Notes from the Island
April 1993


Holly and I are ready for the sun to shine and the river level to drop. We're looking forward to the grass and the flowers and we're tired of the rain and snow and mud. Not to mention the diesel fuel.

It had been a quiet winter--mild weather with very few visitors. So when my friend and former caretaker Peter Day came to Washington over Christmas and broke his leg in two places, I offered to help him drive his truck back to Cape Cod when he was ready.

One overcast Wednesday morning in early March, Peter and I started north. Holly was home recovering from the flu and she had offered to cover for me, but neither of us expected any members to come down.

That night rain poured throughout the watershed and the next morning Holly received a phone call from the National Weather Service predicting that the river would reach twelve to thirteen feet by Saturday. It would be the highest flood in the five years we've been here.

Meanwhile, I was walking along the beach in Massachusetts blissfully unaware of what was happening and Holly was unable get through to me by phone. Thursday night I called Holly to say hi and she informed me of the situation.

The next morning John Matthews rushed down and released the rope from the ferry landing on the Maryland shore. Holly evacuated the Island and Tryon came down to pull canoes out of the bottom two racks and to prop up the ferry's safety cable. I flew back from Boston in a snowstorm and arrived as the water was rising into the canoe shed. I spent a couple of hours unlocking canoes and hauling them out of the racks.

The damage seems minimal. The river eroded the Island in some places and deposited three to four inches of silt in others. The large box elder in our front yard, which had fallen last year, swiveled down and blocked the path of the ferry. When the water dropped, the ferry came to rest in the tree, but David Lyles, Steve Jones, Donna Messersmith and I pried it off into the water. And then John Matthews, Jack Colwell and I helped John Stapko cut up the log.

In a freak accident a log or a tree floating downriver caught on the ferry safety cable several feet above the water surface and is still there. We have attached ropes to it and have attempted to pull it one way or another with come-alongs, but nothing seems to budge it. John Stapko is talking about cutting it with a chainsaw when the river drops and John Matthews is talking about loosening the cable until the tree falls off.

Then the big snowstorm hit. The trees and the river were beautiful and we enjoyed cross country skiing on the towpath, but when the snow began to melt and it rained again, the river rose back into the canoe shed. This time we only had to remove one rack of boats.

The combination of snow melt and intermittent rain has kept the river level between eight and nine feet for the better part of the month, with no relief in sight.

Two days ago we woke up and heard about the oil spill on the morning news. We wondered if it had happened upstream of us and as soon as we opened our door we knew. The diesel fumes were overpowering down here for about 24 hours and you could see the rainbow colored oil slick across the surface of the river. Most of it has passed but some has caught in eddies and backwaters.

Several members called concerned about the island, the wildlife and us. Many of the waterbirds disappeared for a day or two and I think the seagulls left for the season, but this morning I saw mallards, wood ducks, Canada geese, a cormorant and a blue heron. I even saw some beavers huddling under a log on Rupperts now that their lodge is washed out, but I haven't seen any animals or birds who were dead or obviously ill.

With all the excitement I'm surprised to see that Spring is actually arriving. We spotted a pair of hooded mergansers in the slough--the first we've seen here. And, the other day, I saw the Easter bunny, or a close relative, who apparently came to the island courtesy of the flood. The spring beauties, red dead nettle and saxifrage are blooming on the trail coming down the hill. Here on the Island the bluebells and trout lilies are poking up out of the mud and should be flowering by the time of the Workfest. So bring boots, gloves and a potluck dish. There will be plenty of work for everyone.

-- Peter Jones, Sycamore Island Caretaker