Island Living: Surviving winters away from shore

Nicole Caldwell stands in the middle of Butterfield Lake, Redwood, where she built her home on an island, at rear right.

Living on islands in the North Country brings its own kind of adventure once winter strikes. The season flirts with those living along its shores: blustery winds and freezing temperatures circle their ways around rocky shoals and jutting bluffs, teasing us. But while outdoor enthusiasts drop augers through ice to take measurements that determine when rivers, bays and lakes will be ready for games with shanties and snowmobiles, island dwellers await the winter freeze for a different reason.

            Those glassy layers signify means of a different sport: access to the mainland for crucial supplies aiding wintertime survival.

Wintering on islands requires a special ruggedness

            Most North Country island-owners are snowbirds. You’ll find them downstate or even down-country during winter, enjoying more idyllic landscapes of Floridian palm trees and Caribbean beaches. But while those folks enjoy beautiful weather and warm cores, a select and hardy few tough it out for the special excitement—and peace—of the islands dotting frozen water-bodies upstate.

            I’m a newcomer to the game. Since moving to the North Country almost eight years ago, above all else I’ve relished my interaction with the natural world. So much so, three years ago I purchased a tiny island speck on Butterfield Lake in Theresa, 10 miles inland from Alexandria Bay and the mighty St. Lawrence. The .1-acre lot has the requisite tree to mark it an island, and now holds a cottage requiring creative problem solving for access to and from it.

            Back in New York City where I used to live, weather was something that happened on the periphery. It could be an inconvenience; something you’d rather avoid if it got too sloppy. But in the North Country, weather is everything. It tells me when I can plant seeds in the garden. It indicates whether work can be done outside, how much wood splitting is required to heat the house, and—perhaps most importantly—it dictates my travels between the mainland and my island cottage.

            On Butterfield, as in all North Country waterways, winter comes in splotches. Some years, you “luck out” with tons of ice that could hold a freight train. A winter or two later, snowmobiles might inadvertently hop across open water; or an errant leg or four-wheeler might poke down through the shoreline.

            These are excitements people in almost every other part of the planet never have the liberty of experiencing. Ice boats, dogsleds, snowmobiles and shoes, and four-wheelers are no longer objects of recreation. Instead, these become tools of (awfully fun, at times precarious) survival.

Happy homesteaders, winter survivalists make

Eileen “Urch” Balcom-Slate, right, hands a bag of dog food to her husband, Harry, as they load up their boat with a month’s worth of provisions before heading home to Grindstone Island.

            Eileen “Urch” Balcom-Slate, 55, has lived on Grindstone with her husband Harry (a lifelong Grindstone resident) since 1998. The couple, married in 1999, does a lot of homesteading—from canning and freezing, to drying and salting. So much prep means only occasional trips to the mainland throughout winter; trips that are often spread out by a month or more.

            “We raise grass-fed beef and do a lot of gardening and canning in the summer,” Urch says. “We’re pretty good on food… but we do want to get to the mainland now because we’re just about out of beer and wine,” she adds with a laugh. “As long as it’s warm enough that we don’t have to worry about our boat (we have a 35-foot, diesel-engine boat) we can get back and forth, like this winter.  Other winters, we rely on snowmobiles or ice punts in between. We don’t have an ice punt, but our mailman Brian Parker does.”

            Urch says being on Grindstone in winter doesn’t feel like an inconvenience at all, even if getting to the mainland proves to be a challenge with choppy ice blocks and frigid temperatures.

            “Actually,” she says, “I really enjoy it. We’re super-duper-double-time all summer and into the fall. My husband and I are also New York State hunting guides… it’s a lot of fun, but they’re long days and a lot of work. So by the time we get done with that, and get through the holidays, it’s nice to get to January and just like, aaaaaah. During that time, I like to just relax and catch up on sleep and reading. This is the time of year I typically do my spring-cleaning, because I don’t have time in the actual spring. It’s just relaxing.”

