It all started with our neighbors. That is how most good things begin on Mink Island. The Navarras and the Ryans are friends and neighbors of ours on the small Mink Island community in Chippewa Bay. They seem to live to laugh and bring smiles to others.
The reader may recall an article in TI Life’s May 2013 issue by Missy Rosenberry titled “1000 Thanks” to Military Families. Ms. Rosenberry, a colleague of Cheryl Navarra’s, told the story of a casual conversation the Navarras and Ryans had with strangers, which led to life changing results. As a result of that story, “1000 Thanks” took off like a rocket, with people of the river community opening their homes to a number of Fort Drum families, during the summer of 2013. Some homes were palatial, others modest, but they all offered the same amenity: a warm welcome.
My husband and I met the family who enjoyed the Navarra’s hospitality this summer and knew how well the two families interacted. The level of trust and friendship was evident when the couple contacted the Navarra’s a few weeks after their visit to say that their parents were visiting from out of state and had asked to meet the couple who had opened their home and hearts to their son’s family. Both families, one active duty military and one retired, spent another afternoon at the Navarras. Profound appreciation was expressed by a father and mother for the friendship extended to their son and his family. You might say they returned “1000 Thanks”.
Hunter and I had several discussions about making a commitment. There were several legitimate reasons it might not work; our cottage is quite small and not very child friendly. The terrain is on a rocky hill. The winning argument for the cause was, “We should because we could”. So we did.
Our modest cottage is affectionately known as “The Shack”, probably with good reason. I like to think it is eclectic-cozy, but this might not be everyone’s opinion. One unique feature of the cottage is the master bedroom. Formerly used as an attic and with no space for a traditional stairway, access is made via a ladder attached flush to the wall. This requires some strength, agility and confidence that one will not be sleepwalking in the night and fall through the open hatch. It was with the safety of small children in mind that we qualified our desire to host a family, to limit it to only a couple, or even better, maybe two young men who would love to fish.
It took a while to meet our qualifications, but we finally got a call from Lisa Ryan that she had just found the couple for us. Candidates are asked to write a few words describing why this week-end getaway would be special and Lisa Ryan was moved by this young man’s reply. Sgt. Darren Steele and his wife Lindsey had been married seven years, but due to his assignments had never had time for a honeymoon. He had been deployed twice to Afghanistan, was being deployed again in early December and would not be here for the arrival of their first child in late December.
We exchanged phone calls and emails and set up a date for a week-end in late August. Of course, then I thought of all the things that could go wrong. Falls! Down the ladder, off the dock, out of the boat, feet tangled in blueberry bushes. Food allergies! Early labor! I ruled out the falls and labor as out of my control. We did chat about food allergies and there were none. However, Darren made it clear that neither one of them ate fish. That was not going to fly with my fishing fanatic husband, Hunter Grimes. Further conversation with Darren led to his admission that their bad experience had been with catfish and they had not really experimented much since that unfortunate event. I assured him that St. Lawrence River fish were delectable, leaving out the part that one kind or another would probably be served at every meal during their week-end retreat.
Darren and Lindsey arrived about 2 p.m. Friday for our week-end together. We discovered right away our mutal experience of living in Fairbanks, Alaska. Darren had been stationed at Fort Wainwright and we moved there after Hunter was discharged from the Navy to attend the University of Alaska. Both men had military stories to share and some hunting stories so we were off to a good start. I gave them the grand tour of the cottage, which takes about 3 minutes, and both assured me they would have no trouble with the ladder. After some snacks and cool drinks we jumped in the boat and Hunter gave a narrated anecdotal tour of the islands of Chippewa Bay.
