August 2012

Thursday -- August 2, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.1     Water Temperature: 85

It was ten years ago today when I first drove my van down the tow path and unloaded my mattresses onto the bare floors on Sycamore Island. I'm not surprised that I'm still here but it is surprising that it's already been ten years.

There are three great egrets hanging around the Island. Usually one can be seen at the foot of Rupperts Island or high in a tree further upstream, but they always head to the same spot in Virginia once the sun goes behind the trees. It just so happens that that is the time when I take my swim and it is so cool to watch this elegant bird fly by at eye level while I'm in the water.

The wren are flitting about in little family packs. My sense is that the young offspring pal around together for the first few weeks out of the nest. Yesterday I watched them all take little dirt baths in the dry dust under the work shed, so cute.

The jewel weed is close to six feet high now and has created a kind of lower canopy on the Island. The chickadees seem to enjoy the shade of these seasonal "trees" and will jump from one to the other picking off small insects.

Wednesday -- August 8, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 2.94     Water Temperature: 87

There is a Club meeting tonight on the Island. Come down early and join us for a little pre-meeting picnic!

The hickory nuts are ripe and falling from the trees. You might want to wear a hardhat if you're sitting on the deck. Those nuts fall pretty hard but it's cool to be in the Clubhouse and hear them hit the roof and roll into the gutter or bounce off of the deck.

The squirrels have noticed the ripe nuts too and there are at least two new squirrels on the Island. My guess is that they swam here and yesterday, as if to confirm my theory, there was a squirrel out on the swimming dock! I was on the Captains float downstream when I spied the critter up[ there, lounging under the slide. I decided that this was my chance to see just how aquatic these squirrels are. If I could get over there and block the ramp to the shore, the squirrel would be force to swim to safety and I would be able to witness the swimming squirrel. My plan was working, and I was up on the ramp before the little guy noticed me. There we were, face to face, me on one end of the ramp and the squirrel at the other. Then, like in a game of chicken, we ran toward each other. I was a little scared as I thought of what a squirrel bite might feel like, when suddenly the squirrel made a giant leap over the water and landed dry on the shore. Before I knew it it was looking at me from up in a tree. Too bad, I was hoping to watch it go for a swim.

I've been finding a lot of hawk feathers out on the field lately and for two mornings now I've seen a red shouldered hawk on the Island. The first time it was calmly perched on the blue bird house, right at eye level. The second time I saw it, I walked out to see it glide just above the volleyball net and land on the ground near the clubhouse. Then I watched as it took its prey to it's perch on the blue bird house. I thought maybe the hawk had caught a small rodent but it looked like it was eating a large insect, probably a cicada. It is really breath-taking to see these large, wild birds in action, those squirrels better watch out.

Don't forget, I'm leaving next week for my second annual kayak down the Potomac.

Check out the following links and follow me on the interweb.

And the Donation Page at

Thursday -- August 16, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.00     Water Temperature: 83

Hi, Mary Kearney here, substitute caretaker, at your service for the next eight days, as Joe Hage and Whit Overstreet undertake their second annual Potomac Riverkeeper Island-to-Island kayak trek in support of a clean and accessible river for all. Their real-time Twitter updates have been really exciting! It's fun to watch their progress hour-by-hour down the Potomac. You can also see their daily photo albums on Facebook, and follow the detailed itinerary on their blog.

The adventure began Wednesday morning, August 15, as Joe and Whit set out on the first leg of their journey from Sycamore Island to Fletchers Cove. This is a short but dramatic passage down Little Falls, a challenging Class III/IV rapid. It marks the river's steep drop down the fall line from the non-tidal Piedmont into the tidal coastal plain. I watched from Chain Bridge as the guys totally aced Little Falls in open canoes, escorted by Olympic paddler Davey Hearn. Joe went left, Whit went right, and both emerged shiny side up, with big smiles all around.

Then at 8 AM today, August 16, Joe and Whit swapped their whitewater canoes for sea kayaks to shove off from Fletchers on the falling tide. The tide, plus a tailwind, plus a lot of hard work, carried them eighteen-plus miles to their first overnight stop at Hard Bargain Farm in Accokeek MD, with many cool sights along the way. Tomorrow's itinerary: 16.5 miles to General Smallwood State Park in Marbury, MD, near the town of Indian Head.

Here on the island there are several families and groups of young people visiting today. It's my first day as substitute caretaker, and it's so much fun to see folks enjoying their August outdoors in DC. August is awesome here! There's no one around, the air and the water are cooling off, and it's starting to smell just a little bit like fall.

On the main path from the boardwalk to the captain's float, there are some deep bore holes that look like they were made by a drill. Cicadas? I'm sure that Joe would know what they are.

Friday -- August 17, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 2.95     Water Temperature: 84

Joe and Whit arrived safely at General Smallwood State Park near Indian Head MD this afternoon. They were able to set up camp before the rainstorm. Their daily schedule is pretty much the opposite of last year, when they made camp after dark most nights. This year they're getting up very early to travel with the tides, reaching their daily destination by mid-afternoon. The guys are in good spirits and looking forward to tomorrow's adventure.

