Thousand Islands, Mystic, Fire Island

We had originally planned a week-long kayak camping trip to Cape Lookout in North Carolina, but with thunderstorms moving in for the week, we had to make a last-minute adjustment.   The weather in upstate New York looked good so we headed north to the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence River, then to Mystic, CT, and then to Fire Island, NY.  One of the biggest challenges in kayak camping in a new area is figuring out where to stay.   The Canadian government has set up a wonderful paddle trail in the Thousand Islands region and put together a detailed, free paddling guide at http://www.paddle1000.com.  This guide makes it very easy to figure out how to paddle on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence.  It ends up the Canadian side is the side to paddle on since everything on the American side is privately owned and there are no islands that are open for camping.  On the Canadian side, the government has reserved a large number of islands for public use.  We launched from the public dock in the small town of Morristown, NY.  The launch facility is a boat ramp and there is no fee for launching, just park on the grass to the right of the bath house as you face it from the water.   We originally chose to start at this end of the river since we would be paddling against the slow current, meaning we would get a little extra push on the way back.  This area of the St. Lawrence is home to the Brock islands, which are directly across from the town of Brockville on the Canadian side.  We brought our passports for the trip, but never needed them since we never came across any ICE or Canadian customs personnel;  some of the locals told us that it's a good idea to have the passports on you anyway, mostly since US ICE can be strict.  We took a short paddle to check out Skelton Island, which ended up being too steep and rocky to land on, and the promised dock wasn't there.  After a short paddle to Refugee Island, we chanced upon several perfect camp sites on this beautiful island.  The cost for staying on the island is $25 Canadian, payable at a self-service kiosk on the island;  there are picnic tables and two pit privvies.  We quickly discovered that this island is directly on the international shipping channel, which is an important aspect of paddling on the St. Lawrence.  This is the seaway from the Great Lakes to the sea and Great Lakes freighters regularly ply the waters moving quickly and silently through the channel.  The channel is easily identified by the tall white pillars in the water and is clearly marked on the paddle trail guide, and should be avoided or crossed quickly.  Another important aspect of paddling in this area is the water temperature;  it was listed as 50 degrees F, but seemed significantly colder since the ice doesn't fully melt until April.  We wore drysuits the entire time, despite some beautiful weather.   The Thousand Islands area is nearly deserted during the off-season and during the week, but it becomes very crowded at the height of the summer according to the locals, so this could be a major consideration for finding a campsite when competing with power boaters.  We set up camp on the rocky island, which is dominated by Canada Geese and the occasional Pileated woodpecker.  The scenery was beautiful and the freighters zooming silently by actually added to the experience.  The next morning we set out for the next leg of our journey and found high winds that had not been predicted by NOAA or the Canadian Weather Service.  We gamely tried to plug away at about one mile per hour, but between the wind and the current, we just weren't getting anywhere.   We got about 1/2 of the way to our destination before we decided that it just wasn't worth the next seven hours of paddling to get to the next set of islands, so we turned around and almost flew back as the wind, current, and following seas pushed us quickly back to the Brock Islands.  We investigated each island in the chain and found that Refugee, our original spot, was actually the best of the bunch, so we camped again that night.   The prior night's silence vanished with the week and the Canadian side of the channel blared music throughout the night.  The lesson to be learned:  this area of the Thousand Islands is great during the week, but noisy during the weekend. 

The next morning we broke camp and headed back to Morristown with the intention of driving towards Lake Ontario and paddling out to Mulcaster Island, a purported gem in the Navy Islands area of the Thousand Islands.  We weren't disappointed.  This area of the St. Lawrence River is so broad (more than 6 miles across), and is so replete with islands, that it ceases to feel in any way like a river and feels more like paddling on a large lake or off of an ocean coast.  We launched from the town of Clayton (a place that seems almost wholly set up to service the tourist trade).  There is a town dock that has temporary parking spaces for offloading and restrooms.  There is no cost to launch and the best place to park is on one of the side streets in the town that does not have a meter.  The paddle to Mulcaster was beautiful as we paddled across broad stretches of water that were churned up by a stiff wind, making for a fun and more challenging paddle.  This paddle took us through the narrow channel between Grindstone and Picton Islands and we found ourselves traversing beautiful bays filled with turquoise water.    The area reminded us of nearby Lake Champlain and Mulcaster Island was beautiful, with well-kempt walking trails, a clean and well-stocked pit privy, and amazing views.  The northern-facing rock beach we landed on is the only place that really works to land a kayak unless you use the docks.  During the season (Victoria Day to Thanksgiving) the cost to stay on the island is $15 Canadian.  The next morning we had a placid paddle back to Clayton, loaded everything back up and headed on a whim to the Finger Lakes, specifically Lake Cayuga.  This whim didn't work out as we found an area well suited to long training paddles, but poorly set up for kayak camping. 

