Notes from the Island
December 1997

What an amazing Workfest!! There were five pages of at least 101 people logged in at the ferry. Probably there were more, as the first two log sheets were lost and it was not possible to count the number of times a couple or family signed in on one line... a common occurrence. This is particularly incredible because as late as noon on the day before the weather forecast called for Saturday morning sleet. Surely many others planned to be elsewhere because of the weather. But there was no precipitation and the weather gradually improved as the day wore on.

The lower reaches of the Island were still soggy following the 10 foot flood of the weekend before, which had risen as far as into the canoe shed. But there is a special camaraderie in sloshing through the mud early on a cold, damp, gray morning... and those hardy souls that showed up early to do the heavy lifting of getting the floats out of the river deserve a special recognition. Their only reward is the shared distinction of knowing who they are and of that unique group humor that comes from shared hardship.

Again this time the carefully thought out task list became irrelevant as spontaneous initiative occurred everywhere, and thoughtful little tasks were accomplished all over by unsung Members, little touches that were not noticed by me until the next several days.

Because of the large number of people and great activity it is difficult to mention the individual efforts of very many folks, but it is hard to imagine the very serious, very crucial task of getting the various heavy floats up on land and battened down for winter without the supervision of our Captain, John Matthews. Our House Chair, Susan Garbini has a thankless task of cleaning the Clubhouse, and for the first several hours of the workfest it looked as though she might have to do it by herself with the help of only one other person, a walk-on and would-be Member named Diane. But special mention goes to Gerry Barton, to whom I merely mentioned that I did not know what I would do about the re-bricking of the men's locker room because the designated supervisor was sidelined with bronchitis. When I breezed through the screen porch 45 minutes later on my way to another task, a crack team had been assembled and heavy construction was underway. I did not appreciate what a serious engineering job this was until later when I realized that all those people getting on the ferry with white buckets were going to the towpath to collect stones for the sub strata of the men's locker room. Everyone is encouraged to view the professionalism of the finished project in an out of the way area everyone used to avoid.

This year instead of several groups raking several designated areas, there was one monster group that got going and kept doing. There must be some critical mass number of folks that makes for good repartee, because I noted several instances of non-rakers looking up from their tasks and commenting (jealously, I thought) that there seemed to be too much fun going on with that group for any actual raking to be getting done. Certainly the Island was raked clean and looked great when everyone left. When chow time came the clubhouse was crowded with folks chatting and chewing and seemingly having a good time and hopefully making new friends. George and Marcia delivered their standard superlative fete, and I was frankly astonished at how many potluck dishes made it to the Island. There was a feeling of community and accomplishment as everyone lined up to eat. And downright good cheer.

And finally, a word of appreciation to the late arrivals, as a surprisingly large number of folks showed up late in the afternoon after most everyone else had left. In Workfests to come you should all observe the dictum "better late than never." On this particular day the people I was gladdest to see were those who came late and contributed their fresh energy at a time that the rest of us were flagging. Cleaning up after the party is a worthy task... and while an enormous amount of work got done, I also thought it was a great party!

A couple of days later Tryon Wells was visiting for dinner and decided to stroll outside and mark a tree when he noticed a small shadow chase a large shadow up a tree. The small shadow turned out to be our own diminutive Madelyn. A flashlight was called for and, sure enough, the large shadow high in the tree turned out to be Rocky the raccoon. In fact, a much larger Rocky... now at least three times as large as Madelyn. As usual, Rocky did not seem to be too concerned about the presence of humans, and given his size and nonchalant attitude, it was left to the imagination to decide if his antics with Madelyn were fearful or playful. Still, next time you see that cute little black kitty meet you at the ferry, be mindful that she considers herself to be Queen of the Island and a much feared tigress... except in the presence of beaver or groups of more than three geese.

And speaking of beaver!!! One afternoon about 1500 hours, while inspecting the upper end of the Island, I was startled by a daylight sighting of the legendary and elusive monster bear/beaver reported by Peter Jones (but not really believed by this Caretaker until now.) I can only report how happy I was to see a beaver tail on so huge an animal, which could have easily weighed 80-90 pounds, and would not have believed it if I had not seen it. He was on the uppermost of the two small islands between Sycamore and the towpath. Fall has reduced the foliage so it was suddenly apparent that he had a den beneath a large fallen log with a recently revealed opening that showed much coming and going. He strolled out of the opening and into the water and although I waited a long time I never saw him surface again. The high water of the recent flood has rearranged but not removed the large fallen log, but any intrepid canoeist trying to verify whether there is still a den there should be very, very careful.

As mentioned before, the flood of 7-11 November crested at 10 feet at the Little Falls gauge which means it rose as high as to get into the canoe shed at one place. Incredibly enough, the work on the new system for tethering the canoes on the lawn had been completed just the week before. I can report that it worked wonderfully. It took less than a minute to attach the chain to the hickory tree and roll it out on the wheeled spool. All canoes now have the new ropes and clips, so they were easily attached to the chain when the bottom row of canoes was pulled out of the racks and up on the lawn. All this at night! And because of the great new labels designating each canoe by rack number and location, returning the canoes to the correct rack was easy. In fact, it was especially easy for the Caretaker because he waited a few days until the Workfest and got other strong backs to do it.

It should also be reported that the captain has constructed a new, permanent winter canoe dock to be used while the canoe float is beached. Those of you fanatical enough to disturb the Caretaker's winter hermitage will find it easy to put a canoe or kayak in without getting your feet wet... as long as the water level is 4 feet or below. The Captain has also supervised new and extensive modifications on the ferry rope and its attendant cabling system. This latter project is a good example of the unceasing improvements that are continuously instigated by the Captain and are seldom ever seen or noticed but are none the less of great importance... in this case to allow us to raise the ferry rope even higher in case of a flood, or to enable optimal cutting of the ferry rope if necessary.

One of the great treats of this past month was a call from Phil Jones alerting me to the fact that Venus, Mars, and Jupiter were lined up near the crescent moon along the plane of the ecliptic low in the Southwest sky. I was lucky to find a good vantage point at one of the new picnic tables. The sun had recently set and there was a peculiar quality to the light in the sky and in particular to the high clouds that were back lit with a soft glow. The formation of the clouds was such that they seemed to form the sides of some gigantic cosmic bowl sloping downward to the unseen sun below the horizon, and suddenly it seemed as though I were looking at Venus across an vast Greek amphitheater the size of the solar system. It was amazing how the size of the amphitheater stood out in proper perspective. There was Venus, a third of the way around the amphitheater at a lower level of seats, full in the face to the unseen sun at the bottom stage center. There was the moon, seated near to me in the amphitheater, its own face only a crescent as it faced away from me down the gravity bowl to the sun at center. The sun of course was at my feet, shielded by the earth, and if I looked straight up I would be looking past the higher rows of seats in the amphitheater and into the void. It was a moment of personal epiphany to suddenly realize the size and scale of the theatre and stage upon which I take up such a small space. Venus set, the clouds dispersed, the moment passed, but in the daylight I often visit that table and try to re-imagine the perspective of that vast amphitheater which is unseen but in which we all sit.

-- Doc Taliaferro, Sycamore Island Caretaker