Here Comes 1000 Islands River Santa

PHOTO BY Horizon Aerial Media Services

BY: Norah Machia
It was nearly four years ago during an uncharacteristically warm December evening Douglas Tulloch of Alexandria Bay found himself driving his boat around the St. Lawrence River, enjoying what he expected to be the end of the boating season.

      He was taking photographs of the river, and in keeping with the holiday spirit, was wearing a Santa hat. It was at that moment the idea for the annual River Santa Festival was born.

     Mr. Tulloch thought it would be great if each holiday season, “Santa” could arrive with boatloads of presents at the village docks on Upper James Street and distribute them to as many children as possible from the Thousand Islands region.

    “The idea was based on kids raised on the river who believed in Santa Claus,” Mr. Tulloch said.

      In a matter of weeks, he recruited several volunteers and raised nearly $3,200 to purchase gifts for children that year. He even managed to arrange for a U.S. Coast Guard escort from Alexandria Bay to accompany the boats arriving at the dock with Santa and the presents.

      “The village really rallied around the idea,” he said. “We were stunned to see at least 200 to 250 kids waiting on the village dock that first year. It was seemingly an overnight success.”

     The River Santa Festival has become an annual event supported by the Alexandria Bay Chamber of Commerce. Last year, more than 1,300 gifts were distributed, which were wrapped by volunteers during a four-hour period at the American Legion.

        “The community support has been mind-boggling,” said Mr. Tulloch. “We had volunteers from ages 10 to 90 wrapping presents last year. They were truly Santa’s helpers.”

        This year’s River Santa Festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Dec. 15 at the Upper James Street dock, and “Santa” is scheduled to arrive by boat at 11 a.m., complete with a U.S. Coast Guard escort, said Mr. Tulloch.    

     This will be the fourth consecutive year members of the U.S. Coast Guard have volunteered to help with the event, he said. They even play Christmas carols over their public address system as they escort the boat with Santa and the presents to the village docks. For the second year in a row, the local office of Towboat US will be transporting Santa from an undisclosed location.

       Mr. Tulloch said the Christmas gift distribution is open to all children, regardless of family income, noting “all kids need to believe in Santa Claus.”

     “One of the things that we have seen over the years is that parents are hesitant to bring their kids because they think their kids have enough,” he said. “Or that parents don’t want to bring their kids because they don’t want to be seen as needy.”

     “But this event is really about the spirit of Christmas, and it’s for all children ages 12 and under,” he added.

       This year’s event will feature costume characters, face-painting, and hot chocolate and cookies provided by the local organization Hearts for Youth. There will also be hay wagon rides throughout the village.

     Last year, organizers of the River Santa Festival received approximately $21,000 in donations. A total of 1,250 gifts were purchased, and while many of those gifts were distributed to children during the River Santa Festival, others were given to the Rotary Club in Alexandria Bay to include with Christmas food baskets being distributed to families in need.

    In past years, extra gifts have also been sent to the pediatric unit at Samaritan Medical Center, the Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse, and the Ronald McDonald House in Syracuse, where many north country families have stayed, Mr. Tulloch said.

    “The organization has a broad reach” when it comes to making the lives of children a little brighter at the holidays, he said.

    But not all the donations were used to buy presents. Organizers of River Santa also donated $1,700 to each of the following school districts in the area for their backpack programs: Thousand Islands Central, Alexandria Bay, Morristown, Hammond and LaFargville Central School Districts.

   Those backpack programs help provide food for children whose families have limited incomes and may need the extra help with meals during school breaks. “It’s not just about shiny presents, it’s also about putting food on the tables for many of these children,” Mr. Tulloch said.

      There are numerous volunteers who help with the River Santa program, including Lisa Slate of Alexandria Bay, “who has become my right-hand person in helping to plan this event,” he said.

       The major sponsors of River Santa include the F.X. Caprara Car Companies; Bonnie Castle Resort & Marina; Watertown Savings Bank; Community Bank; and the Horizon Aerial Media Services, which donates the filming of the event.

    For more information, or to donate, visit www.visitalexbay.org.

    After Thanksgiving, donations will also be accepted on a GoFundMe page: https://www.gofundme.com/1000IslandsRiverSanta

      The organization also has a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/1000IslandsRiverSantaFestival/