The Thousand Islands has long been a community of communities.
The largest islands, and many of the mid-size ones as well, have fostered their own individual gatherings and events, in some cases for more than a century. Churches and Post Offices, meeting halls, and traditions such as group picnics and boat races add to the ‘neighborhood’ feel.
But--inevitably, and regrettably--some island traditions have faded into the past, now largely if not entirely forgotten in the 21st century.
The Aunt Jane’s Bay Regatta, held annually for a stretch of time in the mid 20th century along a small section of the shoreline of Grindstone Island, is just such a relic, relinquished now only to memory among the dwindling few left who participated in the event back in the day. But it is worth recalling if merely to acknowledge a time when a day of summertime fun was enjoyed collectively by neighbors who shared a love for life on a beautiful St. Lawrence bay.
Directly across from Clayton, Aunt Jane’s Bay has been home to generations of families, native islanders and summer dwellers alike. The Bay is small enough that, back then, at least, everyone who lived there knew each other. Beginning in the 1950s, those families established what was called the Aunt Jane’s Bay Regatta.
It was a decidedly home-grown event. The core concept was for each household to create their own ‘float’, and participate in a ‘parade’ around the Bay. Scheduled for one day in the height of summer, the Regatta usually featured a picnic as well. The whole affair allowed residents to gather, socialize, have fun, and simply share time in their beloved Bay.
The individual ‘floats’ were a ragged assortment of whatever Aunt Jane’s Bay dwellers could cobble together. But they all shared a sense of fun and creativity. One year a fire during the previous winter had destroyed a boathouse set in the middle of the Bay’s shoreline. The burning embers had flown to a wooden structure on another property a fair distance away, destroying it as well.
The Shirley family, who owned the second structure, had suffered an awful loss, and it would have surprised no one if they had chosen to forego participating in that summer’s Regatta. But instead, to loud cheers, applause, and smiles from their neighbors gathered together that day, along came a small rough-hewn wooden raft, made from the remainders of the charred and battered timbers of their building, towed by the Shirley’s boat. The hand-lettered sign posted on the ramshackle raft simply said, “All That’s Left Of The Shirleys.”
That exemplified the basic spirit of the Regatta, and more broadly, the neighborhood atmosphere of the Bay. While people enjoyed their summertime fun on their properties, the Regatta was their chance to come together and celebrate—if only for a day—what they collectively shared and cherished.
One year my sister Sarah was the centerpiece of our float. Dressed as a water nymph, she perched aboard a large, old, dish-shaped metal Coca-Cola sign that our father had obtained to create our Regatta entry. Inverted in the water, it was big enough and stable enough (barely though!) to support her—and painted green, it served as a ‘lily pad’ for this young water nymph, towed slowly behind our Chris-Craft speedboat.
She won the Regatta award for “best float” that year:
There was even a daring rescue one year when someone brought one of the first jet skis to the Regatta. Of course, this new type of watercraft drew keen interest, and several adults and kids wanted to try it out. My sister was one of them. On her turn, she managed to pilot it away, speeding out towards the middle of the Bay, where it suddenly died. Stranded quite a good distance from shore, she was rendered helpless—the balky thing just would not start again for her. Meanwhile, Regatta partiers were too occupied with kibitzing and picnicking to notice.
To the rescue came young Henry Custis Jr., a scion of one of the Bay’s oldest families, who often hosted the Regatta picnic at their Camp Virginia homestead. Spotting his female friend’s far-away distress, with no hesitation, Henry dove headlong from the dock, swam all the way out to the lifeless jet ski such a far stretch away, and with dashing aplomb, got it started and brought his damsel back to the shore, and safety.
Fires and stranded females weren’t the only misbegotten events that marked the Regatta, though. One year our parents had friends--a young married couple--visiting, and the woman thought it would be fitting to honor the area’s earliest residents by dressing in a full Native American costume. So outfitted, she sat cross-legged atop the stern of our speedboat for maximum visibility—but not being a real River Rat, neglected to realize that she needed to hang on as the powerful Chris-Craft began its cruise past the assembled onlookers along the shoreline.
PLOP! A loud splash, and she had gone over backward into the water in full view of all.
Sadly, there are almost no mementos left that represent the Regatta and what it stood for, now these 60-some years or so ago. A surviving photo depicts the fun, creative, and community spirit of the affair, though.
One year Long Point, our grandparents’ summer home, which sits at one end of Aunt Jane’s Bay, deployed a float. It transformed a standard wooden canoe into a Viking warship, complete with mast, sail, large hand-painted circular battle medallions along both sides, and dragon’s head and tail at either end.
While certain River traditions like the Aunt Jane’s Bay Regatta have slipped away into the mists of time, fortunately, others still do survive and flourish. Some of them have been recounted here in the pages of Thousand Islands Life. Among many other aspects of life on the St. Lawrence River, especially the Thousand Islands, they are part of what makes life on the River so richly rewarding.
By Tom Robbins
A third-generation summer resident of the Thousand Islands, Tom Robbin's career has taken him from the White House to Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and now Silicon Valley. His lifelong love of the St. Lawrence parallels his personal and professional interests in film production, photography, and writing. See Tom's TI Life articles here.
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