Ice-cold island is a place of warm hearths, hearts

January 09, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

GRINDSTONE ISLAND, N.Y. -- The old man never stood taller than on that day during the blizzard of '76. He and the seven school kids were stuck on snowmobiles on the sheet of ice the St. Lawrence River becomes in the cold heart of winter.

The milk-white curtain of snow and wind hit midway through the three-mile crossing from the mainland at Clayton to Grindstone. Couldn't see. Couldn't move. Couldn't stand the frostbite.

But the old man knew the river and the wind. There was a westerly, straight in his face. So he gathered the kids and they held hands and they walked, straight into winter, straight on home.

"My dad didn't do anything courageous," Salt Garnsey said.

"I was 16 and I was there. It just had to be done. A life-or-death situation.

"If you're cold, what are you going to do? You've got to try and get out of there."

Here, in a place where winter holds a grip for six months, they pass down a legacy and a love of the cold, the wild and, most of all, the river.

Just like his late father and namesake, Francis, Sr., Salt Garnsey makes the mail run six days a week, 52 weeks a year, bringing packages from the mainland and schoolkids from the island.

He travels by boat. By snowmobile. By ice punt.

"It's tough living over here," he said. "But I can honestly say that I love this. There are days it kicks you. But there is always a tomorrow."

This is life on Grindstone, an island that lies 18 miles downriver from Lake Ontario and hugs the boundary between Canada and the United States. There are no stores. No post office. Even the one-room schoolhouse closed in 1989.

In the summer, 200 families live on Grindstone, second-largest of the Thousand Islands and shaped like a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle. In the winter, eight to 10 families remain on this 5,300-acre frozen paradise, battling a season so ruggedly beautiful yet so numbingly cold that ropes freeze and car windshields crack.

Even the splendor of trees frozen like stem crystal and snow that shimmers like a hill of diamonds in a noonday sun cannot wipe away the isolation, nor soothe the loneliness.

To live in a place like this takes commitment. And love.

But this is the time of winter Mr. Garnsey loathes, the days after Christmas when the river has not yet frozen over, when the mail run turns into an obstacle course littered with chunks of ice and finicky currents.

Twenty-three degrees below zero, a stiff wind kicking up from the west, a silver sky with a rainbow hanging like a scoop of sherbet and a murky river running wild under a cloud of fog.

These are the daily conditions he faces.

Racing the cold

"I hate this," Mr. Garnsey said, a 32-year-old with blond hair, blue eyes and skin turned crimson in the cold.

Two days after Christmas, and he is ferrying nine passengers across to Grindstone on the 31-foot boat the Debby Lyn, trying to make it home before night falls.

Bags of groceries freeze on the boat deck. Passengers huddle in the cabin, kept warm by a diesel engine. And Mr. Garnsey, Salt to everyone who knows him, steers clear of the ice, and rides smoothly to shore.

Then, another race begins. A race against the cold, against the rising moon, against the snow that covers the roads.

The passengers clamber off the boat, carrying the groceries, cursing when a jug of frozen milk splatters on the snow, rushing to cars so old and so rusty you swear you have found the place where Chevrolets go to die.

Ice is scraped off windshields. Engines whir.

Salt tries to get his snowmobile started, but the machine is frozen in place. He takes off his mittens, and then, working with his bare hands that quickly turn to the color of raw meat, he unscrews the spark plugs, sprays on ether, reinserts the plugs, and then starts the snowmobile.

Three miles to home. Three miles to warmth.

Bound by hard times

There are the Slates. The Browns. The Matthews and Williams families. The Bazinets. Local artist Judy Bacci. The Garnseys.

Some of the families have roots on the island for 100 years and more, brought north for the cattle farming or for the old cheese factory or the quarry that produced granite used to pave streets and sidewalks in New York City and Chicago.

Others are relative newcomers, with only two- or three-generation links to Grindstone.

Now, they are bound by the hard time of an island winter.

"You can get down so low," said Bubby Bazinet, a correctional officer at the nearby Cape Vincent Prison. "It can take you anywhere from five minutes to five hours to get to the mainland. You have to make do. Maybe wait a day for things. Maybe have powdered milk instead of fresh. You make the best of it."

And you buy in bulk.

Gasoline comes a thousand gallons at a time.

Flour is hauled over in 25-pound bags.

Sugar in 10-pound sacks is mandatory for island living.

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