Heart Island: A Love Story (Complete with Fairy Tale Castle and “Millionaires Row”)

14 Sep

Millionaires Row. (Photo courtesy of 1000 Islands Tourism Council)

As a city-bred environmentalist, I’ve put a lot of thought into ways to escape or eradicate the urban “heat island.” But in Alexandria Bay, the thinking is to visit and preserve Heart Island. What a difference one letter makes!

I had the pleasure of cruising a section of the Thousand Islands with New York State Assembly member Addie J. Russel aboard one of the Uncle Sam Boat Tours cruisers. We launched from a pier around the corner from the hotel where I stayed, Capt Thomson’s Resort, which overlooks the St. Lawrence River.

As we passed astonishingly luxurious homes sitting atop tiny mounds arching out of clear water, Assemblymember Russel briefed me on some of the core environmental decisions facing her “River District” constituency. One hot debate centers on whether to build wind farms or maintain a large nuclear generating capacity — a question that resonates throughout the global environmental community. Voters are also divided over whether the government should modify water level policies maintained since dams were built generations ago. New regional growth and transportation models are being considered. As always, ecologists are busy battling zebra mussels.

As we approached Heart Island, the sunny upper deck’s milling crowd hushed and rushed to one side. Was it only the architecture that set this island apart or was it the love story that many read before arriving?

Fairy tale loves, usually involving the very wealthy, hold timeless escapist appeal. Ruth Bottigheimer, SUNY Stonybrook literary scholar and author of  Fairy Tales: A New History contends that fairy tales were not derived from orally transmitted rural folk tales as has long been believed. She posits that they were literary inventions of Italian urbanites.

Boldt Castle. (Photo courtesy of 1000 Islands Tourism Council)

And cramped city folk yearn like no others for fairy tale loves to be set in castles. Preferably their own.  George Boldt was as cosmopolitan as they come. A Prussian immigrant, he made his fortunes as a hotelier. His crowning business achievement came as proprietor of the original Waldorf-Astoria. But his most profound personal expression was this six-story castle he built as a monument to his love for Louise Kehrer Boldt, his wife.

Louise Kehrer Boldt, the castle's muse. (Photo by Erik Baard of painting at Boldt Castle)

Alas, Louise died suddenly. George halted all work on the castle in 1904.

Boldt Castle is an American reverse Taj Mahal. Whereas Emperor Shah Jahan built a mausoleum for his beloved third wife Mumtaz Mahal, George Boldt aspired to build a grand living home where love with Louise would always blossom. Her death rendered the effort meaningless. The castle stood incomplete and empty for over 70 years. The love was gone.

Or was it?

“Though the island was abandoned for decades, I dare say a good number of people living in the surrounding area were conceived here,” said Gary deYoung of the 1000 Islands Tourism Council. Couples boated out to Heart Island for trysts on many nights, writing declarations of love on the castle’s unfinished walls. Though restorations, renovations and additions have erased much of this unofficial history, happy traces remain in the basement.

Service tunnel in the basement of Boldt Castle. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Innovative for its time, an indoor pool in the basement of Boldt Castle. Though empty for decades, this room was also evidently popular with lovers. (Photo by Erik Baard)

It's always nice to arrive on Heart Island in the iconic I LOVE NY shirt, with a red or green heart. At center is Gary deYoung of the 1000 Islands Tourism Council. (Photo by Edward Hancox)

Even the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, which undertook care for the castle and island, is in on the love. Landscaping, garden features, a glass dome, furnishings and other elements added to complete the project evoke hearts and harts, or deer. Boldt himself made much of the heart/hart pun, linking his expression of love to the stags in his family crest.

Boldt's heart and hart in glass. (Photo by Erik Baard)

I suspect that Boldt was aware of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem written nearly 400 years earlier that makes use of the same pun. In that poem, the feminine is depicted in one line as “gentle, tame, and meek,” but subsequently the lover declares the author to be the prey, or hart:  “Dear heart, how like you this?”