            To stave off cabin fever, Urch says she and Harry like to embark on the daily, mile-long hike to their mailbox with their dogs. The couple also gets together with other Grindstoners almost weekly. “We typically all get together two or three times a month for dinner parties and to play cards, stuff like that,” she says. “It’s nice to have that time to really prepare meals and get creative in the kitchen. And we do get some people who come over on the weekends. But weather-dependent, they come over on a Friday and leave Sunday.”

            Urch says she and Harry hardly feel the winter boredom or blues so many other people suffer from in the winter. To Urch, Grindstone just feels like home… and the peace and quiet? Just heavenly.

A month’s worth of provisions.

To survive winter in the North Country, you must love the unknown

            Will Salisbury has owned property on Grindstone Island for 43 years.

“I bought the land in the spring of ’75,” Will says. “I’d been on the road as a hippie, I’d been out in Mexico. But I didn’t know anything—it was different when winter came. At first I cross-country skied, which I picked up from Leonard O’Brien. He’d bring a jug of wine and we’d go across the channel, it was three feet of ice… And then I graduated, and bought a snowmobile.”

The 67-year-old craftsman and metalworker has faced no shortage of excitement wintering on the island. “My first winter there was not a full winter, because my tent was flattened by six inches of snow and I was trying to figure it out for two days. People were saying I needed to stay on the mainland. So, it was a learning curve.

“The next winter I built a 12-by-16 plywood shack. We put a kitchen in it, it was more of a shop with a loft in it. Bob Quinn and I lived in it, in our snowmobile suits and hats and them big huge army gloves with a string around your neck. We literally lived in our clothes all winter.”

What was the appeal of all this, you might be wondering? “The adventure,” Will says. “The unknown showed up at our door every morning.”

Busy hands make winter fly by

Scott Garris, Singer Castle’s caretaker for the last 14 years, has a fool-proof plan for surviving winter as the lone resident of Dark Island from December through the beginning of March: stay busy.

“I’m a handyman,” the 54-year-old says. “I love refinishing furniture and stuff. After the summers we have, with tourists and guests constantly, it’s nice to have some peace and quiet where I can get some things done around the castle.” A typical day for Scott this year includes checking the windows for cracks or leaks, checking the grounds for trees down after heavy winds or snow, ensuring all the heaters are functional and kerosene tanks are full, working on ongoing projects, and making sure there are no ghosts.

Kidding—Scott says he hasn’t seen or heard an apparition at all in the last few years.

What he does see is wildlife: foxes galore, osprey, and eagles after the beginning of March… even a deer, though the ice proved too thin for walking that day.

Singer castle welcomes overnight guests until the end of October; then, another worker and Scott get things done until the end of November. From that time until the beginning of March, Scott’s alone on Dark Island. He says he doesn’t mind that one bit.

            “It’s quiet and peaceful,” he says. “I never stop talking during the summer—I even hate it when the tour guides point me out during the summer.

            “I still have a boat in the water this year,” he continues. “I don’t see the channel freezing now at all. Usually by the beginning of March, you notice it breaking all up. We have an iceboat [at the castle, but] it’s an old one. It’s hanging in the boathouse. We’ll charter David Garlock [from Number 9 Island] to come get me with his ice boat if I’m frozen in, but that’s usually just the one time after I’m frozen in for about four weeks. There was a time six or seven years ago that I drove my boat all winter. Last year I was only frozen in for 28 days. Usually, it’s five to seven weeks that I’ll be frozen in.”

North Country island winters are just unparalleled

            Is it rugged? Yes. Is it undesirable? Possibly. But there is something to a life lived with sustained moments of self-reflection and self-reliance that can’t be mimicked. There’s something about defining yourself against the North Country bleak that makes summers (and everything else) so much sweeter. And eventually, maybe you learn spending time like this with yourself doesn’t make you miss all that much else. Can that really all be?

            Scott has an answer. ‘Honestly,” he says, “the only things I miss are fresh milk, and eggs, and bread.” And how many of us can find a way to argue with that?

NICOLE CALDWELL is a writer and editor based out of Better Farm in Redwood, NY. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth News, Martha Stewart Living, Thrillist, Playgirl, and many other publications. Reach her at