When most people think of paddling in Upstate New York, they imagine the endless rivers, streams and lakes of the Adirondacks. While that region is teeming with opportunity, but paddling enthusiasts and first-timers alike will be surprised and excited to discover a different paddling playland in Upstate New York: the Thousand Islands. The Thousand Islands is famous for its natural beauty, buzzing tourist spots, romantic islands, and fishing and boating opportunities that are second to none. But the size of the St. Lawrence River, as well as boat traffic and the St. Lawrence Seaway, mean that many people never consider the beautiful paddling opportunities that the region has to offer. The Thousand Islands region is full of little surprises—quiet channels, inlets, and bays that are primed for exploration by a sleek, maneuverable craft small enough to fit through tight spots yet versatile enough to handle varying depths of water. Jan Brabant, owner and operator of Thousand Island Adventures, has been renting kayaks, giving tours and educating people about paddling in the Thousand Islands for over 23 years, with 40 years experience in paddling. Still, Jan says, there’s more to learn—and more to discover—about paddling this gorgeous region.
USM: What makes this area different from the Adirondacks?
JB: First of all, we have no bugs. [laughs] And within close proximity, I have to say: we have the best paddling in the eastern United States.
USM: Wow, that’s incredible. Most people don’t associate kayaking with the river. They think oh, there’s boat traffic, there’s a lot of high waves, there’s so much going on, I can’t paddle up here. But that’s not true.
JB: It’s not. You stay away from the boat traffic, but the high seas are a good thing. That’s what makes us unique over the Adirondacks: we can go right up against those ocean paddlers. On Lake Ontario the waves are closer together, and that makes them more intense. We have water conditions for every level of paddling experience, but this area hasn’t been marketed as an ocean kayaking area. It’s largely untapped. And, if the wind’s blowing and you don’t want to be out on the river you can paddle French Creek, Crooked Creek, or Chippewa Creek. There are marshes for bird watching. A half mile up French Creek there’s a big wide open area called the Flat. It’s about a foot and a half deep. Peregrines and terns fish that area. Just paddle out there, sit and chill for 10 minutes and the show will start. There’s mink and muskrat, snapping turtles. You never know what you’ll see. Right here is a paddling paradise. It really is untapped. It is a jewel.
USM: That’s really something special, because you don’t find a lot of places where you can paddle so many diverse waters. That’s a big deal.
JB: It is a very unique area. I think it has a lot to do with being able to go out and paddle the islands. On the Canadian side we have St. Lawrence Islands National Parks. On the American side Both Burnham Point and Grass Point State Parks have a designated site for kayakers only right down by the water. There’s also Sugar Island, you can camp there if you join the ACA. Avoid the last week of July and the first week of August and almost nobody goes to Sugar Island. The diversity of the undiscovered in the area is really appealing.
USM: So what’s the protocol with Canadian islands? There’s some great kayaking over there, but would you have to go through customs?
JB: As long as you don’t touch ground. As soon as you touch the ground, you’re in Canada, and you have to register. You can go over to Misty Isle and report in. They give you a number and record how many days you’ll be in Canada.
USM: So, you’re the expert. Where would you send someone, a fairly new paddler, let’s say—where on the river would you suggest they start out?
JB: If you’re a beginner, I’d say try Cedar Point to Clayton. What’s unique is you paddle alongside the shore there, so it’s better for a novice paddler. Between Cedar Point and Burnham Point you’ll find a lot of big seas, so I’d say that’s more advanced. If you set in at Tibbets Point Lighthouse in Cape Vincent, you can get real big seas. That’s probably an expert area. Further upriver, some people recommend putting in at Keewaydin, but you have powerboats everywhere. Once you get away from that concentrated area, down around Chippewa Bay, it’s gorgeous. You could go to Fisher’s Landing, even—anywhere from Grass Point down river is all unique. For the simplistic trips its nice to do Eel Bay over to Cat Point. The going across can get to be a pain, but you can also start this trip from Wellesley Island. There’s a good trip from Grass Point to Rocky Island. Or try the head of Grindstone down the backside to the beach. It really is a smorgasbord.
USM: Is there anything you would suggest for more advanced paddlers?
JB: If the wind’s blowing, you can go up to Cape Vincent, off Tibbet’s Point, to surf and play in the waves. If somebody wants to do the big expeditions, there’s Galoo Island on Lake Ontario. There’ll be a designated camping and nature observation site on the head of the island. There’s also an observation area and campsites on Main Duck Island, which is about 20 miles out into Lake Ontario. I wouldn’t recommend these trips to very many people, though. They’ve been very intense when we’ve done it. We’ve caught storms and high winds more than once, and it took 8 ½ hours to finish the trip. There’s no place to stop–when you’re in a kayak and a storm comes, there’s not much you can do. You hunker down and throw your sea anchor out, and just make sure you stick together, because with the wind blowing, you can’t even hear the person right next to you.
USM: That sounds intense! How about day trips? Is there anywhere you suggest people go?
JB: There’s an easy trip downriver a little. Put in at The State Park Nature Center on Wellesley Island (there is a fee) and do a short, 2 mile paddle across Eel Bay to Canoe Point. It’s a short trip, so it’s good for kids, and there’s hiking and all sorts of stuff you can do on the island. There’s another day trip, Eel Bay based out of Fishers Landing. You can do a tour of the lighthouse.
USM: So obviously you send a lot of people out on trips. Which kayak in your lineup would you say is most popular up here?
JB: When you talk the river, you want length. And I sell a lot of sit on tops. For awhile I was the largest Ocean Kayak dealer in New York State.
USM: Would you say that’s the best kind to use?
JB: I would recommend a sit on top. A lot of places don’t talk safety, the way the market’s going. But when you’re at a place where they sell kayaks from a safety perspective, a lot of people have sit on tops. Safety is our theme: I don’t sell dark colored kayaks either.
USM: Is flipping over a concern?
JB: I always say, “What if?”. If you have a ship bearing down on you and you’re in a kayak that’s full of water, you’re not getting out of there. But if you have a sit on top you can crawl back up on it and get out of there. People say, “Oh, I want a sit inside so I can paddle early in the season”. But when it’s cold you should dress for the water. If you get thrown off, big deal, hop back on and go for the gold again.
USM: What type of trip would you suggest with a sit-on-top?
JB: You can do French Creek, or do a nice little jaunt from Grass Point to Rock Island and have lunch. That’s where you want the sit on tops so if you flip over you can get right back on top. You’re on the edge of the main, narrow shipping channel, because you’re in a cluster of islands. The ability to self-rescue with a sit on top is paramount. And I don’t know if you know this, but we’re offering a new sport: stand up paddle boarding. Some of the best paddle boarding is on the stretch from Cape Vincent to Clayton. What makes it neat is you can go into Cape Vincent, have a little lunch, and hop back on your board. On a windy day, with the way the prevailing winds blow, you can go off on a little stretch down there. You could do Burnham Point to Cedar Point, and then it’s 6.5 miles to Clayton.
USM: Besides the paddling, I know there’s great fishing on the St. Lawrence. But would it be possible to go fishing from a kayak?
JB: The fishing potential is here, for sure. We have some of the best bass fishing in the country. Some of the biggest muskies in the US have been caught right here in 40 acres. What people don’t understand is this river is so big, there’s room to do everything. People who have never been here sometimes have never seen a river this big. They refer to it as the lake. But either way, just being out on the river is a great experience. It’s beautiful. And to be in a kayak or on a paddleboard and watch a ship go by really puts things in perspective.