Notes from the Island
June 1998


One night shortly before midnight raucous sounds came from the MD side up river near the rope swing area where the towpath widens. Especially attuned to human sounds as a result of the "Strange Encounter," we investigated and could see a large fire. Sneaking up to the top of the Island, we could look across and see many people partying. This was not in itself alarming, nor even the fire, as there are often people fishing at night and building small fires. But this was becoming a bonfire, and the sounds of large things being broken to feed it sent us back to quarters to call the Park Police. Again we snuck out to watch the drama play out across the water from the safety of darkness. After 20 minutes two large lights came down the trail... certainly they were not trying to sneak up on anybody. But the party goers were surprised none the less. Sharp voices rang out, followed by sounds of confusion and people scattering in the dark. By following the sounds we know that some escaped in the darkness.. We were surprised that there was so much effort to escape, and when it occurred to us that some could be illegal aliens that would go to any lengths to not be caught, even taking to the river (and God- forbid, adjacent Islands), we stayed at our post and on alert until it was all over.

The next night we finally talked. to a Sgt. Haus, a Park Police officer who had promised to find out about what had happened to the party with the bonfire that we had reported. We had been concerned that we had caused people to be arrested and had affected their lives with dire consequences. His report was that there were 35 to 40 fraternity types getting drunk around the fire. Normally they might try to ticket offenders, but faced with such a large and unruly crowd, the two officers had decided instead just to make them put out the fire and escort them out of the park. We discussed the parameters of when the Park Police would want to be called and my reluctance to report the small fires of fishermen. He said that was fine, that although technically it was illegal (we all remember Smokey the Bear) it was a growing problem, especially down river, and he simply did not have the manpower to chase every report. What was interesting was his description of the problem of the fishermen taking fish out of season (striped bass were mentioned), and of people using illegal cast nets and possibly depleting fish stocks. He was also scornful of the mess left along the river banks, describing abandoned line and tackle, cans and garbage from meals brought or prepared over the fires, and even discarded dirty diapers.

One mid month Tuesday John Matthews and his son brought down another load of wood and building supplies, this time to construct a new swimming float. The metal float that we have used for the last many years has been unpopular because it is very high and difficult to get onto, because the metal gets scorching in the heat and too hot to sit on, and because a family of water snakes think it is their very private apartment house. The next day Tryon Wells came down to begin construction. Luckily for him, Alex McCoy came down to canoe with friends Shulz and Justin and ended up "volunteering" to help. Consequently, the metal float was pulled out and cannibalized for its floatation (no easy task that) and the wooden frame construction completed. The new and more people friendly swimming float was completed and towed into place by Tryon, Renee Dunham, Jane and David Winer. The only problem is that the geese think it was made for them, and that the purpose of all human swimmers is to clean the previous day's goose poop. We can only hope that they will all leave again around the end of June after moulting. I am told that the old metal float was found during high water by legendary Caretaker Ken Fassler.

Sarah Davis and Barbara Neal (a botanist and a landscape designer) had promised to find out for me just how poisonous marsh hemlock is. You will recall that this is what Socrates' potion was made from, and last year someone had expressed concern that it be eradicated from the Island lest little children eat it inadvertently. This was easily done as there were only about 20 of the plants on the island. To me it is a very attractive plant, like a gigantic Queen Anne's lace. But they report that all parts are listed as poisonous, so I started to take them down and learned that I should not have waited so long. No easy task! These are huge plants, several hundred of them around the Island, and this year threatened to cover the lower end of the lawn. But this also brings up the question of just what is the Club's policy regarding landscaping. On one hand there are voices that say the Island should be maintained as close to its natural way as possible -- no importation of cultivated flowers, for instance. On the other, is my dedicated war of extermination of nettle and poison ivy... and I suppose now... marsh hemlock. Should some or all of the above be retained for teaching purposes, to be pointed out on the Caretaker's Tour so popular with children's groups. The Caretaker would appreciate guidance and suggestions on this.

