Notes from the Island
January 1997


December has been a month of settling in to our new home while coping with continuing high water levels. For the first three weeks we used the canoe more to get to the towpath than the ferry. I had scoffed inwardly when Peter mentioned that one could use the ferry when the water was above 6 feet at Little Falls, but that it was more trouble than it was worth. But of course, now we know better. When the water level rises above the dock steps on the Island (5.5 feet), the current can be too strong to hold the ferry rope and it is too difficult to get from the ferry to the wooden walkway without getting your feet wet. During this period we had three separate high water crests of approximately 7, 10, and 9 feet. It is possible to walk the Island and see the high water lines of the last two crests as marked by the leaf and debris lines.

This month of high water has been a continuing learning experience and adventure... how to get the first row of canoes out of the racks... familiarity with canoe commuting... learning to disbelieve the NOAA forecasts of "tomorrow's expected levels at Little Falls"... and trying to learn the hundreds of little things that are insignificant when the water is low but must be paid attention to when the water is high. One Sunday morning, while taking the Caretaker's Wife across to worship in her Sunday best, she tried to exit the canoe at a place where we did not appreciate how steep and how muddy and how slippery it actually was. She clung to tree roots for several minutes while waist deep in the cold river before the Caretaker could maneuver in the fast water to retrieve her. Two days later, while making late night rounds, the Caretaker noticed that despite his best efforts, the ferry had come to rest on one of the dock supports in the receding waters. Thirty minutes of struggling later, a massive shove managed to push the ferry back into the cold river, the Caretaker tumbling after. The Caretaker's Wife alternated between cries of concern and muffled laughter regarding the "shared experience." Yet it is fortunate that we have had these learning experiences early in our tenure. Never again will we exit a canoe thoughtlessly, and always we will approach the river with a "heads up" attitude.

As to the moving in... after many trips down the path one develops a different perspective on all things material... especially mass and weight. Most furniture came down the path over many days, unassembled and in heavy flat boxes. The exception was the sofa bed and chairs from Hecht's, which came down the towpath on Christmas Eve from Lock 10 by van in a heroic trip. I say heroic because that was how I felt when I noticed that everyone else inside the van seemed unconcerned about not having a seat belt on as we slid through some of the narrower parts of the muddy towpath. In this case heroic meant not sacrificing major macho points and loss of face by buckling up, as any sensible person would have. My major Christmas Eve joy was not having to take the door frame off to get the sofa/bed in... especially since a niece arrived only a couple of hours later expecting to sleep on it. A minor Christmas Eve joy was watching Bell Atlantic string a new telephone wire across to the Island. For those of you interested in such arcania, they figured it took almost 1400 feet of line strung on 5 poles to get connected. And all for free because telephone service is regulated. However, these statistics dimmed my hopes for a successful negotiation with Montgomery Cable.

For the most part we have been selfishly centered on setting up house, buying a car, establishing new relations with banks and other creditors, and generally coping with the details of moving from one country to another and establishing residence. As a consequence, we have been inwardly focused on housekeeping and have not spent the time I would have liked becoming acquainted with our new neighbors on and around the Island. The exception here is the birds. Discovering the Wild Bird Center on MacArthur, we plopped down plastic and walked out with suet, feed, and two new bird feeders to add to the two bequeathed us by Peter and Holly. The results have been truly amazing. First came the chickadees, then the tufted titmice. A flock of finches now fight over the thistle feeder, and it was after several days consultation with Tory Peterson's book before we figured out they were goldfinches in their winter drab, without their usual color. Cardinals and European starlings are always about, but I have not actually seen one at a feeder. There is a lone white breasted nuthatch. But by far the most exciting daily show is put on by the woodpeckers. Especially the red-bellied woodpecker, my favorite... a large and beautifully colored bird, the largest to regularly visit the feeders. Both the downy and hairy woodpeckers also visit not only the suet but the nut feeders.

