For three days last week in a tiny corner of our deeply flawed and chaotic world, everything was perfect. That corner was Clayton, N.Y., the site of the 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run, now in its fourth year after two years of back-to-back cancellations in 2020 and 2021. The mood among the 85 high-performance powerboat owners—more than 100 boats had been registered but last-minute attrition took its toll—and their guests was celebratory.
But with a pervasive tone of gratitude.
From its host waterway to its incredible hardware, everything about the 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run is impressive. Photos by Pete Boden copyright Shoot 2 Thrill Pix.
In short, the event felt more like a family reunion than a poker-run weekend in one of the most inspiring locations in the United States. And by inspiring, I mean the place leaves you scheming of how to come up with enough dough to buy an island home in the middle of the St. Lawrence River.
“It’s just such an incredible event,” said Devin Wozencraft of Southern California, a three-time 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run participant. “The scenery is fantastic, the people are wonderful and the cause—is fantastic.
“It was so good,” added the owner of Wozencraft Insurance, an event sponsor. “It’s one of my favorite events all year.”
So taken with the 1,000 Islands area is Wozencraft that he rented a house there for the week. The high-performance marine insurance man was joined by his St. Louis-based Lake of the Ozarks representative Scott Kottmann. Experiencing the event for the first time, Kottmann brought a new MTI 390X catamaran he co-owns with his father, Greg.
For Kottmann, the highlight of the weekend was giving rides on Friday to children and their families in the Make-A-Wish of Central New York program, the event’s signature beneficiary in addition to the River Hospital Wellness program and other local organizations.
“That really put a smile on my face,” he said.
The winner of Friday’s stereo competition, New York’s Kelly O’Hara tackled the run—and gave Make-A-Wish rides in his 36-foot MTI.
Returning participants Randy Scism and Tom Stuart of MTI—an event sponsor based in Wentzville, Mo.—also brought two first-timers from MTI to the event, Taylor Scism and her boyfriend, Shaun Peters.
“The boating was spectacular,” said Taylor Scism, MTI’s client relations manager. “But the best part was watching the wish being granted and the money that was raised at the auction.”
Sales manager Tom Stuart was among the MTI team members who enjoyed the weekend.
This year’s 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run-backed Make-A-Wish recipient—No. 2,000 for the nonprofit charity’s Central New York chapter—was Natalie “The Brave” Gondek.
Her nickname suits her. At just five years old, she has been battling Lymphoblastic Leukemia and its nightmare of complications since she was two years old. And she just just completed her first full-year out of treatment.
Young Natalie Gondek wished for a camping trailer, more specifically a Barbie-themed camping trailer, for her and her family. And in front of a roaring crowd of 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run participants and sponsors from Aqua-Mania in nearby Alexandria, N.Y., to Mystic Powerboats of DeLand, Fla., that’s exactly what she received.
The auction that followed, which provides funding for granting next year’s wish and more, delivered its typical display of ludicrous generosity. As the festivities began, Peter Roberts, who co-owns Ontario, Canada-based Nor-Tech dealer Double R Performance with his brother, Raymond, strolled to my table and tapped my shoulder.
Last night’s auction raised significant funds while tugging at the heartstrings of everyone involved.
“Watch this,” he whispered. “We’re going to get this thing fired up.”
Then Roberts told the auctioneer that he and his brother were donating $10,000 with a challenge to the other participants to match it in $1,000 increments. But the crowd didn’t just match it. In less than a minute, $10,000 became $35,000.
A bit later, a carbon-fiber longboard skateboard from DCB Performance Boats of El Cajon, Calif., fetched $22,000. Having taken delivery of a DCB M37R Widebody catamaran in 2021, as well as a color-matched Nor-Tech Hi-Performance Boats 390 Sport center console, Josh and Jake Lalonde—the sons of organizing committee members Ken and Renee Lalonde—were not going to be out-bid.
“We had to have it because it matches the boat,” Renee Lalonde said, then laughed.
By this reporter’s very rough accounting, the auction raised more than $100,000.
A healthy fleet of high-performance catamarans, center consoles and V-bottoms took to the St Lawrence River yesterday for the poker run boasting blue skies all day and low-humidity temperatures that maxed out in the low-80s.
So overwhelmingly joyful and positive was the 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run experience that you could almost forget that it included a 120-plus-mile Saturday trek on the St. Lawrence River between the United States and Canada. It is arguably—but not by much—the prettiest waterway in the United States.
The run has no card stops. Cards are dealt and played before the post-event dinner and auction, which is an increasingly popular trend in poker runs.
But card play was the last thing on anyone’s mind, especially when it came to the 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run organizing team’s Alexandra Buduson, Bobby Cantwell, the Lalondes, Jeff Morgan, Court Rutherford and their small army of volunteers. After a two-year hiatus, they knew the event needed to be a hit. And that’s what they delivered.
Diane Kuppermann, the director and chief executive officer of Make-A-Wish of Central New York, put it perfectly. “Every detail of this wonderful event was planned to the nines,” she said while introducing Natalie “The Brave” Gondek.
“The good news is the 53 chapters of Make-A-Wish have granted 9,000 wishes so far this year,” she added. “But we still have another 27,000 wishes to grant.”
“It was incredibly important to come back strong this year,” said Morgan, one of the event’s founders. “It means a lot to Make-A-Wish of Central New York. It means a lot to this community.”
The author (center) enjoyed a nightcap with the Mystic Powerboats team of John and Robin Cosker (right) and Greg and Sherry Weber (left) and high-performance marine insurance man Devin Wozencraft at the 1,000 Islands Harbor Hotel, the host venue for the weekend.
And like the performance-boat enthusiasts who flocked to it this weekend, Clayton is a true community.
“The easiest way to describe Clayton is as a Norman Rockwell painting,” said Jeremy Cohen of event sponsor Seabound Yachts, who lives there full time with his wife, Erica, and their two children. “The people who live here have huge hearts. It’s exciting to have such an incredible event that gives back so much to our local community.”
Added 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run first-timer Jack Gladke of New York, who ran his Donzi Marine 38 ZRC in the event, “I’ve run the St Lawrence many times but this is my first time at this event. I don’t think we’ll ever miss it again.”
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