Notes from the Island
February 1996


What a month. I should have been taking notes.

First, we had the blizzard. The Island was beautiful, buried in two feet of snow. Holly and I went cross country skiing up and down the towpath and through Mohican Hills. One day we surprised a herd of deer between Brookmont and the Dalecarlia Reservoir. On another afternoon we stopped and watched a beaver as it popped up out of a hole in the ice in the canal.

The snow falling into the river turned to slush which backed up in the slough and then froze. Even though the canal and the rest of the Potomac remained open, we were able to walk across the ice to the Maryland shore.

Of course, all that snow in the mountains did make us feel a bit like Damocles and his sword. We ran into Joe O'Boyle in the grocery and he advised us to pack our bags. At first we felt fortunate. The temperature rose slowly. The snowmelt was moderate. The Potomac water levels rose bit by bit.

Then the temperature skyrocketed and it rained. By Friday morning the snow had melted and that afternoon the National Weather Service called to warn us that the Potomac would crest at a level of 12-13 feet on Sunday afternoon. Two years ago a similar flood rose into the second rack of canoes, about 3-4 vertical feet below the house. Holly and I calculated that we had two days to prepare.

The first complication was that the rising river was full of ice and for several hours impassable by canoe. Fortunately, John Matthews and Ken Fassler came down to saw through the chain holding the ferry rope, which I then hauled in from this side.

The river was rising more quickly than I expected, but I thought it might level out later. Holly and I talked about going to buy groceries in case we got stuck on the Island, but she said she would rather pull the first row of canoes out of the racks while it was still daylight. So that's what we did.

The river was still rising quickly and, at this point, I called the Weather service and asked if they had revised their forecast and they told me no. The river had risen four and a half feet in twelve hours and their prediction called for it to rise only three and half feet in the next thirty-six hours. After dinner I decided to pull the second row of canoes in the dark because I didn't want to wake up in the morning and have to muck around in ankle deep freezing water.

That night we went to bed thinking we'd get up the next morning, go shopping and rent videos . However, when we woke up the next day the river was already in the second canoe rack and I knew something was wrong. I called the Weather Service again and they said, "Oh, we were going to call you. We now predict the river to rise to 17-18 feet by Sunday morning." That would put it six to eighteen inches into the house.

For three hours Holly and I moved everything we had that was within three feet of the floor up to higher ground. We either carried it upstairs and put it on the pool table, stacked it on counters in the kitchen, put it on the bed or hauled it up to the new raised addition.

We went out to the lower tool shed and grabbed everything we thought was important and moved it up to the workshop on stilts or upstairs in the Clubhouse. I paddled out to the canoe shed to tie in the top rack of canoes. I figured I didn't have time to pull them all. Also, the water was about eighteen inches below the eaves and it was difficult to get in and out. I tied up three or four canoes, but had to stop because chunks of ice were caught and backing up in the trees and the shed, preventing me from paddling through the water.

By noon I was exhausted and running on adrenaline. The Potomac was a foot or two below the towpath. We stopped for lunch, took our overnight bags and then paddled across the now raging slough. A number of members, John Matthews, Ken Fassler, Betty Burchell, Al Brown, Mardy Burgess, Bill Eichbaum and others were waiting for us on the opposite shore. I was a little nervous about this crossing. Holly and I had never paddled in this kind of water before, but our CCA training served us well and we ferried across the current without even being swept downstream.

However, as we approached the shore I was a little dismayed to see that the C & O Canal was overflowing its banks and water was already flooding the towpath. Everyone was very helpful and carried our canoe and bags.

On Sunday morning we returned to watch the crest from the top of the hill. The Weather Service was now predicting 19 to 20 feet and we could see the river flowing through the house and lapping at the underside of the addition.

The Potomac dropped very quickly and Monday afternoon we canoed back to survey the damage. Although the water had come within inches of our bed, counters and addition, none of our belongings were damaged. There was one-half to one inch of mud everywhere, but that was about it.

The major damage was to the canoe shed. Three foot concrete block anchors were lifted right out of the ground and the consensus seems to be that the shed will have to be redesigned and rebuilt. We also lost the small tool shed, the outdoor shower (which is still floating at the lower end of the Island), and part of the walkway (some of which is also at the lower end). Five personal boats and two club canoes are gone.

All in all, we were pretty lucky. The Clubhouse, with both the addition and the deck, seems to have escaped damage. The floats are fine. The workshop on stilts didn't move. Neither did the Circle of Warmth.

Holly and I have spent the last week shoveling, hosing and vacuuming the mud out of our quarters. We now have power, phone and running water. I won't say things are back to normal, but we have moved back in.

David Winer, Greg Super, Warren Brown and Gerry Barton came down last Sunday to secure canoes and help out. Don't worry. There is lots of work for everybody to do around the Island, so I'm sure I'll be seeing some of you soon. However, the Club is closed until further notice and the Park Service has closed the towpath here indefinitely.

-- Peter Jones, Sycamore Island Caretaker