Our next idea was to head to Mystic, CT and get some coastal paddling done, so we turned SE and pulled into this quaint New England tourist trap later that night.   Mystic is actually quite beautiful during the off-season, and we were glad to be some of the only non-locals in town.  The next morning we made our way to Williams Beach, a YMCA-owned beach that was completely deserted.  There are several places to launch in Mystic, but we chose the one closest to the ocean since we wanted to paddle out to Fisher's Island before turning back and checking out the historic seaport area.  A driving rain started at this point, but it didn't bother us in our drysuits as we made our way out to the island.  We had the area completely to ourselves and we only saw one boat on the water the entire paddle.  Heading out to Fisher's Island we encountered gentle swells that made paddling a pleasure.  After a quick stop at the Latimer Reef Lighthouse to take some pictures we pushed on to the island against a surging tide that was funneled between tiny Wicopesset Island and the larger Fisher's Island, where we encountered a large family of seals that followed us for about 10 minutes.  Our progress back was fairly swift as the tide carried us back in to explore Mystic Seaport.  Although the tall ships are fascinating, we were even more fascinated by the two drawbridges of strange (to us) design.  The Mystic River past the seaport is not terribly interesting, but the seaport itself is a gem; the ability to paddle up to wooden and steel sailing ships is unique to a kayak in this area and we were able to see the ships from every angle. 

After hauling out and drying off we decided the next morning to hop on the Orient Point Ferry and paddle Fire Island, on New York's Long Island.  The ferry is a drive-on ship that leaves regularly from New London, CT;  the trip takes about an hour and a half and is a much more pleasant way to go from CT to Long Island since it avoids several hours of driving through New York City.  After driving off of the ship we made our way to Fire Island, a popular barrier island that provides miles of beaches and draws huge crowds during the summer.  It took some time to do a full reconnaissance of the options since there are no roads on the island itself.  There are essentially two sides to the Island.  On one side is the Fire Island National Seashore (FINS);  this area provides a beach, parking area, and 22 miles of wilderness dunes.  You can camp in the wilderness area with a permit purchased at the Ranger Station.  When we arrived we saw a large crowd of surfers along the beach, and once we saw the waves, we knew why.  Although we're used to the Pacific Coast's larger and more violent waves, Fire Island at low tide with a bit of wind is still relatively impressive due to several sand bars at different intervals from the shore that throw up large breakers.  The 5-8 foot waves broke approximately 100 meters from the shore, then again about 25 meters from the shore, and then again on the shore itself.  Launching in the protected waters behind the island is always possible, but if you want to do a surf launch, wait until high tide, when the beach in this area looks like most Atlantic beaches with moderate wave action.    We then decided to try the other side of Fire Island to set up a good day paddle on the ocean side, where Robert Moses and Captree State Parks are located.  Robert Moses is beautiful, but provides no launching facilities and does not allow launching from the beach.   After conducting a thorough survey of the area we arrived the next morning and launched from the beach at Captree park, which is a perfect place to launch a kayak.  We avoided the boat ramp altogether by doing this.  Our paddle took us under the arch of the Robert Moses Causeway and the tide quickly carried us towards Democrat Point, the west end of Fire Island.  Several fishing boats ply these protected waters, but very few venture past the confused currents of the point.  As we approached the point we saw large breakers moving in three separate directions in the vicinity of the Sore Thumb, which protrudes out from Jones Beach under the water and causes some very strange currents.  Our charts marked this entire area as one that required caution, but just as we approached this churning area the breakers disappeared.  The water had become just high enough over the sand bar with the rising tide to cease the breaking of the waves.   With a sand bar creating large breakers another few hundred meters ourtwe were able to get some great surfing done before doing a relatively gentle surf landing on Jones Beach, taking a quick break, before punching back out to to some more fast paddling.   One thing to note about this area is that the low tide turns it into a maelstrom of large (5-8 foot) breaking waves that move in every direction (literally) and confused currents that make it very difficult to paddle.  If you time it so that you reach this area mid-way towards high tide, you'll have a great time vice finding yourself and your boat laying broken on a beach.   

Files for Brock Islands

Garmin GPS File     GPS Exchange File    Google Earth File

Files for Mulcaster Island (Navy Islands)

Garmin GPS File     GPS Exchange File    Google Earth File

Files for Mystic

Garmin GPS File     GPS Exchange File    Google Earth File

Files for Fire Island

Garmin GPS File     GPS Exchange File    Google Earth File