In mid-December I attended a board meeting of the Glen Echo Volunteer Fire department to discuss cooperation in simulating a medical response or river rescue training exercise. While there, a member recounted to me with excitement that one of his thrilling events of growing up around here was once seeing a pileated woodpecker on the towpath. Imagine my excitement when, looking up suddenly two days later, I saw one on the feeder, not 10 feet away from me. These are really large birds, almost 2 feet long. Framed in the window behind him were a red-bellied and a downy, resting on a tree trunk nearby, waiting for him to leave. Unlike the other woodpeckers, I did not see him actually feed from the feeder although he was there for 10 minutes, and perhaps he was only establishing dominance with his size and presence. He was accompanied by a female, and together they spent all morning on the Island, inspecting most every tree in turn, while I scurried from window to window with my binoculars, scarcely believing my luck. I saw the male make a hole the size of a coffee can in a tree trunk in about 5 minutes, large chips flying as though an ax were put to it. I will watch it to see if it becomes the home of a smaller bird.

One morning we looked out to see a large broad tailed hawk on the ground where the canoe float goes, his back to the water and facing off 4 crows. It certainly looked like a Mexican stand-off. How could they have come to that position? At first we worried that he was hurt, but over about 30 minutes the crows left one by one, and finally he flew off without incident. Some weeks before Peter had pointed out a single crow diving upon and "harrying" an osprey, and had related that sometimes the crows would gang up on larger birds. When the story of the hawk was reported to Scott at the Wild Bird Center, he suggested the same probable scenario, that the crows had forced the hawk down.

I have grown quite fond of the visibility afforded by the naked trees. It is possible to see from great distances the red streak of a cardinal or woodpecker and the antics of the squirrels as they try to reach the ends of the smallest branches to pluck the remaining seed pods. I do not remember seeing so many on the Island (at least 5) and wonder if it is because they are in residence but not visible when the trees are clothed. In fact, my only memory is of many years ago while substituting for Peter one summer, when I heard the small bell on the rope, and looked up to see a squirrel running across the ferry rope to the towpath. I assumed then that they only commuted to the Island. Those of you with extensive experience and observation in this are hereby charged with advising me on such matters when you come down.

And now, I would like to plea for help in a survey. The Caretaker's Wife has been inquiring about the insect situation on the Island. Surely this should be a safe topic for winter? But no, numerous spiders and assorted small critters can be seen in the quarters every day. So I have decided to take note of the last day of an active insect sighting outdoors. Although we have had several hard frosts here (defined by frozen mud) I saw a large fly in the workshop on Christmas day, and three days later the Caretaker's Wife killed a large mosquito in self-defense. So look around your own worlds... and take note... 'cause I'll be askin ya when I see ya.

Now gentle readers, I know some of you have waited patiently for further information regarding the Huge Beaver in last month's dispatches. Although he has not actually been seen, two smallish (6 inch diameter) trees have been taken down near the workshop, and one of them drug entirely away. The other tree got caught in underbrush, and chewed on the spot. Last month I referred to a "herd" of beaver after seeing 8 of them swim past the Island, but I am convinced the pillage comes from the Huge Beaver only, as he intends to teach me that we bipeds are the true interlopers. I have tried to speak to the cats about their nocturnal duties, but they seem already savvy to the fact that the rodents on this Island are bigger than they are. Stay tuned.

Actually, a moment might be spared to introduce you to other family members who live on the Island, namely Madelyn (4) and Barney (5). Having grown up in a large apartment in Prague as their only world, moving to the Island has given them the first intimation that they are cats and not persons. Madelyn (small and black) was roaming the Island at will after the first week. Barney (large and white) has not recovered even yet from the trauma and goes outside reluctantly. All should be warned that they are both love sluts, and remember that of course they only speak Czech should you try to talk to them. Madelyn takes after Fred with her aggressive sense of adventure, and I have wondered if our Island neighbors think that Fred has shrunk.

Finally, I would like to beg your indulgence in future reports. You see, I purchased my Microsoft word in Eastern Europe, where the spell check comes in English. This is not the same as American!!! After much struggle, I conformed to English spelling so as not to waste considerable time using spell check. So if I appear occasionally illiterate, I have an excuse built in.

-- Doc Taliaferro, Sycamore Island Caretaker