The children's play castle. This was the only building to have residents. (Photo by Edward Hancox)

The "hennery." It paid to be a Boldt bird. (Photo by Erik Baard)

The grandeur of Heart Island doesn’t stop at the castle. Other magnificent structures include a children’s play castle, an aviary (or “hennery”) and powerhouse.

But if all of this castle business is just too over-the-top for you, perhaps you’d like to spend more time at the quaint and simple little Boldt yacht house across the water on Wellesley Island.

The Boldt yacht house is nearly itself a castle of wood. (Photo by Erik Baard)

A great, green way to get to the region is taking Amtrak to Syracuse, rather than driving all the way up. Or, of course, you could sail, row or paddle in! Our hotel, Capt. Thomson’s Resort, was perfect for sailors and drivers alike. Boat landings at Heart Island are free!


FINAL WEEKEND for the Swimming Cities Boatel

8 Sep

I was once asked to tow a huge floating diorama of the Bronx River from the Bronx to Brooklyn on the East River by kayak. The rickety eco-artwork was strung together from several pieces and featured delicate paper items. Square yards of it were covered with deliberately broken glass bottles.

Fortunately, I knew one man with enough humor, adventurous soul and artistic passion to give this “Mission Impossible” a go:  Jean Barberis, artistic director of New York’s innovative culture changer, Flux Factory.

As we expected, we never made it to Brooklyn. But we landed in Queens with hilarious memories and new friends at the secretive-but-hospitable marina that took us in as artistic castaways.

Now you can enjoy an unforgettable weekend  of Flux Factory arts and seaside living in New York City without mishaps and glass shards!

The artist-made Boggsville Boatel is auctioning off rooms for its final weekend! This floating hotel and “boat-in theater” on Jamaica Bay is ecologically sound, made from creatively restored boats from the “Gilligan’s Island” to “Miami Vice” eras that were otherwise destined for landfill.

After a sold out summer, rooms are being auctioned one FINAL WEEKEND to support future art projects and tours.

The installation and boatel received rave reviews from The New York TimesNPR and other major media. Enjoy a photo gallery of this unique summer community here.

Rooms include dinner and access to the artists and an invitation to the GOING AWAY PARTY on Sept 10, 8pm ’til late. There will be cold beers at Marina 59, revelers in beach wear, Cocktail Cruises in Jamaica Bay, Jerk Burgers & Pineapple Hot Dogs by Carnival Queen Lamar Iposa. You can even join in on Sea Shanty Karaoke.

Guests can start the morning with gulls, egrets and herons and spend the day in the company of daring, fun and talented Flux Factory and Swimming Cities artists! Be sure to meet the visionary behind the boatel, Constance Hockaday!

For more information and to bid for a boatel room, please CLICK HERE.

The Little Plum of the Big Apple State

7 Sep

Beach plums growing at Briermere Farm. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Visit the East End of Long Island now and into autumn for a lingering taste of summer! Though the past few days have been rather dismal downstate, the beaches of Long Island have more to offer after Labor Day than you might think. 

Right about now, farmers are harvesting tartly sweet beach plums to render into batches of jams, jellies and sauces and to bake into treats. Go enjoy them and you’ll be helping to carry a splendid natural and culinary heritage forward.

I’m thrilled that as I LOVE NEW YORK’s 2011 “Greenest New Yorker” I might become one of the purplest too. My $500 award from Escapemaker.com will be directed to the Greenhouse Project to grow beach plum seedlings that can be donated to schools, community gardens and other public spaces. This new effort parallels my championing of the Newtown Pippin apple.

Beach plums are indigenous to the east coast of North America. They play an important role in stabilizing dunes and feeding wildlife. Explorers Giovanni da  Verrazzano and Henry Hudson wrote of the beach plums lining what’s now known as New York Harbor. It’s hard to miss these bushes, which are resplendent in white blossoms in late May and thick with green leaves and cherry-sized fruits in late August.

