Notes from the Island
February 2010


What a month it has been! First we had high water, then we had strong, 40-mph winds, then we had a frozen river, and then we had major flooding!

It all started with that post-Christmas thaw, when the river level shot up to 8 feet. As luck would have it, I was out of town visiting for the holidays but got back just in time to prepare the Island for this significant flood. Seems like more often than not, I happen to be out of town whenever the Island is threatened by flooding.

Thankfully, the river receeded and by New Yearís Day, things were back to ďnormalĒ. Then the wind started blowing and the cold began to set in. In one way the strong winds were a blessing, if the river is choppy it canít freeze. It blew hard all that weekend after New Yearís but the writing was on the wall and large rafts of ice were soon drifting down the river. By Sunday night, the air went still and those giant disks of ice began piling up in front of the ferry.

I went through the proccess of turning off all the running water to the club house that night. Once temperatures hover in the twenties for a couple days, there is danger of the pipes freezing, and since water increases its volume by 9% when it freezes, the pipes burst.We definitely donít need that. I drained the entire system and plunged some anti-freeze into the toilets and into the traps in the sinks. I also installed some locks on the bathroom doors to keep people from using them.

I walked out on Monday morning just as the sun was coming up, and discovered the ferry cemented into the river by 2 inches of ice. I surveyed the scene as I contemplated my next move. The ice was much too thin to walk on and even the canoe would break through the ice at the thinner spots and I was not going to try and chop the ferry loose. (Tried that once and the ferry got trapped in the middle of the river.) I heard the geese honking and looked far to my right where the birds had found some open water at the foot of the Island. Thatís it! Iíll carry a canoe down to the bottom of the Island and paddle that narrow lead of open water to the other side! I had to thank the geese for showing me the way.

For nearly two weeks, this was how I came and went on the Island. Every morning chopping my way through the thin ice that had formed by the shore overnight, then slogging up the steep muddy trail back on the mainland. In the evening Iíd point my canoe toward the little estuary Iíd carved out of the surface ice and glide swiftly home. It was fun at first but it began to wear on me after the first week. One amazing thing about paddling through the ice was that it gave a close-up look at the ice crystals as they formed along the edges where the ice met the open water. The water would freeze into long, angular, and complex structures jutting out into the calm water.When I was wearing my polarized sunglasses, I could see the colorful, prizmed light as it passed through the varied crystals. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope!

The ice continued to spread and it threatened to close off my escape route from the Island, but that south facing part of the river is more exposed to the sun and never froze over completely. Over by the ferry however, the river ice was a good four inches thick in most places. By the second week of freezing weather, I was able to pull myself across the river on the john boat.When I say ďoverĒ, I mean on top of the ice like a dog sled.

Eventually, the river ice thawed and I was able to use the ferry once again. Then, on the 24th of January, the entire Potomac river water shed received a whole bunch of rain. I never got the official reading of how many inches fell, but it was enough to bring us the highest river level that I have seen since I moved here to the Island! Predictably, I was away in California. It was pretty stressful to imaging the Island going under water and being helpless to do anything to prepare. Luckily, this club is blessed with some very talented and dedicated members. I was so relieved to know that Paul Stanton and Tryon Wells were here to get everything ready in my absence. It was quite a chore, too. I think Paul must have spent at least three hours moving canoes and rescuing tables and other stuff. The river was so high that he and Tryon were forced to take down all the ropes that were hanging over the river. If the ropes are in the water they catch all of the debris thatís coming down the river and that is bad news. The bell rope came down and the tow rope for the ferry also had to come down. I returned home in time to see the river crest and then quickly retreat. There was not any real damage to the club but there is a lot of clean up that needs to be done. There is slimy mud everywhere and there are a lot of trees, branches, and debris all around. There are many canoes that need to be cleaned out and righted, and of course we have the big job of reinstalling the ropes for the ferry.We may have to plan an emergency clean up day.

Never a dull moment when you live on an Island. -- Joe Hage, Sycamore Island Caretaker