Under a cloudy sky, two boats dropped anchor off of a windswept and rugged island. Eager with anticipation, a landing party came ashore with shovels, determined to find the treasure that had been left there years before. This was not a scene from Treasure Island or a pirate movie, but the culmination of a journey that had started 35 years before, and still may not be over. This is the story….so far.
Over the years, we have found that the people you meet while traveling are often more interesting than the destination itself. As Paul Theroux put it in The Great Railway Bazaar, “I sought trains; I found passengers.” It should come as no surprise that the Thousand Island region attracts more than its share of interesting people. The remarkable people we met who told us of the buried treasure of the Thousand Islands were a case in point.
Earlier this year, my wife Barbara, and I rented a houseboat and were docked for the night near Gananoque. Near us were two similar boats with four couples obviously having a good time. My wife struck up a conversation with them and they told us the story of the buried treasure and why they sought it.
The four couples (the Nicolases, the Buschs, and two Kreutners) all live in Waterloo, and grew up in Ontario and Quebec. Six of the group had known each other from childhood and two entered the group later. In 1981, the four young couples were looking for an adventure, so they rented two houseboats for a cruise of the Thousand Islands and the stretch of the St Lawrence River dividing Canada and the U.S. The cruise was a roaring good time, as the couples explored the islands and rafted up at night to swim, cook, eat, play cards, and tell stories. The trip was such a success, they decided to make it a regular event every three years, and called each trip Splash followed by the number. (Meetings to plan and discuss the trips were called Sprinkles, and were more frequent). They had shirts and jackets made commemorating each trip and wore them proudly. The nautical nature of the adventures even inspired them to build a treasure chest to fill with mementoes, including bottles, (apparently, emptying bottles was a big part of each Splash) and to bury the chest on one of the islands.
On the next Splash trip, after exploring several possibilities, they found a spot on one of the islands, and buried the chest. On each trip after that, they would dig up the chest, inspect the contents, and add to the stash. So the Splash trips continued and the friends remained close.
But time has a way of sneaking up on all of us and as the years went by, the friends had children, work concerns, family issues, and various problems to deal with. Over time, their lives became filled with more demands and obligations, until it became harder and harder to get everyone together for another Splash. On Splash 5 in 1993, they noticed how the treasure chest had deteriorated and some of them were beginning to feel the same way. Reluctantly, they agreed that Splash 6 in three years would be the last, and that the Splashes would only be a memory after that. In place of the tired treasure chest, they decided to bury a sealed vodka bottle filled with money, notes to their children, and pictures of previous Splashes as a legacy to their children and grandchild. It would be like a time capsule. So on Splash 6 in 1996, they dug up the battered chest for the last time and buried the bottle in its place before reluctantly returning home. After Splash 6, the Splashes stopped.
Twenty years passed by with no Splashes and no Thousand Islands get-togethers; everyone was too busy living their lives. The couples grew older, got some gray hair, had occasional health issues, raised children, sent those children out into the world, and welcomed more grandchildren. For 20 years, the memories of their Splash expeditions faded but never really died. They had occasional Sprinkle meetings, but they weren’t the same with no Splash to look forward to. They would get out the well-worn treasure chest, look at the old mementoes, and think of the good times they had once had together.
Sometimes, they would wonder if the vodka bottle was still there, patiently waiting through bright hot sunlight in the summers and under blankets of snow in bone-cold winters. Somewhere, on a rocky island in the St Lawrence, they had buried their memories, and a piece of their lives, maybe forever. Their kids seemed in no hurry to look for the bottle; and who could blame them? After all, it wasn’t their memories that were buried under those trees in the Thousand Islands. The Splashers began to wish they had brought the bottle back on their last Splash years ago. If only they had realized it was going to be their last chance. As great as the Splash experience had been, it seemed strangely incomplete, and unfinished somehow. Still, they had the memories. That would have to do.
No one was sure exactly who came up with the idea, only that somebody did.
"You know what we need to do?" someone said one day. "We need to get that bottle back once and for all. The kids probably will never have the time or the interest. It’s our memories and our responsibility. We need to do one final Splash trip!"
"Another Splash? Jeez, it's been twenty years! We're in our sixties."
"Well, why not? We're almost all retired now. Our kids are grown and we're still standing. Let's do it one more time while we still can."
“Yes,” said the others in a chain reaction of enthusiasm, “let’s do it!”
So, 20 years after the last Splash, and 35 years after the first, the friends launched yet another Splash. This time, the shirts proudly said Splash 7, something they had never expected to see. The places that had rented houseboats before were all out of business by now, but Houseboat Holidays, in Gananoque, Ontario was still around and glad to rent two houseboats for a week. So the four couples, older and a bit more care-worn, were on their way once more, that is, after one of them had a heart attack scare while loading the boats, a sobering reminder of how much time had passed. But it was too late to turn back now; the excitement was too high, and the bottle was waiting.
The last Splash was both nostalgic and bittersweet as they relived their youth and their times together. Hanging over it all was the big question. Would the bottle still be there? As they approached and saw the familiar island brooding silently in the distance, everyone grew silent with anticipation. Was it possible that the bottle was still there, waiting for them after all the years? And could they even find it if it was? It seemed unlikely, but worth a try.
The old clearing was grown up and the trees were noticeably bigger. It seemed familiar, but no one was certain.
"I think it was right here; near the tree with the knot hole."
The one with the shovel shrugged. "Well, let's see." He started to dig in the sandy soil.
"Now, don't break the thing if it's still there," someone said.
"We have to find it first. I don't know if the bottle was dug up by someone else or was smashed. The frost probably shattered the bottle years ago."
He paused. "I think I hit something."
They squatted by the hole and dug with their hands, hardly daring to hope. Beneath the loose dirt, something glistened.
The bottle was still there, waiting patiently for their return. In 20 long years, there had been no damage and no leaks. All the photos and souvenirs were still there, frozen in time like memories of youth. Through the glass, pictures of their young children and their younger selves looked back at them across the years.
Much later, when they rafted up that night, someone said "Do you think we'll ever Splash again?"
The others shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe, but just in case, we'll take turns as custodian of the bottle to remind us always."
And that is the story of the people we met who both buried and later found, the buried treasure of the Thousand Islands. To paraphrase Theroux, we sought boats; we found boaters. The bottle is still in Ontario, but is no longer buried on an island in the St Lawrence.
After all, what good is buried treasure if it stays buried? That's the thing about friends: they always finish what they start.
And that is the real buried treasure of the Thousand Islands.
By John Reisinger
John Reisinger is an author living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore but he and his wife Barbara come to the Thousand Islands for vacations. John writes about real-life people, places and events. Two of his books have won gold medals Global eBook Awards! Check out Flanagan and the Crown of Mexico, Death and the Blind Tiger and visit his webpage to see his complete list of fiction and non-fiction works.