A Summer Day on Snipe Island
Another day spent on the St. Lawrence River winds down as the gentle breeze begins to fall with the sun and the clear water begins to sink into a restful state of glassiness. The sun is only inches above the treetops and it's almost time to start a fire if we're going to have one. Just off the foot of Whale Island, the loons appear. Mother and father are majestic in their coloration while their fuzzy charcoal chick bobs between them. Although awkward in the air, they're truly masterful in the water and it is a privilege to see them swim underwater. Like playful torpedoes, they jet and dive in search of food. The chick, evidently tired of navigating the surface under his own power, scampers onto his parent's back and nestles in among the folded black speckled wings.
High overhead a gull flies and lets out a screech that's answered by another not far off. The world is too still and gentle now to justify the flapping of wings, so it glides instead, slowly surfing the air currents. The sun is just kissing the upper branches of the trees on the Canadian side of the river and the near horizontal rays it casts tumble through the trees around me. The world is frozen in the moment just after Midas's touch, when the golden transformation is only partial, and everything still retains part of its original complexion within the golden hue. The water between the foot of Hemlock Island and the head of Whale Island reflects the sun's last display of vibrance for the day, and each wave that passes through sheds a showering myriad of sparkles dancing across the gap.
It's time to start the campfire before it becomes too dark to see, so I begin to build my little teepee of sticks and pine needles among the bricks of the pit. As I gather the necessary supplies the loons exchange their bone-chilling alarms. One of the bald eagles is returning to their nest on Hemlock. Backlighted by the sun, it is only a large silhouette as it rises to its perch with slow and mighty wingbeats. The loons' concern was fair, but unnecessary; the eagle's day of hunting is over, and the loon chick is safe.
I carefully light and nurture my small flame, slowly adding larger pieces of pine, cedar, and birch until it is steady. I prefer to burn cedar when we have it, for it smells sweeter and burns more steadily than pine; the oil makes the fire crack and hiss. By this time, the sun is just slipping below the trees and the sky is blood orange. The bellies of the clouds turn pink and gradually shift to lavender the farther from the sun that I look. In the early fall I'll see huge Vs of Canadian geese flying overhead, but not now.
Snipe doesn't have electricity; the half-mile worth of underwater cable required to bring it over is too expensive. We make do with kerosene lamps instead, which my father lights as I stoke the fire. The soft glow they give is more inviting anyway. As darkness falls, other fires appear on both shorelines and my father always jokes about who has the biggest campfire and which fire will last the longest into the evening, though ours is rarely the victor of either category.
On clear evenings I can see thousands of stars without ambient light pollution. There's a bit of a glow upriver over Alexandria Bay and by the international bridges that span the river, just as there is a small glow over Mallorytown Landing just below us, but Snipe is fortunate enough to be positioned in the middle of one of the wider and more open points of the river, so light pollution is minimal. I used to watch the stars through a telescope as a kid on weekend summer nights; I wanted to be an astronomer or astrophysicist, but I quickly realized I couldn't do the required mathematics. If I stay patient enough while looking up, I'll see a shooting star and a few satellites pass over, and that's good enough for me.
A bass jumps somewhere in the dark and the splash reverberates off the granite and quartz walls of the three islands that form our group. One of the loons calls soon after. There is no better sound. Like the howl of a wolf, but sadder and softer, the moan hangs on the placid air and carries across the river for miles.
My second favorite sound usually comes within an hour or two, when the train passes through Mallorytown itself, about a mile inland from the landing. The whistle drifts across the river and can even be heard from our house, which is a couple miles inland from the river. On exceptionally still nights I can hear the clickety-clack of the wheel over the track. As a kid, every time it passed through and we heard the whistle, my father would say "Do you hear the train in Canada buddy?" I have no doubt that when he's gone, hopefully a long time from now still, the train whistle across the river will be one of my fondest memories of my dad.
Depending on the shipping schedule and my ability to stay awake, I'll sometimes be lucky enough to see a freighter pass through during the night. The best scenario is a laker heading upriver. Because they don't leave the system, they can be much longer than the ships that head out to the ocean. This added length means that they have more lights and when they head upriver, I can see them appear as one point of light far below Singer Castle and gradually grow and multiply into a small floating city as they come even with Snipe. The soft white lights of the deck and pilothouse, combined with the red and green navigation lights on the bow and channel markers, always remind me of Christmas.
The quiet of the night lets the hum of the engines be heard as the ship steams steadily by in a thump-thump-thump-thump fashion. Sometimes I walk down to the dock to watch the water drift in and out of the slip as, even the better part of a half-mile away, the ship's draw creates a noticeable effect on the water level. Each ship draws out a couple inches of water until it finally passes and allows it all to roll back in as before.
I take a look at the moon now that is high in the night sky. The river below it dances with the cold white light it drops and its image in the water is bent and distorted by the waves that pass through it. This is as good a time as any to go in and read a chapter of my book before bed so, after a couple of water buckets are put on the fire, I do just that.
I sleep on one of the two elevated beds on the porch, which is surrounded by windows that fold up and are latched to the ceiling on warm nights when no rain is expected. The crickets, loons, and steady sound of water against the shore put me to sleep. My most restful sleeps have all been on Snipe.
I don't set an alarm on the island; I wake to the sun's rays caressing my face and warming me until I become alert. It's the gentle heat on my eyelids that usually causes me to stir. Immediately I hear the water lapping against the shoreline and through the dock cribs. As I sit up and look off the middle island on the American side, I'll often see the loons doing their early fishing by the shoal that sits less than 100 feet off the island shore. Both parents alternate sticking their heads underwater to spot fish before diving if they see one. The chick always has a parent with it until it's large enough to swim and dive on its own. The early morning calls they share that allow them to maintain contact as they fish in separate areas are the perfect sounds to wake up to. Golden beams continue to fall through the screen and brush the length of the bed as a seagull cries in the distance and surveys the world from high above. Life simply does not get any better. The chipmunks gather the peanuts we leave out for them and scamper off while the swallows collect the morning's bugs and return to the houses we've built for them throughout the island. Mom starts breakfast and dad quickly sweeps off the chairs and the outside of the camp, for though we may sleep through the night, the spiders stay fast at work; and the day unfolds before us, always the same but ever changing. That is the nature of life on the St. Lawrence.