Among the Thousand: Occident Island
Every island between Clayton and Alexandria Bay in the Thousand Islands has its own story.
Occident Island has been owned by the same family for over 115 years.
On a bright summer day, Phyllis Gardner picks me up on a little dock in Fisher’s Landing, a few miles from Clayton. She invited me to see the place she’s come back to every summer since she was a little girl.
We go at full speed, zipping past shoals hidden under the St. Lawrence River. Phyllis knows this river night or day. She points out the rocky shores as we pass.
“Most of these islands you can’t tell are separate islands; they’re so close together. That’s Pine Island, that the name of an island, that’s rock island. Not many of them have had the same family on them for the last 100 years.”
We pull up to the dock. Occident Island is two and-a-half acres, one of the smallest of the Thousand Islands. It’s made of ancient rock covered in patches of grass and trees. On our way to the house, we pass by wild blueberry bushes.
“It’s bigger than it looks. Isn’t it funny to be on an island in the grass on a rock in the middle? All of a sudden all the rocks made this island and here we are,” Phyllis says.
A little white cottage sits right in the middle. It has a wrap-around porch with long lazy porch swings full of worn pillows. The house was built in the 1870s as a fish camp. In 1900, Phyllis’s great-grandfather bought the cottage and turned it into a home.
“What I’ve tried to do is not change anything. And most people have put in brand new kitchens and big fancy stuff. We really have tried to keep it natural.”
The big wood stove in Phyllis’s kitchen is the same one her great grandparents used on summer evenings. The house is dark inside, and feels small. I almost bump my head against a row of kerosene lanterns hanging from the kitchen ceiling. Faded matchbooks, stickers and photos, both old and new, line every inch of the walls. No wall is left bare.
The clutter, the quirkiness of this house - Phyllis and her family and friends who visit know this gives it charm.
“It was always meant to be a family place. It was never meant to be a showcase at all.”
Then Phyllis shows me something else her family has saved for over a century.
“This should keep you busy for most of your lifetime. They start in 1874 and go on all the way to today."
"These are called logs. And everyone who sat down here wrote who they were and where they were from.”Five big dusty books, full of pages of inky signatures and dates. Friends,
family and anyone who stopped in for dinner found a fresh page in one of these books and signed their name.
“These are all my grandparents, my parents. This is the date. 1930. And people who I know from years ago come back and the first thing they do is go to the log and say 'where did I sign it?' I know I signed it as a kid. So it’s kind of exciting.”
So what is Occident Island’s story? It’s about the memories stuffed into this cottage, years of consistency, and family.
My first visit to Occident was quiet. But on this night, there’s a dinner party.
Phyllis’s daughter Stephanie Weiss is here with her husband and two boys. Friends from other islands have boated over with their kids.
“This is the best. It’s one cottage. You don’t have to talk to anyone. It’s amazing. But people are super social,” says Rob Hoehn who has been coming to the island since he was young. Stephanie says as people get older it’s hard to bring people together. Occident helps.
“This place keeps people more than anywhere else but only for a small time. It’s nice to live here because we’re here whenever people come back.”
For Phyllis, the island has always been about being free.
“No one has said 'no, you can’t' so I have just done it. There is a freedom in being able to come and go.”
Phyllis turns 82 this year.
“You learn to take care of yourself differently here and people are surprised that I do it all, but I’ve done it all my life so I don’t think nothing of it.”
And that freedom, the privacy, draws Phyllis and her family back to the island every summer.