The late summer wildflowers are blooming in profusion here. So far I've noticed mistflower (wild ageratum) near the captain's float, some wild phlox near the swim dock, and goldenrod up the path toward Ruppert's. There are lots of sunflowers, throughworts, and jumpseed (Virginia knotweed) all around the island. The elephants-ear and beefsteak-mint are just starting to bloom. Along the shore there are halberd-leaved rose mallows, New York ironweed, and the beautiful but poisonous jimsonweed. It's interesting that there's a kind of natural lawn area, manicured-looking and springy underfoot, all around the downstream edge of the island. I asked Joe if he mowed down there, and he said no, it just happened naturally.

Saturday -- August 18, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 2.95     Water Temperature: 83

Joe and Whit paddled over 18 miles down the Maryland shore today, from Mattawoman Creek to Clifton Beach near Nanjemoy. This is a remote and beautiful part of Maryland. Along the way they passed the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay (, a World War I ship graveyard that's evolved into a lovely manmade reef. At Clifton Beach, the guys made their first crossing of the day to Aquia Landing Park in Stafford VA, where they set up camp. Aquia Landing, known locally as Aqua-Po, was a notorious Virginia slave trade portal that later became a stop on the Underground Railroad. The guys made friends with a park ranger and some local fishermen before turning in for the night.

Like a lot of folks, I don't really "do" Twitter, but it's been fun to follow their updates in real time. Whit is posting photos so often that it's almost like being there! You can see their Twitter feed here without joining or signing up.

Here on the island, has anyone noticed the kudzu-like vine that seems to be taking over the area upriver of the ferry dock? It's bur-cucumber, a native vine that grows up to 25 feet long. Because it's an annual, it might or might not recur every year. There's a lot of it down by the treehouse too. Joe's been battling it, but obviously it knows he's been gone for a few days.

Sunday -- August 19, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.10     Water Temperature: 80

The great Island-to-Island adventure got a little more adventurous today. Joe and Whit set off from Aqua-Po in Stafford VA in a pink-orange dawn. They crossed to the Maryland side near Port Tobacco MD, then cruised down past Nanjemoy Creek. Coming up was their longest crossing yet, a straight line across to Mathias Point VA and back to MD, in order to cut the corner of a big bend in the river. As they set out to cross, a light drizzle turned into a full-blown squall, with heavy rain and big seas. The guys made it over safely -- just as the rain stopped. Luckily they fetched up at Capt. Billy's Crab House in Popes Creek MD for some well-earned refueling. A quick trip down to Aqualand Marina in Newburg MD, hard by the 301 bridge, and they were in for the night. It was their longest day so far at 24 miles. They were happy to see there was a clothes dryer at the campsite.

Quote of the day from Joe: "It's reassuring to see the river grass pointing the same way you're going."

It was a rainy but busy day here at the island. The light on the river is beautiful under a cloud cover and even in the rain. There's no bad weather, just bad gear, right?

The red-shouldered hawk is back hunting in the fields today. I was able to get really close to it as it sat on a fallen log near the swim dock.

Monday -- August 20, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.28     Water Temperature: 79

I made a custom Google map showing Joe and Whit's progress down the river each day. I was having a hard time visualizing their journey until I actually mapped it. I can't believe how much ground (or water) they can cover in such a short time!

The guys said farewell to Maryland for a few days as they headed across to Colonial Beach for a long paddle down the Northern Neck of Virginia. After passing Wakefield State Park and the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, they wrapped up another rainy day at the spectacular cliffs of Westmoreland State Park in Montross VA. The helpful park manager gave them special permission to camp on the beach. It saved them a long, long carry up the hundred-foot staircase over the cliffs.

On the boardwalk today was the biggest caterpillar I've ever seen. It was almost six inches long and as fat as a thumb. It was also bright green, with big black eyes and long bright orange horns. I did wonder whether isolation was starting to cause me hallucinations, but I finally identified the creature. It's called a hickory horned devil, Citheronia regalis, and it turns into a moth called the royal walnut moth. The moth is a beautiful striped orange -- not green -- and very, very large. It feeds on hickory and walnut trees. Keep an eye out for the caterpillars. There are probably more than one, and they are an amazing sight to behold.

Tuesday -- August 21, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.25     Water Temperature: 78

Today's relatively short (!) paddle of 17 miles took Joe and Whit from Westmoreland State Park in Montross VA to Coles Point in Hague VA, past the stunning Horsehead, Stratford, and Nomini Cliffs that rim the Northern Neck. As Joe put it, this area is like the land before time, with the bluffs towering hundreds of feet over dawn-fogged marshes, and a dozen bald eagles circling overhead at first light. The Miocene-era cliffs are composed of layers of fossils that are between 10 and 50 million years old, before the Chesapeake Bay was even formed. Geologists call this area the "windshield wiper." Erosion pushes away the bluff faces in huge crumbling sheets, exposing new layers of long-extinct marine creatures that have never been seen before.

