Saturday, August 9, 2014

America's Castles - Part I: Of Mice and Men

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
9 Aug 2014 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - ART (Watertown, NY) - SDC 2.8 1310.5

Working Castles

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by dinosaurs, anything Star Wars, and castles. I still find the first two topics to be mildly interesting (the spark of fascination for Star Wars dimmed significantly for me with the introduction of Jar Jar Binks), but I never grew out of my fascination with castles.

June 20, 2014: Edinburgh Castle

Recently, we spent a week in Scotland where we visited several castles. These are what I have come to think of as "working castles."

June 15, 2014: The Forecastle of Stirling Castle

I think of them this way because their histories span centuries of siege, occupation, razing, and reconstruction. They are perched above the landscape on volcanic crags, surrounded by protective walls.

June 19, 2014: Eilean Donan Castle

It was amazing to step foot into these ancient strongholds. In the United States, their closest siblings are forts like the one we recently visited at Ticonderoga. But American forts lack the majesty of these ancient citadels.

There are castles in the United States; however, they are massive manor homes built in a style intended to evoke the magnificence of their medieval forebears. They are peacetime castles, conjured from architectural whimsy, under siege only from tourists and facing destruction only from time, weather, and vandals. Nonetheless, they are cool in their own way too.

This weekend, we flew to the Thousand Islands region of the St Lawrence River to visit two spectacular examples of castles in America: Boldt Castle and Singer Castle.

"And They Have a Plan..."

Boat rides run by Uncle Sam's Boat Tours depart Alexandria Bay, NY for both castles. Boldt Castle on Heart Island is within view of the marina in Alexandria Bay, a short ten minute boat ride. Boats shuttle visitors to Heart Island twice an hour.  Kristy and I visited Boldt Castle in October of 2006 in one of our most memorable daytrips to date.  

Singer Castle, located on Dark Island, is several miles east of Alexandria Bay. Boat tours run at 10:00 am and 2:00 pm. We were particularly interested in Singer Castle because we had not previously visited it, though I have observed it from the air.

On our last visit to the region, we landed at Maxson Airfield (89NY) just two miles from Alexandria Bay. Hank from Thousand Islands Aviation Services drove us into town to catch the boat and later returned us to the airport. Except for when he scraped paint off the pointy end of my nosegear wheel pant with a towbar, it was a great experience.

A few years ago, we planned a return trip to visit Singer Castle. I called the couple who owned the airport to make arrangements for ground transportation and spent one of the most heartbreaking 30 minutes on the phone with a stranger that I have ever experienced. The woman explained to me that her husband had left her for a younger woman and wanted to sell the airport. She was utterly beside herself, did not know what to do, and was clearly desperate for a sympathetic ear. So I lent it to her, listening quietly to her heartbreak over her marriage and her airport.

Rotten weather caused us to cancel our trip. Time passed, the airport closed, then reverted to private use under new ownership. I never learned what happened to the family who used to own it. The field is currently on its second set of owners since going private. They allow the airport to be used, but require prior approval, signing of an extensive legal waiver exempting themselves of any culpability in the event of an accident or damage, and a $35 landing fee. I submitted a question to the current owner about the condition of the field over a year ago and never received a response.

We decided that it would be easier to fly into Watertown International, rent a car, and drive to Alexandria Bay. Plan A was to depart Williamson-Sodus by 8:00 am, arrive Watertown by 9:00 am, drive to Alexandria Bay and take the 10:00 am cruise to Singer Castle, visit Boldt Castle on the return cruise, return to Watertown and sightsee over the Thousand Islands from the Warrior before flying home. Plan B, in the event that we could not do the 10:00 am cruise to Singer Castle, simply changed the order of events; visit Boldt Castle first and cruise to Singer Castle at 2:00.

The forecast for Saturday morning called for clear skies and excellent visibility over the entire route. As aviators, we all know what that means.

