The closest I’d been to a traditional Thousand Island Shore Dinner is the banner hanging in my cottage kitchen. I’ve been visiting the islands for three decades now and only this past season experienced my first traditional shore dinner, sponsored by the Antique and Classic Boat Society Thousand Island Chapter at the Rift camp.
It was cooked and served by Garnsey’s Classic Island Tours. Jeff Garnsey prepared the feast. I couldn’t have asked for anyone with more experience; Jeff’s father and grandfather were both fishing guides on the river. Three generations of expertise went into my first shore dinner.
It started with a most interesting appetizer. A thick piece of bread—think Texas Toast—with fried fatback, sliced red onions and a dollop of Thousand Island dressing. We were instructed to fold it in half and enjoy. Yum! Next came the main course: tasty morsels of fried fish, salt potatoes, corn and, of course, salad with that famous Thousand Island Dressing. Dessert was the main treat of the day. Deep-fried French toast…not like any French toast I’ve ever had before. Served with lots of maple syrup and whipped cream. Back in the day, fishing guides added a little brandy to the mix.
The whole experience made me smile. The food was outstanding, but the meal was enhanced by the quiet ambiance of the Rift Camp: towering white pines, slow deep water with lots of current and outcrops of pink granite studding the shoreline.
The experience got me wondering about the origins of Thousand Islands shore dinners and I set out to find more about the history. One clipping I found dated 1895, talked about having an “old-fashioned” Thousand Island shore dinner. They were considered old-fashioned back in the 1895? Just how long has this tradition been around?
I found the best description of shore dinners in a book written by Captain Henry S. Johnston of Clayton in 1933. In it was a chapter on Oarsmen, as they were called before the term fishing guide became more popular. Capt. Henry described oarsmen like this:
“Browned by the constant exposure to sun and weather, they were, with rare exceptions, gentlemen in the truest sense of the word. All first class guides and sailors, they could read the weather by the rise and fall of the river, and the cast of the sky as correctly as trained weather men of the Government.”
They rowed St. Lawrence River Skiffs:
“The ideal fishing boat or skiff those days was about 21 feet in length and 52 to 56 inches beam or width. They were equipped with a good pair of ash oars, an eight or ten yard sail, folding center board and thirty or forty pound anchor, with sixty or seventy feet of half inch rope.”
Capt. Henry said the skiffs were generally made of white pine planking and often had walnut decks. The oarsman took great pride in their skiffs and kept them “shining like a piano.”
The list of what they carried with them included:
- 2 trolling poles and lines
- fish box
- gaff hook
- landing net
- small axe or hatchet
- fish club (about 14 inches long)
- suit of oil skins
- Two high back, caned seated, legless chairs,
- A large spoon,
- Dipper or cup for drinking
- Ice pail,
- Minnow bucket,
The cooking set nested together and was always carried in a good sack. It included:
- Two frying pans (One large and one medium size)
- A large boiler for fish or toast
- Two stewing kettles of heavy tin with handles and one with wire bail all about two quarts capacity
- A long handle fork for toasting bread
They also carried a folding table for two and two folding stools.
The table was carried under the seat and with a party of one or two there was also the large lunch basket with the uncooked dinner, furnished by the hotel or boarding house.
Capt. Henry goes on to describe a typical trip:
“More than one oarsman of those days has been known to have trolled up the Canadian channel, around Howe Island and back to Clayton in a day’s fishing, a distance of at least thirty miles—all in a day’s work with a stop for dinner for perhaps an hour and a half, all for the magnificent sum of ‘three dollars.’”
Sometimes if they were lucky, oarsmen could put up a sail and sail back to Clayton, if not, Capt. Henry said they had to return to Clayton via a “white ash breeze.” A white ash breeze, he explained, was a pair of white ash oars and a strong back to power them.
By the 1880s, the oarsmen had some help. There were small steam yachts for hire, about 60 to 65 feet in length. They would tow eight or ten boats leaving at 7 am with the skiffs trailing behind them. Once they reached the fishing grounds, the fishing guides would row their guests to fishing spots. Sometimes the group would eat together, sometimes separately. After a nice relaxing shore dinner, the fishing guides would gather the gear and row back to the steamer. The steamer would tow the parties home.
Back then, finding an uninhabited island to use for a shore dinner was easy, but as the popularity of the Thousand Islands exploded in the 1890s, it was harder and harder to find a place for shore dinners. It was this desire for shore dinners that led to the formation of the New York state parks on the U.S. side of the river. Picnic Point still has a dock maintained by the Fishing Guide Association.
Several years ago, we were at Waterson Point State Park one fall afternoon when a party of 20 fishing guides congregated at the dock for a traditional shore dinner. The outing was organized by some company for their employees. It was a treat to watch the fishing guides filet the catch of the morning.
We’ve been away from the islands for 47 days now and although a turkey dinner looms in my future, my stomach is rumbling for the taste of fresh fried perch while relaxing in the deep shade of pines on a rocky shore.
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island
Once again we thank Lynn McElfresh for her special stories. Lynn is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. Lynn has been researching many new stories this summer for our winter issues – we will learn a great deal more in the coming months. See all of Lynn’s 60+ articles here.