By the time we returned there was an opportunity for relaxing with refreshments on the porch and then it was time to think about dinner. Hunter is a very creative cook and always takes charge of meat and fish preparation. I am in charge of setting the table and preparing the side dishes. Earlier in the summer he had created a new Northern Pike recipe and he was dying to serve it to our guests for dinner. Pike Patties are basically a River version of crab cakes with a remoulade. This recipe had made an appearance at several cocktail parties during the summer and had received rave reviews. I was holding my breath to see if Lindsey and Darren would enjoy them and had made sure there were many other choices on the table in case they didn’t. The fish experience was a hit.
The second night’s dinner was planned to be the culinary highlight of the week-end. Hunter prepared a typical St. Lawrence River Shore Dinner, starting with the BLT sandwich, catch of the day, green salad, corn on the cob and ending with French Toast. Darren’s catch of bass and perch were added to the pike as the main fare and in honor of our shared Alaskan experience, moose steaks were seared on the grill. Friends joined us to make a perfect evening of dining as the sun set.
As I hinted at earlier, Hunter takes his fishing seriously. Immediately following Friday night dinner, Hunter announced he and Darren were going fishing. This was the first of fishing at every opportunity during the rest of the week-end. They fished in the early morning, they fished in the evening and they even fished in the middle of the afternoon. Each venture in the boat brought better results. Darren had the good fortune to hook a Walleye during that afternoon trip, against all odds: the odds being that nobody catches fish in the middle of the afternoon and nobody catches Walleye in the waters of Chippewa Bay. Unfortunately, his net man, well, he didn’t have a net in the boat and the fish became “the one that got away”. Hunter instructed Darren in the art of cleaning Northerns, with the necessary technique of removing the Y bones. Darren was a quick study.
During the fishing trips Lindsey was content to relax in the chaise and catch up on some reading. She was called to duty to photograph the “catch of the moment,” upon the return of the fishermen. We picked the couple up each morning for breakfast at local restaurants and a brief walk around town to experience the hustle and bustle of Alexandria Bay. We visited Cedar Island State Park where the Casey family, our daughter Hilary, Bill, Iris , Jack and dog Ava were camping. We also visited Singer Castle and enjoyed a deluxe tour guided by Judy Keeler and Tom Weldon. Few visitors have seen the nooks and crannies we explored that day.
Since this was the Steele’s long awaited honeymoon and the cottage is very small, Hunter and I had decided to leave them alone on the island at night. This was not inconvenient for us as our year round home is only a 10 minute drive from the dock. However, when we made these plans I had been counting on our neighbors on both sides of the cottage being there to attend to any unforeseen emergencies, such as needing a boat to get to the mainland at 2 a.m., or even delivering an early arriving baby. A family member of one neighbor is a nurse and a friend, a few doors down, is a neonatal intensive care nurse. I thought I had all the bases covered. Phone numbers galore were posted by the door. No neighbors showed up that week-end. In the end, none were needed. I tend to operate under the premise, “What if…..?” My optimistic husband waits for the inevitable and says, ”We can…..”
The week-end was fun. The company was great. Darren and Lindsey went home with a generous package of frozen fish and a few stories to tell. “1000 Thanks” was an experience we shared with a wonderful couple and we came away better for it.
Building friendships and sharing memories does not have to be restricted to a summer experience. Families who enjoy winter sports and recreation have just as much to offer to Fort Drum families. A big pot of chili, a day of sliding, or cross country skiing, lots of hot chocolate, snow ball fights, board games and building a snowman can be just as much fun.
Please consider giving this gift to a Fort Drum family. You will be glad you did.
For more information about 1000 Thanks log onto www.1000Thanks.us, or call Cheryl Navarra at (585)703-2191 or Lisa Ryan at (315)383-1078.
By Martha Grimes
Martha Grimes was born and raised in Alexandria Bay. She and her husband, Hunter, raised a son and daughter to love and appreciate the River as much as they do. During her career as an educator Martha taught various Primary Level grades at Alexandria Central School. Since retiring she has been actively involved with the Alexandria Township Historical Society and the interpretation of the Cornwall Brothers Store & Museum in Alexandria Bay, NY.