It was a lively Tuesday on the island. There were lots of mom-and-kid groups during the day, plus a large cheerful party this evening. Kids are great at running the ferry. We might have set some new speed records with all those young arms pulling us along. Thanks guys!

Wednesday -- August 22, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.18     Water Temperature: 79

Looking for an easy, scenic day trip this weekend, before the school year starts for kids and grownups alike? Come one come all, to the Potomac Riverkeeper Island-to-Island afterparty on Saturday, August 25, 12 noon to 6 PM, at the historic Jefferson Islands Club on the lower Potomac in southern MD. It's an easy 90-minute drive from DC. All the cool people will be there, including your favorite Sycamore Islanders, to celebrate Joe and Whit's completion of their epic 150-mile paddle from Sycamore Island to the Chesapeake Bay, in support of a clean Potomac for all. A modest $25 donation per person. Tickets available online here. General information about the event here. Last-minute attendees welcome. Motor launch transportation provided to and from the island. A few overnight rooms are still available. AND ... the icing on the cake ... live music from Col. Josh and the Honky-Tonk Heroes, with Sycamore Island's own Joe Hage on drums. Hope to see you there!

Meanwhile, down on the Northern Neck, Joe and Whit have settled into slow, steady "waterman time" for the last stretch of their journey down the lower Potomac. Today's paddle took them 16 miles from Coles Point in Hague VA to the Coan River Marina in Lottsburg VA. As Whit says, the further they travel, the friendlier people get ... and they've been friendly the whole way along. The Coan River Marina owner actually offered the guys the use of his car for reprovisioning. They're now happily ensconced in a campsite with fresh food and a grill, preparing to rise before dawn for the next-to-last leg of an amazing and educational trip.

Thursday -- August 23, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.15     Water Temperature: 80

Joe and Whit made it all the way to Smith Point VA today -- the very southernmost tip of the Potomac, where the Nation's River meets the Chesapeake Bay. It's hard to believe they've been on the water for eight days straight, paddling seven hours a day or more. Today was especially challenging with a crosswind all the way down. They've now traversed the entire tidal Potomac. Wow. Congrats guys!

For those of you who've been missing the voice of Joe, there's a terrific interview with the man himself on the Potomac Riverkeeper blog. Check it out, it's pure Joe Hage.

Here on the island today, there were two pileated woodpeckers play-fighting in the maple trees overhanging the deck. I also saw a beaver swimming in the channel at dusk, to and from the big hole on the bank near the ferry landing.

This week I've had the opportunity to observe the many varieties of nettle-like plants that are in full bloom on the island right now. For better or worse, there's a healthy biodiversity of nettles here! The true stinging varieties include the original stinging nettle, tall nettle, and alternate-leaved wood nettle. Their non-stinging relatives include clearweed, false nettle, and lots of three-seeded mercury. (A shout-out here to my son Kevin, who fell hard into a patch of nettles on the towpath when he was a small child. He had his stings soothed with jewelweed, the nettle antidote, but it hurt quite a lot. I'm proud to say that despite this and other early traumas, he's gone forth into adulthood to become a skilled outdoor educator and wilderness guide.)

Friday -- August 24, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.12     Water Temperature: 81

Island-to-Island has landed! Joe and Whit traversed the mouth of the Potomac today to land safely at Point Lookout MD. Congratulations guys!

I'd like to say a special thank-you to all the members who've made my time here as substitute caretaker a wonderful experience. Everyone's been extra friendly and helpful. It's truly been a pleasure to be of service to such a cool community of people.

Wednesday -- August 29, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.12     Water Temperature: 81

Well, I'm back on the Island and it's nice to be home. It's great to be back at this relatively narrow part of the river and to be free of the tidal fluctuations of it's lower reaches. Don't get me wrong, I had a fabulous trip and it was amazing to be at Smith point, the Virginia side of the river mouth. But let me add that I don't think I'll be doing that 14 mile (4.5 hour) crossing from Smith point to Point Lookout every week.

It's great to be back but the caretakers work is never done. It's time to change the water filters, fix the pulley on the ferry, cut the grass, clear the trails, put up the new zip line, etc. etc.

I want to send a very special Thank-You to Mary Kearney for watching the Island while I was away! She had to have been the most conscientious Substitute that I've ever had. Not only is the place clean and organized but she also spent many hours updating the log and keeping everyone tuned into my trip down the river. Thanks Mary!

I'm sorry to have missed the Wild Flower Walk on Sunday and I'm looking forward to hearing how it went that day in the rain.

Friday -- August 31, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.10     Water Temperature: 81

Don't forget! Annual Sycamore Island Regatta on Monday 1:30-6:00! See you there!

Also, be sure to come to the Island for the September meeting. The meeting starts at 8:00 but we'll have a little picnic before hand and at 7:00 Whit Overstreet and myself will be giving a slide show and talking about our Kayak trip to the Chesapeake bay!