Notes from the Island
February 2012


I canít believe this weather! No snow, no ice on the river, nothing. This has been my tenth January as caretaker and this has been the mildest year ever, by far. Someone called it Junuary.

I must admit that it makes my life easier if the river doesn't freeze and the towpath doesn't get buried in snow but I still miss the colder weather. It has been two years since we've been able to ice skate on the canal and it looks like I won't be X-county skiing on the towpath this year either.

It also seems like there are fewer wintering birds here when the weather is mild. Of course I've seen some cool birds, like the American coot that keeps hanging around, or the red-necked grebes that will suddenly bob up from below the waters surface, but no huge flocks of tundra swans or scaups or buffleheads. I've seen many common mergansers, but in colder years we've also had the hooded mergansers and the red-breasted mergansers.

Another disconcerting thing that I've noticed is that there is very little activity at the eagles nest. Paddling past the nest the other evening I didn't see a pair of mating birds, I only heard the sad, high-pitched sound of a single eagle calling out. I'm beginning to worry that this might be the first year since I moved here that the eagles fail to nest and breed.

Of course we can count on the Canada geese to be here in force and now is the time that they stake out their favorite nesting spots on the Island. Hopefully the birding will improve for the annual Sycamore Island winter bird walk on February 25th.

Hopefully the birding will be good for the annual Sycamore Island winter bird walk on February 25.

The lack of ice on the river has made it possible to do some winter canoeing around the Island. Last Thursday I decided to visit High Island again. High Island is the big Island that is just downstream from the dam. I took my kids there a few years ago and I thought it would be fun to go back and see if anything has changed. The last time I went there the girls and I used the canal to get downstream and around the dam but this time there was no water in the canal so we had to paddle down to the dam in the river and then carry around it.

The most exciting part of the trip was lowering the canoe back into the river and then heading straight down to the kayaker's slolom gates. The last thing I wanted to do was to go for a swim in that frigid river so I was very careful when we hit the big wave at the top of the feeder canal. After that, it was smooth sailing all the way over to the banks of High Island.

We pulled the canoe onto shore and decided to circumnavigate the Island before climbing to the top. Over the years there have been quarries and even a boat club on High Island and there is some evidence of old trails and ancient structures, but mostly it's overgrown with paw-paws and invasive vines, at least onthe lower parts. Unlike Sycamore Island, it is possible to get to this island without swimming or using a boat. The downstream end of the island is only separated from the mainland by a small stream so it's an easy wade, once you get onto the berm side of the canal and across the feeder canal.

It was so cool when we rounded to bottom of the island and got our first look at the main stem of the potomac. Here, the character of the river was much different and the water turned white as it accelerated over the acres of rocks in its rush toward Little Falls. We were now on the flood plain side of the island and we were struck by the beeach like savanna that we found ourselves in. There was drift wood and debris scattered everywhere but there was also a nice a thick layer of soft white sand and very little undergrowth. There were many prints in the wet sand, deer, fox, raccoon, heron. We continued upstream toward the head of the island, past huge piles of driftwood and fallen trees. As we began to climb the hill, there was a dramatic change. Gone were the sycamores and silver maples of the reparian forest and it their place were the hemlocks, pines and oaks that are more commonly found in the appalacian mountains. It was like going from Sycamore Island to Catoctin Mountain in five minutes!

There is a reason that they call it High island. When we reached the top we were easily over a hundred feet above the river. We were actually at eye level with the second story of the houses in Brookmont. It was obvious the=at we weren't the only visitors to this Island. There was a hammock,two chairs by a fire pit and a makeshift lean-to. There was also a can of unopened Hormel Chili, probably edible. From our new vantage piont we sat and enjoyerd the view of the river and the setting sun. It did not take long before we had spotted a fox along the river bank and a group of deer off in the distance. Then, to our delight, we watched a bald eagle fishing among the rocks in the river below us.

It was getting dark, and cold, so we descended the remnants of an old trail and made it back to the canoe. It was easy to cross the feeder canal in the canoe but, since there was no water in the main canal we had to portage the canoe for at least one quarter of a mile to get back above the dam. Luckily I had the foresight to bring along my portable canoe caddie. I rolled the canoe up the towpath and then dropped it back in the river just above the dam. Then, as darkness, fell I paddled past the warning buoys and back to the island, Sycamore Island that is.

Tuesday -- January 24, 2012
Water Level at Little Falls: 4.3     Water Temperature: 38


I'm sorry about my lack of posting here, but I've been away. Last week I traveled to Tampa Bay, Florida to visit my girls, and over this past weekend I was up in the mountains of West Virginia.

It was really great to go to Florida to get caught up with my daughters, and they were very appreciative of the Christmas cards that they received from the Club.

My trip to Canaan Valley was not quite as great. Don't get me wrong, we had a blast traipsing around in the hills, but there was no snow at White Grass so the skiing was terrible. I did happen to see a couple of folks that I knew from right here in Cabin John, and I swear I saw Star Mitchell's van and dog, but I couldn't find Star. She may have been there looking for the northern shrike the was reportedly seen. The good news about there being no snow however is that without a huge snow pack building up in the mountains(like last year)there is much less of a chance of flooding in the Spring.

I've also been keeping busy by doing some painting side work off Island and I've also been doing some great local hikes. I hiked the Archibald-Glover trail, part of the Rock Creek network of trails. We started at Fletcher's Cove and did a four-hour loop that took us up to New Mexico Ave. and then into Georgetown and finally along the towpath back to Fletcher's. Another hike that I highly recommend is over at Turkey Run park. I've hiked and jogged all over Turkey Run but I had never taken the time to follow Turkey Run to its source up in Langley. After crossing under the GW parkway we spent four hours hiking around in Langley Oaks Park. We ended up close to the Beltway and decided to follow Dead Run as it passed back under the parkway towards the river. I have to say that I was pleasantly shocked at just how beautiful Dead Run was, and to view its long series of cataracts and waterfalls was well worth the effort. Then we hiked the two miles back down river to the canoe.

-- Joe Hage, Sycamore Island Caretaker