Island Haven

The Lore and Lure of Lovely Sycamore Island

-- by Tracey O'Shaughnessy

Potomac Almanac, June 30, 1993


The C & 0 Canal is low and briny-smelling on this still, serene summer day. Blotches of moss sway in the silty water and insects dance on the sepia surface like tiny volts of humming electricity.

At 72 years old, John Thomson, a Chevy Chase resident, has seen the Canal in any number of its various incarnations: full and sweaty, parched and sultry. It was part of his route to work for 20 years when he was a political analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. He would traipse down the towpath, worn like sooty marble, duck under the decaying railroad tracks that once led to Glen Echo, climb across a rusty steel bridge, take a ferry across the Potomac River to a tiny island called "Sycamore," hop in a canoe on the other side, paddle over the river to the Virginia side, moor his canoe and trudge up a path to CIA headquarters in Langley: all in a suit and tie, and begin work. Faster than Chain Bridge, he said, and much more scenic.

Thompson, a fireplug-built man with curly wisps of marshmallow white hair, thick Wilford Brimley mustache and watery gray-blue eyes the color of this river on a sweltering summer day, is a member of the Sycamore Island Club.

The Club, composed of 155 families, owns Sycamore Island, a two-acre, cigar-shaped island that sits between the canal and the Potomac River, one of many such islands along the Potomac. For more than 100 years, the island has been owned by a ragtag crew of friends and families who use the island for picnics, volleyball games, launching pads to canoe trips -- or, as Thompson and a few fellow CIA employees did, as a midpoint on their route to CIA headquarters.

It is called Sycamore Island in homage to the gargantuan sycamore trees that weave through the island like prehistoric vines. They reach northward and southward, licking up the river water thirstily with their brilliant jade leaves and heavy green-and white-trunks. At the end of the summer, they shed their bark like a dog sheds its coat, sending a distinctive sycamore rain sound upon the island and spreading a layer of discarded bark across the violet-strewn lawn.

Thomson is at the bank of the canal, his hands on a thick, linen-colored cable, which he yanks repeatedly. The motion sends a bell on Sycamore Island to trilling, and Peter Jones, the island caretaker, responds, cantering down the path from the Sycamore Island clubhouse to the dock. There, Jones unleashes the ferry, which looks like a plank with two small canoes on its underside. Like rappelling down a mountain, but horizontally, Jones works the rope hand over hand, bringing the ferry to the canal banks. There he stops and picks up Thomson, then retraces his steps back to the island. Across the water, a Canadian goose and his mate swim out to meet them.

"The new ferry, eh?" says Thomson, bag of turkey sandwich and Hires Root Beer in hand.

"Yeah:" says Jones, a lanky young man with fine, coal black hair and a lean, chiseled face. "And a lot easier to work."

"Seems to be," says Thomson.

Thomson and Jones' father used to car-canoe-pool to the CIA together when each worked there during the 1960s and 1970s. Now his son, a calm, unpretentious, intelligent fellow, serves as its caretaker.

"I used to come up here as a kid," he says. "It's kind of a well-kept secret. My father joined the club in 1961 when the CIA moved to Langley."

Indeed, there are as many rumors about the Sycamore Club as there are sycamores on the island. One is that the island was started by CIA spies as a kind of conduit to The Agency. Balderdash, says Thomson, who notes that the CIA was barely a glimmer in the U.S. government's eye when a group of 12 men decided to group together to organize a pleasure club on April 3, 1885. The CIA didn't move to Langley until 1961, and it was move to Virginia that convinced a few of the Maryland CIA employees that it might be just as easy to paddle across the river than to battle traffic across the Chain Bridge.

"There were times [in winter] we would debate whether the river would freeze or not," says Thomson. "One time we went across in the morning and there was just a skim of ice across. We figured it would be fine. When we came home later that day, it was a good thing I brought an ice pick. It took us about an hour and a half to get across."

Another rumor is that a rowdy beer-drinking crew of German-Americans founded the club as a kind of island beer hall. Not so, according to the Montgomery Sycamore Island Club's Centennial Issue. Although liquor was permitted on the island until 1914 and gambling was permitted under certain restrictions until 1891, "the governing members were certainly concerned at all times for the club's reputation." In fact, Just to make their point clear, in 1887 the members instituted a $1 fine for card playing on the day of a picnic.

Pictures of some of those members line the club-house, a lichen-green structure on stilts, in which club members gather for billiards, table tennis and conviviality. The wood-framed photographs show women in long dresses, fans in hand, standing alongside men in panama hats who proudly grip canoe paddles.

"It was much more the center of people's lives in the 1920s and 1930s," said David Lyles, a member since 1977. "They would go out to the island for a weekend. "There used to be a lot of little cabins or tent platforms on the island. A lot of them were built on old garbage cans, so that if the water came up, the houses would float. And the members would spend their weekends there and then go home to Washington. We try to recapture that feeling now."

The clubhouse is peppered with outdoor chairs from various generations; rusted aluminum chairs that shed slivers of metallic bark, musty brown blank chairs caked with bird droppings, stringy plastic lounge chairs that, with age, have come unraveled like strands of pasta. It is not the Jockey Club and not intended to be. The men's locker room downstairs looks as if it has been underwater for a few months (and at times, probably has) and the women's looks like an unkempt, moldy lavatory at a cheap seaside resort.

But it is the island itself that members come for. For them, it offers a slice of nirvana. About this narrow, haggard-looking place, one walks through a fantasia of nature: Logs and beaver-chewed saplings braid through the muddy soil; deep green vines choke the elm and maple along the islands banks; malachite leaves kiss the surface of the river tenderly. In the air is the trill of dozens of birds, the lapping of the waves on the shore, the hiss of the leaves as they catch the river's wind. And finally, there are the scents: of mulberry trees that send down varicolored snacks for a couple of geese bellow; of violets and roses that peek out of the muddy landscape in early spring; of the rich brown mud that somehow comes up smelling clear and clean in the early summer's haze.

I like that you can make believe that you are anywhere when you are on the island," said Ellen Eule, of Cabin John, a member for the last two years. "You can pretend that you are in Oregon; you can pretend that you are in Canada. It's terrific. I love that it's so quiet."

The Sycamore Island Club holds monthly meetings and puts out a monthly newsletter. Some members have waited anywhere from two to five years for their memberships to be approved by the club, which strives to maintain its 155 family limit. During the meetings, renowned for their uneventfulness, members argue about whether to allow dogs and liquor back on the island. So far- No to both.

"Change does not come easily," notes Thomson.

And that may be part of the charm. "It's just a wonderful idea to have this place in the middle of Washington," said member Mary Vogel. "It's old fashioned and it's not like some kind of snooty club, but it's some place where people who like nature like to go. It's a very old fashioned club that you just don't see any more.