Wild beach plum blossoms. (Photo courtesy of Cornell University)

Today in New York State you’ll find wild beach plums on Long Island, Fishers Island and Shelter Island.  Habitat restorations surrounding Jamaica Bay incorporate beach plums and several New York City waterfront parks feature small plantings. I first learned of beach plums from David Lutz of Friends of Gateway, a volunteer group that grows beach plums and other native plants. They do well at the New York State Tree Nursery in Saratoga Springs, which lies between the territories of beach plums and another of New York State’s edible wild fruits, the Great Lakes sandcherry.

Briermere Farms owner Clark McComb teaches Hour Children visitors Beach Plums 101. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Cornell University researchers helped spark a beach plum revival by helping farmers to master new growing techniques and markets. I recently brought a group of 20 kids from Hour Children to visit Briermere Farms, a 300-acre rolling expanse of orchards and cropland in Riverhead, NY. Owner Clark McComb introduced the kids to beach plums and to healthy treats like peach slushies made from fruits he grew himself. Landscape designer Gil Lopez, who greatly helped with our trip, was inspired to include beach plums in his palate for sustainable gardens.

Children in the beach plum orchard of Briermere Farms. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Two of Hour Children's happy harvesters. (Photo by Erik Baard)

To see a full gallery of our trip, click here.

Pits made from fruit we picked will be germinated by the Greenhouse Project. In addition to the expertise Cornell University and Friends of Gateway offer, staff at the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Greenbelt Native Plant Center have always been very helpful to my green efforts.

Stay tuned for more info about an upcoming Beach Plum Week in Long Island City.  It is in the works for September, with local restaurants selling gelato, smoothies, tarts, martinis and other delectables. Proceeds will benefit the Hour Children food pantry.

Une Promenade Sur La Crique Française (A Stroll on the French Creek)

31 Aug

Jan Brabant of T.I. Adventures eases Erik Baard into stand-up paddle boarding. (Photo by Ed Hancox)

Ah, the pleasure of “a stroll on the French Creek!” That’s right – on – not beside.

My trip to the Thousand Islands-Seaway was a weekend of many firsts, and we can count stand-up paddle boarding on the French Creek among them!

The diversity of water conditions in the North Country of New York State, which encompasses the Thousand Islands-Seaway Region and much of the Lake Ontario area, is matched only by the means of enjoying them!  T.I. Adventures alone offers sea kayaking, whitewater kayaking, power kiting (across snow on frozen lakes and freshwater bays) and of course, stand-up paddle boarding.

The placid surface of the French Creek on a fair summer day doesn’t scare off even tall and awkward newbies like me. The paddle board resembles a flat surf board (wider for novices), while the paddle is a longer version of a canoe’s. A novice starts on his or her knees for a bit, but with my coach Jan’s encouragement I was standing rather soon. Once while edging the board (turning by tilting) I dropped to my knees but didn’t fall off.

Stand-up paddle boarding is an ancient Hawaiian means of transportation that surfing instructors recently revived to better watch over their students. Now it’s become a popular sport in itself, which T.I. Adventures enthusiastically promotes.

And it’s no wonder! There’s much to see on the French Creek from a higher vantage point. T.I. Adventures is well situated, with a small dock right on the NY Department of Environmental Conservation’s 2,300 acre French Creek Wildlife Management Area. This vibrant wetlands, waterway, meadow and nut forest preserve offers great opportunities for foraging, fishing, bird watching, boating and hiking. There’s trapping and hunting too, but stand-up paddle board riflery strikes me as profoundly unwise.

Blue heron on the French Creek. (Photo by Ed Hancox)

Blue heron in flight over the French Creek wetlands. (Photo by Ed Hancox)

After exploring wetlands a bit and peering over tall grasses, I switched to a sporty sit-on-top kayak to ply the choppier waters of French Creek Bay on the St. Lawrence River (see a map of the area paddled through this link). The centerpiece of the bay, and a gem of the Great Lakes Seaway, is the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, NY. It’s a special thrill to visit this world renowned institution by water, but even those arriving at its 4.5-acre campus by land have plenty of opportunities to cruise or row in gorgeous wooden craft.

