. Rustic cabins were erected in the late 1940s against the fierce objections of purists who preferred tents.
Zuk stubbornly stays in a tent even though he finally retired his old tent for a new one last year on a rugged campsite perched high on a cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River known as Hurricane Point. "Please don't insult me," he said, pounding the picnic table with his hand for emphasis, when asked if he uses a cabin. "I call it Cabin City. I paddle over here and I sleep on the ground and I race."
The ACA is the oldest and largest paddle sports organization in the United States, promoting canoeing, kayaking and rafting. The organization has more than 50,000 members. It was first formed in 1880 and held national encampments including one on nearby Grindstone Island in 1884. The event was such a success the ACA soon after started looking for a permanent site in the Thousand Islands area.
The non-profit association bought Sugar Island in July 18 1901 and has owned it ever since. It's located in the Lake Fleet group near islands with names like Astounder, Axeman and Bloodletter on a wide stretch of the River. It is believed to have got its name from the Mississauga natives who made maple sugar from the trees on the island in the 1800s.
The ACA billed Sugar Island to its members as the "Mecca for Canoeists," and has attracted thousands of paddlers to the region over the past century. The 36-acre island is open to members year-round.
Many canoeing enthusiasts - Canadians are also welcome to join the ACA - have been coming to the island for generations.
Zuk's father joined the ACA in Central Park New York and took his family to Sugar Island in the summers. A former ACA Commodore, sail canoeing has been a life-long love of Zuk. He has built sailing canoes throughout his life. Some are now owned by the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton.
"Many of the boats I raced here, I built," said Zuk, an engineer and Navy veteran of World War II.
He's also a veteran of a longstanding fight against modern-day amenities encroaching on Sugar Island like electricity and plumbing. He is still disappointed over the defeat that allowed cabins to be built over six decades ago. "We try to keep up the battle," he said, wearily.
The first Sugar Island encampment was held in 1903 and until World War II, little changed. Zuk recalls how canoeists from New York would load their canoes on a New York Central Railroad boxcar and ride the train to Clayton, New York where they took a steamer ferry to the island. Two-day regattas were held with as many as 200 Canadians competing. Single men and women had to camp at opposite ends of the island.
While most veteran Sugar Islanders set out in open sailing canoes, younger competitors - including world-class athletes in the sport - speed across the River in light-weight International Sailing Canoes. Champions in the sport come from as far away as California and Washington state to compete in the regattas.
International Canoe racer Del Olsen has competed in eight world championships and didn't want to miss out on racing at Sugar Island last summer. "This has always been an East Coast vacation Mecca," said Olsen, who lives in San Francisco.
The International Canoe is a one man boat which represents a long and complex evolution from a paddle canoe to a high performance racing dinghy. It is characterized by its sliding seat, a beam that slides on a track, enabling the sailor to hike out far windward.
Internationally the IC class holds a World Championship regatta every three years, with nations winning the right to host championships. International Canoe sailors also compete for the second oldest (to the America's Cup) International Sailing trophy, the New York Canoe Club International Challenge Cup.
Some Olympian canoe racers now bring their grandchildren to some of the same spots they sailed as youngsters. Sugar Islander Russell "Chick" Dermond, his wife Joan, have been coming here for decades and now return with their children and grandchildren. He trained here as a young man and went on to become an Olympic canoe racer who competed in the 1956 Australia Olympics, 1960 Rome Olympics, and the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Like Zuk and Dermond, Marilyn Vogel, 64, has been coming to Sugar Island since she was a child.
Her father Richard Vogel started bringing her over to the island with the rest of her family when she was just five years old. He started visiting Sugar Island after he joined the American Canoe Association at a canoe club in Manhattan.
Vogel, who lives near Philadelphia, still races her open sailing canoe around the island. She enjoys the outdoors here with husband Chuck Sutherland and the views of the River.
"There's no other place like it," she said during a hiking tour of the trails from the main encampment area, to Canoe Beach, Hurricane Point and Mess Tent Cove. "It's wonderful being on an island."
Other points of interest on the island include Wilderness Bay, New York Bay, Sunrise Point, Buffalo Wallow and Wilderness Bay. The rugged island is a naturalist's playground with cedar, juniper, pitch pine, maple and hemlock trees towering over its trails populated with birds, beaver, raccoons, white-tailed deer, mink and fox.
And while not much has changed here over the last century, the ACA is always looking for more people on both sides of the border to become members and enjoy the sweet life on Sugar Island. It's still the Mecca for canoeists and outdoor enthusiasts.
New members can join by contacting www.americancanoe.org. Some Sugar Islanders canoe about one mile from the Canadian mainland. Others take a short water taxi from Misty Isles Lodge just outside Gananoque to transport them to this rugged retreat.
It is a pristine place with crystal clear water, clean air, and beautiful sunsets. It's not only a place to paddle and sail, it's a place to swim, snorkel, fish and enjoy exploring the Thousand Islands. But most Sugar Islanders prefer to stay close to their summer home, spending time with old friends and sailing around its familiar shorelines.
"It's going back to nature and meeting people with similar interests every summer," said Vogel. "It doesn't change much. We like it that way. We like it rustic. It's nice being on the water, sailing and kayaking."
By Kim Lunman, email@example.com
Kim Lunman is the owner and publisher of Island Life Magazine (http://www.islandlifemag.ca) based in Brockville, Ontario., She is also a team member of this TI Life e-zine. Kim's Island Life magazine, will be distributed in May in local newspapers in eastern Ontario and northern New York . As always, we continue to look forward to her monthly contributions. To see all of Kim’s past articles see the TI Life search: Kim Lunman.