In early May, Pat Carpenter packed up her car, left her maintenance-free condo in Columbus, Ohio, and along with her two canine companions headed north to Grenell Island to spend the season. She was on Grenell before we arrived and she was there after we shuttered-up the place to head south. Pat’s rookie season was something she had dreamt of for decades, but she was hardly new to Grenell.
My first year on Grenell was back in 1975. My first season was 1999. Big difference. Renting a cottage for a week or two or spending time at a cottage as a guest is not the same as owning your own cottage, as four new cottage owners on Grenell discovered this past season.
Only one family was truly new to Grenell, the others had stayed on Grenell before, either as renters or guests of family. Three of the four were weekenders, sometimes stringing a week together once or twice in the season. Only one of the newbies, Pat Carpenter, spent the entire season.
Pat was still in diapers when she first arrived on Grenell. She learned to swim off the rock in front of Glimpses, her grandfather’s cottage, when she was only 19 months old. This was where she learned to catch minnows, to fish, canoe and sail.
Glimpses was sold in 1961, a couple of years after her grandfather died. Pat returned to Grenell many times over the years. She’d rented Southpoint from her cousin, or attended chapel. Still, visiting Grenell was not the same as owning her own cottage on Grenell. Through the years, Pat and her husband, George, had watched and waited for a cottage to come on the market. They already had a name picked out: River Haven.
Pat was slated to retire June of 2013 and as luck would have it, while visiting Grenell that May, a cottage came on the market. “We knew the moment we stepped out on the upstairs porch and saw the view,” Pat said. Like many islanders, Pat feels she has the best view of the river. From her front porch she has an expansive view of the St. Lawrence Seaway. From the upstairs porch, she had a clear view of Glimpses, her grandfather’s former cottage.
Back home in Columbus, as they finalized papers for the sale, Pat’s husband suggested that they put the cottage in her name only. While they had both wanted a cottage on the river, a cottage on Grenell had been her dream for decades. Good thing she did, as sadly, 20 days later, her gym-rat husband lay dead at the bottom of the stairs. He had fallen down the stairs and died of blunt force trauma to the head.
There was understandably a moment of hesitation…whether to go through with the sale of the cottage or not. Pat decided she needed River Haven even more than she had thought. She needed the care of what she called “Dr. River” to help soothe away her grief.
Besides, Pat only had to look to her own ancestors to know that a woman alone on the river could not only survive, but thrive quite well. Pat’s Great-Aunt Lois had been at Southpoint—alone--- for decades.
Lois Kerr was the first Kerr to set foot on Grenell, that was back in 1889. She had planned to stay a week at the well-appointed guesthouse of the Haskell family named Glimpses. But after a few days she canceled the rest of her trip and remained on Grenell for the rest of the summer. Lois Kerr spent the next 79 summers on Grenell.
Lois was the first, but there were many Kerrs to follow. Various Kerr family members owned as many as four cottages on the south side of the island, known as the Yacht Basin. The Kerr family eventually bought Glimpses, but that cottage burned in September of 1911 and the current Glimpses cottage was rebuilt in 1915, by Pat’s grandfather. In 1936, Lois bought Southpoint. Having never married, Lois did quite well summering on her little point for decades.
Pat had her own boat before she bought the cottage, a Grady White named River Haven, of course. She only dinged one prop this year on a rough and raucous day, when the wind kicked-up out of the southwest and made getting out of South Bay a challenge. She had drifted onto the rocks and dinged the prop. She had a back-up prop in the boat and only needed to get across the channel to Fishers Landing to have it changed. Not going was not an option. She had guests to pick up.
As she later discovered, “dinged” might be a little understated. When Les at Chalks Marina showed her the prop it was sheered-off to little nubs. “How did you get here?” Les asked. Realizing that she wasn’t getting much umpf from her “dinged” prop, Pat had “sailed” across the channel using the wind to push her in the direction she needed to go. Thank goodness her mother had been an adept sailor and had taught her well.