Jan Brabant of T.I. Adventures walks through the true front door of the Antique Boat Museum. (Photo by Ed Hancox)

Ed Hancox paddles back toward the mouth of the French Creek from the St. Lawrence River. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Further into the creek there’s an unusual display that’s narrower and yet captures an even broader sweep of the region’s nautical history. French Creek Marina owner and diver Wilburt Wahl has a collection of thousands of anchors for all to view — he doesn’t charge admission. With water clarity radically increased due to zebra mussel filtration (the species is still an environmental disaster, despite this one benefit), the region is a new pilgrimage spot for wreck divers and marine archaeologists.

It seems that every anchor is tethered to a story! As Wilburt tells it, one anchor was cut loose by an American ship slipping the British Navy during the Revolutionary War. Another anchor startles with a swastika. This is living history for Wilburt, who says that in 1942 he watched American fighter aircraft shelling the St. Lawrence River to sink a German U-Boat that had ventured as far into the continent as Lake Ontario. Now he has a memento to evidence his boyhood tale of battle. His son, Heinz, is also a diver and contributes to the collection.

French Creek Marina owner Wilburt Wahl with highlights from his famed anchor collection. (Photo by Erik Baard)

For me the most exciting ages-old adventure that I could feel as rust at my fingertips was one large exhibit item that could have modeled for the iconic tattoo anchor. Wilburt explained that this anchor served as ballast aboard one of the ships used by Jacques Cartier, the explorer who claimed much of North America for France. He borrowed a Iroquois regional name and applied it to the whole territory:  “Canada.”

An inscription on the anchor indicates it was forged in 1339, Wilburt explained. That’s perhaps conceivable, being between mathematician Fibonacci’s promotion of the numbering system (in a book written in 1202) and mass popularization with the printing press in 1482. One can only imagine what ports were visited and storms weathered with the aid of this anchor.

French Creek owner Wilburt Wahl with a prized object, an anchor he says served as ballast aboard a ship used by Cartier. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Inscription on the anchor believed to have belonged to one of Cartier's ships. It seems to have been forged in 1339, hinting at many adventures before the explorer was born. (Photo by Erik Baard)

My paddle buddy Ed Hancox and I are grateful to Gary DeYoung of the 1000 Islands Tourism Council for showing us around. Two fantastic restaurants where we did far more than merely fuel up are Bella’s and Teaism, pictured below. Both have amazing fresh baked goods, and healthy entrees and lunches that are delicious.

Our meal at Bella’s was made especially enjoyable by the company we kept! Not only were they fun, smart and warm people, but as representatives of Save the River (part of the Riverkeeper network) and Thousand Islands Land Trust, they greatly contributed to preserving and restoring the beauty we’d enjoyed all day.

Shaded seating for two built into half of an antique boat at charming Teaism. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Sunset over the St. Lawrence River as seen from our table at Bella's. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Clayton was once the terminus for a rail line that brought New York City residents up to their summer homes in the 1000 Islands. Today you can still take Amtrak near to the region, and then drive. Or, of course, you could sail in! Our hotel, Capt. Thomson’s Resort, was perfect for sailors and drivers alike. You’ll find it just up river from Clayton in Alexandria Bay, across from beloved Boldt Castle.

View of Boldt Castle on Hart Island from our balcony at Capt. Thomson’s Resort. (Photo by Erik Baard)

The Waters of Eden: Lakeview Wildlife Management Area

11 Aug

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting the 1000 Islands-Seaway region of upstate New York.  Housed within this special region is a unique ecosystem full of hidden treasures, water adventures, and extraordinary wildlife.

Collectively, the Great Lakes boast the largest freshwater coastal dunes on Earth, and the lion’s share of New York’s barrier beach system lies within the Lakeview Wildlife Management Area. The dunes shelter a special ecosystem but are fragile themselves.