One reason this is now an issue with the Caretaker is because of a visit to Roosevelt Island across from Georgetown. It was one of those high water days during which the Island was closed, and on a return trip from the airport with nowhere to have to be it seemed silly to pass up the sign to the Teddy Roosevelt Memorial one more time. Especially considering that this was also a Potomac Island near Sycamore. What better place to see what the Park Service was doing in circumstances similar to ours.. but what a disappointment!! The Island looked shabby and uncared for. I saw only 12 people the entire hour I was there, which might make one consider it an ideal place for solitude, except much of the island was unusable. Several of the "designated" trails were impassable because of the poison ivy that overlay great swaths of the island. Anyone who wants to know what will happen if the use of herbicide on Sycamore is banned should go and see. Clearly there were parts of the Island that had not been visited by Rangers since last year... if then. There was in fact no Ranger or Park Service employee on duty at the memorial... which was itself massive and could have been impressive but was not because of the neglected and uncared for appearance. It was sad. Great fountains were in evidence to rival the Franklin Roosevelt Manorial... but were obviously broken. Anyone who wants to know what will happen if the use of herbicide on Sycamore is banned should go and see. There has been far more poison ivy on Sycamore than last year. Perhaps even more alarming is the appearance of kudzu, which lay around on the ground mostly unnoticed last year but this year threatened to choke to death at least a half dozen paw paw trees during the most recent three week period that the upper end was unworkable because of the high water.

The dredging of the canal has now moved, up the canal past the Island landing. It looks like they have done a good job. The Park Service employees working on it say that the goal is to re-water the canal on July 4th. It is impressive that they have not only dredged and sculpted the river side of the canal, but have planted grass on the steep slope and covered it with hay. On one hand the floods of 1996 seem a distant memory, the construction on the towpath and canal hardly seem connected to them. However, if one remembers what the island looked like just last year at this time, and that May is the one year anniversary date for the completion of the new canoe shed, one can only wonder what a difference a year can make... looking at the Island now it is hard to imagine how different and torn up it looked last year.

The first cup of coffee is usually taken on the bench under the mulberry tree just off the walkway and screen porch. One morning things were as usual... the secretly trained lawn geese were grazing and pushing back the day the Caretaker would actually have to crank up the lawn mower. The nesting goose in the root ball of the fallen sycamore was in her usual place, head just barely sticking up. Perhaps it was a little strange to see her mate on top of the root ball where he could only get to by flying... and sort of acting like a rooster on a barn roof. But mostly it was one of those "God's in his heaven and all's right on earth" sort of scenes. Suddenly, the nesting goose stood up and there was a great movement of small fluff balls. The male strutted and shook out his wings. They were here at last!!! This was on 14 May. I later went back and looked at the log to note that the first time this pair was reported sitting in the sycamore was on 16 April, but they were actually there a few days prior. It seemed like forever that we had been waiting. After about ten minutes of nudging and honking, Goslings and Mom either walked or tumbled down the far side of the root ball. Papa goose remained as sentinel for a few minutes while he figured out he could not walk down from his higher perch but had to fly. But when he did and everyone had disappeared out of sight behind the root ball, I jumped up and dashed to the nest. Broken shell was everywhere. I probed the nest with a stick to see how deep the layer of down was, as there were six goslings and those were big eggs and I did not see how I could have not seen them when I had observed the nest from nearby on those few times she had been off of it. But the nest seemed only about an inch deep, so now I am curious just how much time of her sitting was actually on eggs. I walked around the root ball just as they were all approaching the water. Mama waded right in, and four gosling jumped right in behind her without a thought. Two others stopped at the waters edge and sort of looked down at it first, but only for a second. Soon it was just another goose family in the water... but this definitely had to be the first time the goslings were out of the nest because there is no way they could ever get back up the steep incline of the root ball. And in fact the nest was abandoned entirely. So want to feel lucky some time... come on down!! Just have a seat, wait awhile, and keep your eyes open. This is a busy place and there is too much happening on this Island for patience to not be rewarded.

As one is riding the ferry over to the Island one can look up river and see a medium sized maple jutting out at an angle over the water. It is now primarily noticeable because it has had its bark pretty well stripped and eaten by the huge beaver. Some weeks ago I was making my rounds in the late afternoon. The ground was so saturated and silent that I almost walked into him before I noticed. I mean... almost literally... as in 25 feet away. He did not notice me... or at least did not care... and sat on top of the jutting tree trunk, totally out of the water, with his back to me. It was certainly THE HUGE BEAVER because that is the first thing one notices about him. He clearly does not have to worry about any other living thing not carrying a howitzer and knows it. He actually strips off large pieces of bark and then holds them in his paw as he sits up and eats, and while chewing there is not much movement to detect him by. It was another lesson on how often we look but not see, for I am lucky to have noticed him at all, and can only wonder how often I have walked right by him on other occasions without seeing him as he watched me... himself chewing contentedly away.

-- Doc Taliaferro, Sycamore Island Caretaker