Notes from the Island
March 2004


It has been a month of icy adventures. We saw the river freeze five inches thick and we enjoyed two weeks of boatless river crossings. One Saturday there was a party here and we all ventured onto the ice on the Virginia side of the Island. It was thrilling to see how far from the Island we could get, cautiously chopping holes in the ice every twenty feet or so. Alas, the warmer temperatures returned and the rain and melting snow caused the river to rise and rise quickly. I was curious to see how the high water would react with the tons and tons of thick ice everywhere. What was going to happen to the floats? When will it be unsafe to walk across the channel?

I woke up one Sunday pondering these questions and, as is my habit, I looked out at the river. Its liquid form was creeping under the ice and flooding the lower reaches of the Island. To my delight I then saw a pair of FOXES playing on and around the fallen Sycamore, right next to the boardwalk! The sun had just broken above the horizon and the trees were casting long shadows as I watched the frolicking silhouettes of the foxes chase each other through the snow. Were they trapped on the Island by the rising river? Why were they still out at daybreak, could they be a mating pair throwing caution to the wind? It does seem to be breeding time; just the other day I was investigating a very strange noise on the hillside above the bridge where I was embarrassed to find two raccoons mating high up in the crotch of a tree.

I made it safely off the Island that Sunday morning, I needed a canoe to reach the ferry that was still frozen in place, and then needed another canoe to pull myself over the partially frozen channel. Most of the channel was quite thick but where the current was strongest it was clear water for twenty feet. Jumping from the ice pack into the water and then back onto the ice was an exciting adventure but easily managed while holding the rope.

When I returned that afternoon the river had taken on a much different character. No longer was there flat ice with a channel of open water, but a gnarling, twisting, crunching jumble of huge ice blocks with whole trees mercilessly trapped in an onslaught of drifting ice. It was AMAZING! The Channel between the mainland and the Island had become dammed and everything coming down the river was slowly piling up in front of the towrope. Standing on the steps I watched as tons of frozen water and trees filled the entire slough. The buckling debris stood three feet above the surface of the water. Finally, with the slow deliberation of a river, the ice dam broke and this mini glacier began to move. My first hint that something was happening was when I heard the ferry bell ringing violently. The ferry looked like a mere toy as the ice passed authoritatively. The railing was crushed, the chain broken, and the pontoon dented as the ferry was slammed against the trees on the far shore. This massive ice flow, moving at four or five MPH, took the canoe float on a ride and dumped it two hundred feet from its moorings. The most humbling event was what happened to the Captain's float. Lumber and plywood are no match for this power and I found the float with a big tree standing in the middle of it with splintered wood all around, the picnic table tossed into the river.

John Matthews came down and he helped me fix the broken pulley on the ferry. He bought a new pulley and all we had to do was somehow get up high enough to put it on the cable that holds the ferry. John, with his wealth of knowledge and experience about such things, explained the technique. If you put a tall ladder against a tree near the shore you can just barely reach the cable. Of course if the ladder slips you're going into the cold river! I'm making it seem simpler than it was; when it comes to Island projects there is always a lot of fooling with ropes and chains and lots of trips back and forth to the tool shed. It was a little precarious reaching the pulley from the ladder, but we got it done. It was fun working with John, his know-how and my legs made a good team. It also seemed like the elder was passing on valuable lessons about the way things work on the Island.

-- Peace, Joe Hage, Sycamore Island Caretaker