It wasn’t until I was packed up and ready to leave that I realized 2015 was a special year for me. I first came to Grenell in 1975, 40 years ago. Gary and I weren’t married then; we were engaged. I’d made the trip from Illinois to Grenell Island, to meet his parents and grandparents and learn more about this place; my fiancé loved so much. Looking back, I can see now how this little point of land has shaped our lives. It has been the shining star that our lives have revolved around.
We only spent a week, the first few years, driving all night after a day of work, from our home in Central Illinois. Once we were granted more vacation time, we eventually worked up to two, then three weeks. It wasn’t until 1999 when our youngest graduated high school, that I started spending the season. Those who live in the tropics have two seasons, the rainy and dry season. Those who live in temperate zones have four seasons. But I am a Grenell Islander and I have three seasons. There is River Season (from the day we arrive to the day we leave), Post-River Season (from the day we close up until December 31st.) and Pre-River Season (from January 1st – until the day we arrive.)
Now that we’ve been spending the season for over 16 years on our little rock, I’ve discovered that there are seasons within our treasured River Season.
“HOW WAS YOUR WINTER?” SEASON
Early season on Grenell starts with the sound of rakes. If weather permits, cottagers are outside cleaning up leaves, sticks and limbs, that fell over the winter. Once the debris is cleared, the buzz of lawnmowers rises from every corner of the island.
We usually arrive in early to mid-May. Many of those who live within a short driving distance—the weekenders, still entrenched in their work-a-day worlds, or retirees who never headed south—may open as early as April. This is the greeting time of the year. Weekends in the early part of the season are filled with hugs and impromptu get-togethers. Many of us haven’t seen each other since last fall. “How was your winter?” is the question on everyone’s lips.
The next question is always about the cottage. “How did opening go?” Every year is different. Some years we have critters to clean up after. Others years are bad plumbing years. We never know what might need to be fixed this year. But with two cottages and four outbuildings…there’s always something. I like to say, “We’ll get the place whipped into shape.” But sometimes I think it’s the other way around, the place is whipping us into shape. Mother Nature tries to lend a hand, by giving us extra hours of daylight. The sky starts getting light around 4:30 am and light lingers on the western horizon, long after sunset until almost 10 pm.
Weekends may be busy, but during the week our little island paradise is quiet. Many cottages are still shuttered and closed, others are only occupied on weekends. Just a handful are occupied full-time.
Not many boats out and about. More workboats than pleasure boats, out on the water, as crews work hard to get construction projects finished, before the main part of the season. It seems we always have a project that we hope to complete, before guests arrive.
The water, however, is dotted with early season ducks. We sometimes see buffleheads, mergansers, goldeneyes and on rare occasions, wood ducks. Early season ducks are long gone before guests start arriving.
The early season is sometimes cold, sometimes rainy, often buggy, but almost always quiet—except for the raking and lawnmower noises, and sounds of hammering and power tools, of course. Because the weather is so iffy, we rarely have guests this early in the season. Early season—the How was Your Winter Season—is a time for catching up with our island family, time for work projects, garden planting and preparing for the busy, guest-filled summer season ahead.
The HEART of the SEASON
July starts with a bang…literally. The boom from fireworks echoes off the water, almost every night, that first week. Suddenly there are boats and jet skis bouncing across the water. Calm morning waters are filled with kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. Evenings, we hear the throaty motors of old wooden boats,as they cruise sunset waters. Even late at night, long after the sunlight has faded from the water, the sounds of boat motors can still be heard, as boats glide across the dark water.
The first of July starts the six weeks of what I call, “The Heart of the Season.” Cottages are almost all open and occupied; even mornings are busy. From first light to dusk, it seems someone is always walking, and sometimes running, on the path around the island. There are kids with Ping Pong paddles on the way to the Community House. Other kids with stacks of books on their way back to their cottage to lose themselves in a mystery, while lying in a hammock. Old timers stroll after dinner.
By this time of year, the water has warmed up and is swimmable. Sounds of splashes and happy squeals, echo around the island, as kids and adults jump off the dock and floating swim platforms. Our little cove is littered with brightly-colored noodles, floats and inner tubes. In the distance we hear the shrill screams of delight from tubers.