As with many cottages that sell on Grenell or other islands in the Thousand Islands, River Haven came complete with furnishings and even a wooden boat, a Chris-Craft, which Pat plans on re-naming Gin and Tonic. “The kitchen was so fabulously complete, I only needed to bring a garlic press,” Pat said. Pat and her sister Georgia had planted garlic when she took possession late last August.
Complete or not, cottage life can be daunting for newbies (some of us veterans as well)… so much to learn. Pat had worked all her life and when things needed to be done in her home she would hire it out, write the check and that was that. Here on the island it wasn’t so easy. Finding people to come to the island to fix things was a little more difficult and paying for it much, much more expensive. Learning to do things herself was an imperative.
Besides a well-stocked kitchen, the cottage also came with what she affectionately calls Pete’s Playhouse, a workshop on the water next to the boathouse. Pete’s family had left most of the tools behind as well, after Pete had passed on. Sometimes Pat says aloud, “Where is it, Pete?” and thinks sometimes she can channel Pete’s spirit.
Pat says that her rookie season was a very humbling experience. “Island life is like a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, of which I only possessed 70 pieces.” But Pat hadn’t bought a remote vacation home. She had bought a cottage smack dab in the middle of a vibrant caring island community. “I couldn’t have better neighbors,” she said. Bob and Winkie Reeves are her upriver side neighbors and Lou and Janet Dinelli are on her downriver side. The two couples offered her much help and advice. Pat stressed that Bob and Lou didn’t do everything for her, but rather showed her how to do things herself. “I now know what a strap wrench is and how to use it,” she told me. Pat admits that Bob just did the plumbing for her, but eventually someday she will learn.
Other projects were a group effort. During her first weekend on Grenell last May, a storm kickedup and the wind blew and the rain fell. Her soaked American flag tugged and pulled at the flagpole, until it was leaning at a dangerous angle until there was a loud crack. The pole was an old sailboat mast that was held in place by 2 x 4s. One of the 2 x 4 cracked. Pat pointed out her problem to islanders, on their evening strolls, and after a lot of noodling and much trial and error, the brain trust on Grenell was able to figure out a way to repair the flagpole.
While cottage maintenance and repair sometimes dominates islanders’ time, life on Grenell is much, much more. “The sweetest words that you can hear are “come up on the porch.” Later she discovered that it was equally sweet to be able to say that to people as they passed her porch on their evening walks.
Also a huge part of owning a cottage is introducing others to the island life. Pat had a steady stream of guests many from Columbus who made the trek north. She loved to pick them up at Fishers Landing and instead of going straight to her dock take a slow cruise around Grenell. She fought the urge to blurt out, “Isn’t this fantastic,” but instead was quiet and let the river and the beautiful scenery speak for itself. After the boat had been docked and the bags carried up to the cottage, it was time to settle on the porch. There invariably, Pat would see her guests take a breath and sigh and sink into the tranquility of island splendor.
Pat’s rookie season is under her belt. I asked Pat what had changed through the years and she said very little. In the evening, she relishes the quiet--no mechanical sounds, just the wind in the trees and the lap of the water. Oh, there are changes. The store is gone. That’s Her doesn’t ferry people to and from the island. She installed a ceramic water filter, so she doesn’t have to boil water, like her grandparents did, but so many things she remembered as a child were still here: swimming, fishing, canoeing and watching freighters slide up and down the river. She remembers ringing the chapel bell as a child, before Sunday service and now she was watching the grandchildren of her childhood friends, ringing the chapel bell.
I remember the first time I saw Pat this season. I said, “Welcome to Grenell.”
Pat held up a finger, smiled and said, “You mean welcome back to Grenell.”
I think her heart has been here all along.
By Lynn McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. You can see Lynn’s 70+ articles here – as she helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing and walk with nature.
During summer 2014, Lynn researched a number of new topics that she will share throughout the winter… As Editor, I have the pleasure of seeing “what’s next,” first! I certainly join her many friends and fans in thanking her for her wonderful stories. This one is particularly appreciated as we welcome a new Islander to the River.