Tag Archives: ed hancox

See your Way to the Seaway and Harborfest!

21 Sep

The heart of North America is linked to the wild north Atlantic by the Great Lakes, canals and the St. Lawrence Seaway, nearly all accessible from the Thousand Islands-Seaway, Finger Lakes, Greater Niagara and Chautauqua-Allegheny regions of New York. A 518-mile Seaway Trail takes hikers, bikers and motorists alongside it from Lake Erie and out past the Thousand Islands. Dotting the way are historic homes, forts and battle fields, the incomparable Niagara Falls, quaint villages, universities and cultural centers, museums, wilderness refuges and a seemingly endless choice of ice creams!

Indeed, a very worthy endeavor for dairy lovers who want to earn their treats as they go would be an ice cream bike tour across northern New York! Naturally, you’ll want to include a regional specialty, frozen custard. Vegans can munch their way across the trail as well, especially during the height of autumn harvest season (see events calendar). Just plan to sleep in and not drive or ride if you opt for the wine tastings!

My introduction to the Seaway was a rollicking citywide party,  Oswego Harborfest! Bare Naked Ladies headlined the rock stage, while countless other musicians sharing other genres filled the air around every corner. Crafts and foods kept festive visitors, students and families out strolling and discovering deep into the night. The fest is free for all and lasts four days.

The 2012 Oswego Harborfest will be the 25th (of July), so expect an even bigger celebration. That also happens to be the War of 1812 bicentennial, so keep an eye out for special programs and the occasional redcoat.

A hub of this unique touring area is the Seaway Trail Discovery Center in far mellower nearby Sackets Harbor. I stopped in with my travel buddy, Ed Hancox to learn more about the region from Seaway Trail, Inc. President and CEO Theresa Mitchell.

The Seaway Trail Discovery Center is focused yet eclectic, teaching visitors about this region’s central role in the War of 1812 (more about that in a future post), it’s industrial heyday and continuing agricultural vitality. Kids will love two animatronic figures that neatly capture the Center’s range: Ulysses Grant and a talking cow.

Seaway Trail Discovery Center. (Photo by Erik Baard)

The Seaway region offers ice cream at nearly every turn. Erik loves the cows, live or animatronic. (Photo by Ed Hancox)

The area's agricultural heritage is everywhere, on farms both bustling and sleepy. (Photo by Erik Baard)

After the fun kid stuff, we took a more sophisticated turn by dining with Theresa at Tin Pan Galley. This elegant and intimate, tree-shaded and ivy-covered restaurant features live music, often played by its multi-instrumentalist owner.

Tin Pan Galley's greenery, music and arts fused.

Another informal highlight of the Seaway Trail is the antiquing and flea market bargain hunting one can do along the way. Old industrial row houses and farms yield everyday items from another era — medicine and milk bottles, postcards, glasses, tins and kitchenware and other curios.

A turtle shell estimated to be 200 years old at a roadside flea market near Sandy Creek, NY. (Photo by Erik Baard)

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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!

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.

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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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