During this time of year, our cottages, like those of most of our neighbors, are filled with guests, here to take in the wonders of the St. Lawrence and sample island life. There are lots of boat outings, picnics, regattas and croquet tournaments. At night, lights shine brightly, from cottages around our island, and shimmer off the water as we look across to Murray and Thousand Island Park. Smoke from fires twist into the evening air, as families make s’mores. And on calm nights, you can hear music and laughter, from various porches around our little island and even from Murray to the north.
Life on Grenell is crowded and busy during the Heart of the Season.
TIME TO CLEAR OUT THE FRIDGE Season
But eventually, THE HEART of the SEASON ends. That seems to happen about the third weekend in August when there is a mass exodus from the island, as families return to their mainland homes, to pack college students off for higher education, or the younger ones to bus stops. Those still entrenched in the work-a-day world, go back to work and return only on weekends.
The island is quiet again, at least during the week. The weekends are still busy, with last minute maintenance projects—more hammering. Garden beds are cleared. Floaties and inner tubes are deflated and stored. On calm days I can hear the rattle of chain falls, as they slowly ratchet boats out of the water. There’s one final surge of activity on Labor Day weekend, and a smaller surge again on Columbus Day weekend.
It’s a time of year for cottagers to gather again, after our busy season of entertaining guests. Again the water is quiet; not as many boats, but the geese are active now. In the spring, we might see mating pairs floating placidly along, in quiet courtship. During the Heart of the Season, we are constantly shooing geese and their young goslings from our front rock. Now the goslings are as large as their parents and there are large flocks, honking and calling to each other. Their raucous calls are punctuated with splashes, as the flock runs across the water in a mass lift off. They take wing and their honking dies out, as I lose sight of them. September 1st is the start of goose season and dawn skies are peppered, with the sound of gunshots.
This time of year is sometimes the prettiest. The water is still warm, even though the evening air is cool. By late September, the air is crisp and clear, the summer haze and humidity gone and the drier air seems to make colors bright, making the sky and River bluer. The crisp clean air seems to give me fantastic telescopic powers, for I feel I can see Clayton six miles upriver and can often see the wind turbines on Wolfe Island, miles upriver.
Gone are the days of endless sunshine; mornings seem reluctant to shake the darkness away. Crickets sing all day. Night comes earlier and seems so much darker, than any time of the year. As we look across at Murray and Thousand Island Park, it is very dark, as week by week more cottages close and are boarded up for the long, cold winter months ahead. Shortly before Labor Day, the water level starts to drop, as the International Water Commission pulls the plug,down river and the water seems to drop about an inch a day. Soon there isn’t enough water, in our east boathouse, to float our boat. It’s time to put the boats up.
And while we are savoring our time on the island, chilly mornings, coupled with chilly nights, nudge us to get things done for that inevitable day, closing day. A Food Pantry Donation Box appears in the Community House, for cottagers to put canned goods and other non-perishables, they don’t want to leave on the island. Now, when we run into people on the path, the question is “When are you closing?” Impromptu parties are now for saying good-bye and getting rid of leftover food.
Weeks before our departure date, my mind has already slipped into next season. I’m gathering things that need to go home and making note of what needs to be done, next River season. As I pack up, I’m thinking about things to buy, improve, plant. The shutters go up, first on the little cottage, and then on our cottage. The flag is lowered, carefully folded and put away until next season.
The last day, as we are cleaning out the refrigerator and closing down the water system, remaining islanders drop in to say good-bye. Lots of hugs and sometimes tears. I won’t see most of my Grenell family until next spring. Thank goodness for textings, emails and Facebook, which makes keeping in touch a tad easier. So the season is done and we leave the island.
I’m now over 1,500 miles away physically, but the River is never far away from my thoughts. As it is currently Post-River season at our home in Florida. Two seasons away from May, when we start-up again. It can’t come too soon!
By Lynn E. 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 80+ articles here (Yes we celebrated her number 80 in July, 2015.) Lynn helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing, and in this article, she describes what so many Islanders feel as the 1000 Islands season starts and ends…
All Photographs by Lynn McElfresh