This rare habitat off Lake Ontario is stewarded by the Department of Environmental Conservation. It’s home to a fantastic diversity of species. Trout, bass, salmon, pike and perch fill its creeks, ponds and streams. The air is alive with bitterns, terns, harriers, swallows and other birds. Woody areas and brush conceal foxes, rabbits and coyotes, while deer and turkeys hug the edges. More adventurous explorers will find mink, muskrat and beaver.

Paddling out to Lake Ontario on South Sandy Creek. (Photo by Ed Hancox.)

The DEC advises that it’s best to see the preserve by paddling, so a small group of us launched from a soft edge along the inner reaches of South Sandy Creek. There was a small rock ledge to keep one’s butt out of mud. Just as I was getting into an excellent kayak kindly provided by Cornell’s Pedal & Paddle, a butterfly (perhaps a kind of metalmark) alighted on the stone’s edge. The good omen was worth a minute or two wait until our friend was off again on a nectar quest.

Butterfly at the launch rock of South Sandy Creek. A good omen. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

Our group was led by the Oswego County Kayaking Club through Janet Clerkin, Oswego County Tourism and Public Information Coordinator. Janet’s husband, Kevin, joined us and the club was represented by Dick and Naneen Drosse. My travel buddy, Ed Hancox, is a fresh river guy from New Jersey and was delighted by the clarity and peacefulness of the Sandy Creek. As founder of the Long Island City Community Boathouse on NYC’s salty and turbulent East River, I relished the contrast between the two locales.

Our guides paddle in the shade of the dense foliage along South Sandy Creek. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

The tranquility of South Sandy Creek allows a paddler to reach what’s called “mindfulness” in Eastern traditions. There are moments when the smallest detail catches your eye, while you also sense a transcendent connection to the world through water.  Here I was, starting the day psyched to see the largest lake in my 43 years and discovering that among the most memorable sights were tiny things — a purple milkweed seedling blossoming from a huge dead tree and countless northern bluet damselflies that looked like Navajo jewelry.

Damselflies are smaller and more delicate than their dragonfly cousins and can fold their wings in. Like dragonflies, damselflies can operate their two sets of wings separately, but are not nearly as strong fliers. They flit near the water surface and rest frequently. I spotted a yellow leaf and waited there for a landing, knowing it would the best color contrast for my photo subject.

A single milkweed flower growing from a massive tree that fell into South Sandy Creek. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

Purple milkweed just where it likes to be, between a small wood and a stream. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

The air just above the creek glinted with bluet damselflies, which frequently came to rest on vegetation. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

South Sandy Creek is banked by dense zones of cattails,  a native that’s nonetheless crowding out other important species, explained Gerry Smith, president of the North Country Bird Club. Human control of water levels for shipping and hydroelectricity disrupts natural fire cycles. Other species are no longer able to seed into burnt clearings, according to Smith and a number of regional ecologists. Since the hydro projects were completed 50 years ago, Smith said, cattail-eating muskrats are less populous, exacerbating the problem.

One of the greatest concerns Smith and the DEC hold regarding this habitat change is that overgrown cattails eliminate sedge meadows, which are black tern nesting areas. Black tern numbers have plummeted in recent decades.

Rising over the cat grass in the photo below is a kind of hogweed called cow parsnip, which looks like tall Queen Anne’s lace. Despite the usefulness American Indians found in properly handled cow parsnip, one might almost wish that the cattails crowded it out. As our guides cautioned, touching this plant can severely injure skin (some people can be blinded by hogweed). Cow parsnip is the only indigenous North American hogweed, endangered in some regions while considered a nuisance in others. It contains a phototoxin, a poison activated by ultraviolent light and water — not perfect for a sunny paddling day. The DEC has issued warnings and seeks to eliminate invasive Central Asian hogweed, especially in areas where people are likely to come into contact with it.

Cats, cows and hogs along South Sandy Creek. That is, cattails and cow parsnip, a kind of hogweed. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

One friendly family did well to avoid hogweed and sun alike, in style.