Best Laid Plans

Before departing home, I checked the current conditions at Rochester, Syracuse, Oswego County Airport, and Watertown. All advertised clear skies and high visibility.

Kristy, The Bear, and I departed Williamson-Sodus promptly at 8:00 am.  The landscape dimmed in relation to the brilliance of the morning sun reflecting off of Sodus Bay.

Shoreline Rorschach Test: does anyone else see a giant frog in this photo or is it just me?

Crossing the Oswego River, a localized veil of mist hovered over the landscape.

I wonder...

Though we were still thirty minutes out, I tuned the automated weather system for Watertown and heard, "...visibility one and three quarters, mist; ceiling overcast, 100 feet..." So much for VFR. Conditions were poor enough to preclude flying any of the available instrument approaches, too.

I decided that a diversion to Oswego County Airport to wait for better conditions made the most sense. After changing course, I checked the conditions at Watertown again.  This time, the visibility had increased to four miles. After another few minutes, it increased to five and the ceiling went to broken. Because conditions were improving so rapidly, I decided to continue to Watertown.

Rounding the east end of Lake Ontario, everything inland lay under a solid, low overcast.

The Lake Ontario shore, as is often the case, was clear as we flew over Port Ontario (which, frankly, does not look to me to be much of a port). Within a few more minutes, the visibility at Watertown increased to 10 miles, but the 100 foot ceiling remained.

We proceeded toward Watertown, the disintegrating cloud deck providing hints of what lay below.

We flew over the airport at 3,000 feet, runways visible but out of reach beneath the low ceiling.

We loitered in the area to see if the ceiling would break up enough to allow for a pop-up clearance to fly the ILS approach or to land VFR.

We soared through smooth air as the land below warmed the atmosphere sufficiently to reabsorb the clouds.

Off the New York coast, just south of the Canadian border, is Fox Island. I was intrigued by its shape and flew closer to investigate.

I was delighted to see that Fox Island had its own, uncharted, turf runway. Can there any better way to reach an island residence?

Stony Island, which is on the verge of being two islands, but isn't, is quite eye-catching. The little puff of white in the background is the Nine Mile Point nuclear power plant in Oswego, NY on the other side of Lake Ontario.

Massive freighters, both "lakers" and "salties", plied the St Lawrence River. I am fascinated by these enormous ships (I must have that rare Gordon Lightfoot gene) and looked forward to seeing them up close.

At this point, the weather had lifted enough to allow an instrument approach, but we would never make the 10:00 am cruise to Singer Island. Thus, it looked like a Plan B kind of day and, given that, we continued north to do our aerial sightseeing over the Thousand Islands.

The Thousand Islands bridge carries I-81 to Wellesly Island, which lies along the international border.

When I first learned about the Thousand Islands, I was skeptical that there could actually be 1000 of them. As it turns out, there are actually 1,864 of them.  Frankly, some barely pass muster. To paraphrase one of our tour guides, in order to be deemed an island, a "landmass" (?) must be above water 365 days a year, possess some plant growth, and meet minimum dimensions. As a result, some of the "islands" were little more than boulders surrounded by water and sporting a single tree.

Still, they make for a beautiful sight.

We quickly located Alexandria Bay and Heart Island dominated by Boldt Castle. Turning eastward, we located Singer Castle on Dark Island in a matter of minutes.

With the Watertown ASOS calling clear skies, we returned for an uneventful landing. The ramp was crowded with a large jet, a King Air (that landed immediately before we did), and a Pilatus turbo-prop. I had no idea where we could park without being in someone elses' way. Fortunately, the line crew called us on UNICOM and directed us to park nose to nose with the Pilatus. We took delivery of our wheels from Rent-A-Wreck and arrived in Alexandria Bay in time to buy tickets and step directly onto the 11:00 shuttle to Heart Island.


  1. Great site. I grew up on Fox Island back in the 1950's through about 1968 when I left the nest.