— By Lisa Monforton
The waves of the Saint Lawrence River lap gently against our boat as we drift closer to the weathered dock. We’re squinting in the mid-day sun and looking towards the shore, past a stand of giant leafy trees to a tidy red clapboard cottage. “That’s the one!” my 81-year-old mother shouts. Unlike me, she doesn’t care if people emerge wondering why we’re staring at their cottage like we own the place.
In fact, at one time my mom’s extended family did own this comfortable retreat, built originally in 1894 and located on Tremont Park Island just 10 minutes from the shores of the mainland town of Gananoque, Ontario. Tremont is the place where my mother — whose family would drive from Windsor — spent long, languid summers with a lively clan of aunts, uncles and cousins. It’s no wonder she feels absolutely at home here.
Childhood memories come flooding back and my mom has a look on her face that I love. It’s faraway, with a wistful smile that suggests she can’t believe she’s really here. She’s picturing her 12-year-old self — bathing-suit-clad and barefoot, scooping up minnows in a net along the shallow waters of the shoreline. And she’s imagining peaceful hours spent in a rocky cove, sunbathing and reading and diving into this cool, refreshing historic waterway.
Not long ago, I asked my mother what was left on her travel bucket list. I had no idea how she would answer. Would she want to visit Brisbane, Australia, where the Bee Gees — her favourite dancing disco band — famously launched their music career? Or would her destination of choice be Bordeaux, France, the source of her go-to white wine? Then again, maybe her next dream trip was somewhere she and my father vacationed when he was still alive.
When she answered “Gan” I was surprised, but then I quickly understood. I spent a dreamy couple of weeks in this place as an eight-year-old with my grandparents more than 50 years ago. It’s where I hooked my first worm on a rod and caught my first fish. “Gan” is what some people affectionately call the town of Gananoque, also known as the “Gateway to the 1,000 Islands.” There are 1,864 islands in the region — some no more than outcrops of rocks, popular resting spots for cormorants.
These days, the 1000 Islands are one of Canada’s busiest summer playgrounds — a destination for people who enjoy cottage life, fishing, house boating, canoeing and even diving, given the region’s many shipwrecks. In the prohibition era, the notorious River Rats ran rum between Canada and the U.S. border in the region. It’s also where the famous Thousand Island Dressing got its name.
During our recent visit, I hear untold stories as my mom peels back the decades, recalling time she spent here during the 1940s and ’50s. And even though it’s been 60 years since she last visited, her memories of this place are as fresh as the silvery perch she used to catch off the cottage dock.
We explore the town, at one point looking out from an adorable pub over fish and chips to the stately Gananoque Inn across the street. Apparently years ago, young men, dapper in suit coats, would take their gussied up girlfriends for romantic nights of dancing at the riverfront inn. It was the place to be seen.
Later, over a glass of wine, my mother recounts a story about the time her slightly older cousin loaded her and her sister into a little boat and then rowed off to an unknown destination. The boy-crazy cousin knew of a boys’ camp a short paddle away. “She put lipstick on us, so we’d look older,” my mom tells me, lighting up and giggling like a teenager. They had no intention of docking, only taunting and jeering the boys on shore from their boat.
As I picture this scene in my mind, I see the woman before me as an impish, curly-haired and carefree kid on a warm summer’s evening. I feel lucky to have taken this trip with her — not only because it’s fulfilled a wish she’s kept secret for years, but also because it gives me a rare and sweet glimpse of my mother and a little girl I never knew.
Note from publisher: Lisa Monforton is a Calgary-based freelance writer. Her trip was supported, in part, by Booking.com (Absolute 1000 Islands Suites) and 1000 Islands Tourism. Thanks also to Gananoque Boat Line & Thousand Islands Playhouse for supporting Monforton during her visit. No partners in tourism reviewed or edited this story before publication.