A mellow family outing on South Sandy Creek. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

It was oddly intriguing to be bounded by thickets of blistering hogweed, as if we were herded, corralled. Surely the creek wasn’t that eager for us to stay on the true path to a lake, as magnificent as it might be. What else? It was then that Clerkin, who doesn’t engage in much idle chatter, said, “Some believe that this place was ‘Eden’ for an Iroquois nation.”

When moments later we glided into an expanse of white lilies on Floodwood Pond, I could share that vision of Eden.

White lilies and purple loosetrife in Floodwood Pond. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

Yellow lily in Floodwood Pond. (Photo by Ed Hancox.)

The resemblance of the waterlily and lotus is superficial compared to their genetic distinction, but both inspire spiritual reflection. I can’t revere one without feeling resonance from the other.

Returning to this place, I will be reminded of the lotus, believed in ancient India to be the first creation and a divine womb. According to the vanished Iroquois nation of Attawandaron, Ji-gon-sa-seh (the Mother of Nations) was created between Sandy Creek and South Sandy Creek. The Attawandaron (“Neutral Nation” to the French and “Strange-speaking People” to the Hurons) were last recorded as a living people in 1671. Other Iroquois carried their oral traditions forward.

But we’re long out of Eden. That beautiful spray of purple loosestrife behind the white waterlily above is a threat to the Lakeview Wildlife Management Area. Each one of these Eurasian invasive plants can produce a million hardy seeds. Indeed, some ecologists believe purple loosetrife seeds arrived in the ballast water of the very ships for which lake levels are now controlled. “Purple loosestrife degrades wetlands. It’s really something. It’s in the top 20 list of nasty invasive species in the state,” Smith said. Even muskrats avoid purple loostrife areas.

The entire stretch we’ve just shared wouldn’t exist if not for the region’s precious and finite resource — sand. Oceans produce sand constantly, but in the Great Lakes, “What you see is what you get,” explained Smith, left over from glaciers and floods eons ago. The Ontario Dune Coalition strives to preserve the dunes through management and plantings. Two vital plants for stabilizing dunes and kick-starting viable habitat are wormwood and beach grass, seen below.

Beach grass and wordwood (spiking up at center), the first two protective colonizers of dunes. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

“The sand is finite, but that’s not to say it doesn’t move around,” explained Smith. “Some sand will move on shore in the winter and fall during storms and with heavy waves.”

Sand also naturally converges through water movement into the Lakeview Wildlife Management Area and nearby Sandy Island Island Beach State Park, he said. For some species, that sand movement is critical. High water can sometimes collapse part of a dune. One the lee side of a dune, the wind can’t smooth and sculpt, so a sheer bluff remains. Here you’ll find nesting bank swallow nests, pictured below. “Bank swallows burrow in and live there from May through mid-June or July. They collapse in winter and the next year they redo it again,” Smith said.

Bank swallow burrows on the lee side of dunes collapsed by high water. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

Just past the bank swallow summer timeshare there’s a great set of beaches and a swing rope hanging from a tree for horsing around. The water is crystalline.  Only a stripe of zebra mussel shells on the beach indicates that this pleasure has nefarious origins. We relaxed and swam in and out of the gateway between Lake Ontario and the inland ecosystem, marked by a small hook of sand.

Our gateway, the creek system mouth. (Photo by Ed Hancox.)

Successfully rehabilitated Lake Ontario dunes on Sandy Island Beach State Park. (Photo by Ed Hancox.)

Sandbars form in the calmer wave conditions of summer. For a paddler, this adds to the enjoyment of Lake Ontario. A calm channel carved by the creek outlet leads out into the lake, flanked by waves breaking over sandbars. One can opt to play at the deeper edges of the sandbars, or stay on the “blue carpet.”

Ed is thrilled to reach sight of the white crests of Lake Ontario sand bar waves. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

From here, the Great Lakes Seaway, St. Lawrence River and a water world to explore! But your romance or family time might benefit from the quietude of a few hours enjoying and honoring a forgotten Eden.



HOW TO GET THERE: Amtrak to Syracuse and rental car to the coast or flight to Watertown International Airport. GREEN HEART NEW YORK, NY ECO-TOURISM INFORMATION

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