Notes from the Island
December 2006

Greetings from the Gorge! I haven't seen many (practically none) of you in the past month but it has been yet another month of fine weather and slow flowing river.

We did have one high water event: The river rose to 7.9 feet after the watershed received one to three inches of rain. The day it rained our local roads and streets were turned into small rivers and low-lying intersections became instant lakes. I was driving home down Seven Locks Rd. during the downpour and it was as if entire neighborhoods were on the deck of a sinking ship. Orange water gushed from the manicured lawns out onto the street, trying to find its ancient course to the river. Storm drains and culverts were no match for the volume and power of this torrent. Our own little Walhonding Creek looked like Great Falls as it dumped into the nearly overflowing canal. The high water forced us to close the ferry and we had to come and go in a canoe for a few days. We had to postpone the Workfest, too; but with temperatures in the high sixties in late November we really can't complain about the weather.

It has really been smooth sailing since our first rain-drenched autumn here five years ago. Looking back at that year, what I remember is a big, brown muddy river and a cold, waterlogged hike up the trail. Happily, it was our first year here and we didn't know any better. I certainly pay more attention to the weather now than I did five years ago. I guess that's what happens when you live a ferry ride and one thousand paces from your car.

I've been reading about the predecessor to our beloved C&O Canal, George Washington's Potowmack Canal. We all know that Washington built skirting canals to get around the major rapids on the River, one at Little Falls and another at Great Falls; but how did they get large boats past all the other obstacles on the river? Anyone who's tried to paddle up to the Beltway knows that it isn't easy. If the river is low you can't get past all the rocks and if the river is high it's impossible to fight the current. My theory is that the Potowmack Company did many improvements to make the river more navigable besides the famous skirting canals. Betty Burchell once pointed out to me that there might be a diverter or wing dam just below Minnie's Island. I thought that these piled stones might have been an ancient fish trap; but then I learned that Washington ordered all such traps to be destroyed to help with river navigation. This dam would have watered what look like man-made channels that hug the Maryland shore between locks seven and eight. It's cool to think that those old cargo boats used to pass right by our Island on their long journey up river.

Happy Holidays from your Island Caretaker!

-- Joe Hage, Sycamore Island Caretaker