Sycamore: of Time and the River

by Bill Kugler

Sycamore Islander, January 2001

The tree in the accompanying photograph, taken in mid-September 2000, is unremarkable in all respects save one: at one time, the duration unknown to me, it anchored the downriver end of our island. When Joan, the kids and I first started coming to the island in the mid-1960s, this tree was probably no more than 10-15 feet from the water's edge. Everything now downriver from this tree-silt and land buildup plus the explosion of plant and tree growth has occurred in the past 35 years or so. Furthermore, the period when this tree marked Sycamore's downriver end was probably quite long, suggesting strongly that conditions upriver in the watershed such as erosion in the last third of the 20th century were significantly different from those in that century's first two-thirds and possibly extending some time back into the 19th century when our club was formed.

The tree in question is located about 40-45 yards from the Davis memorial fireplace downriver from the canoe shed. Follow the trail along the spine of the island's lower end until it directly meets the tree with its thick diameter and extensive girth, both of which were already quite distinctive in the mid-1960s, compared with its neighbors. This indicates to me that the tree had been there for a considerable period of time before our family first encountered it. The tree is now in decline, having lost 3 or 4 large limbs to high winds, which is why I decided to write this article now, while the tree is still with us.

The proximate reason I am able to recall this tree and its location is that at its base back in the 1960s there was a park bench facing downriver, probably installed by the club or by certain members for contemplative viewing of the river downstream. To secure this bench, there was a loose chain linking one end of the bench with the other upstream of the tree. By the mid-1960s the bench was still in place but in sorry shape as it had lost its supporting blocks to high water with the result that the seat of the bench had broken in two. First our kids and then Joan and I would sit on this bench, but none of us for long, as the angles of the broken seat sections precluded a comfortable repose of any duration.

Further support for my contention that this tree once marked the downriver end of Sycamore lies in the 1932 romanticized, pictorial map of the island; a framed copy of this map is in the upstairs social room of the clubhouse. I assume the footbridge over the canal and the two landing sites for the ferry now are where they were in the early 1930s, when this map presumably was prepared. Extending a line through the two ferry crossing sites across the island shows that at that time only about a third -- at most -- of the island measured by its length alone lay downriver from this line. In terms of the total land area of the island then, the disparity is even more striking: at least 75-80 percent of Sycamore's land area 70 years ago was upriver from this line inasmuch as the downriver section was funnel-shaped and quite narrow compared to the area above this line, judging from this map.

The final two photographs from last fall show some of the growth of the island since the mid-1960s looking downriver, with the first snapshot including the tree on the right and the second with the tree on the left. I estimate that the downriver end of the island is now roughly 50-60 yards beyond the tree. What is equally impressive is the extensive broadening of the island downriver from the tree, especially on the river side. My guess is that the section of the river downriver from the imaginary line noted above is about half of the island's total land area versus no more than 25 percent 35 years ago.

As to where the additional earth now in place downriver from the tree came from, my impression is that it is not from the upriver reaches of the island; this end and its relation to the outcroppings of rocks and small islands appears to about the same as I recall it from 35 years ago. Thus I conclude that the most probable cause of this heavy silting is from further upriver in the watershed as a result of more intensive farming practices and greater residential and industrial development. I doubt that floods and periods of high water have contributed significantly to the accretion of land at the downriver end of the island. The normally relatively slow current and back eddies at the lower, river side of Sycamore are more than likely the main reason that silt has accumulated in a steady, relentless process that gives no sign of subsiding or altering appreciably. I would, for example, not be surprised if our island at some point joined the small island in the slough now across from the downriver end of Sycamore.

In closing, I hope this article brings forth comments, corrections and above all, possible alternative explanations to the developments described above.

Bill Kugler is a long time member and past President of the Club.

And Bill did enjoy some responses in the following month's Islander:

This is in response to Bill Kugler's letter in the January Islander. It is no secret to anyone who has visited the lower end of the island over the years that it is moving south, and not slowly, either. I hope I am here when it gets to within a few hundred feet of Brookmont Dam. The ensuing debate on what to do about it will make the 10-year discussion about replacing or repairing the canoe shed pale in comparison.....

-- Ruth B. Haas, Honorary member, Sandia Park, NM

Reading Bill Kugler's "Sycamore: of Time and the River" in the January issue of the Islander, provoked some thought of how we might further document changes that he described. I decided to dig up two old photos of Sycamore Island: one from the website, and another once made available to me by Tryon Wells. I wanted to compare the images in two widely spaced years for changes in the island's perimeter. The photos were not at the same scale, but adjusting them to equal size on the computer (by eye) made this comparison easier. Even so, large trees leaning over the water and their shadows presented difficulties in determining the exact shorelines. In presenting the two photos here, I have added white outlines to represent my judgment of where the shores were. Also, as a reference of sorts, I drew a line on each photo extending from the canal bridge that is barely visible in both photos. Draw your own conclusions, but I am struck by the decrease in size of the upper island, particularly by the severance of the upstream knob of land from the property. We catch fish in there now!

-- David Winer

Changes to Sycamore Island in a half century. Estimates of shorelines are indicated as white outlines.
Lines extending from the canal bridge serve as reference marks.

These photos bring up some interesting problems. As Bill Kugler wrote in the past Islander, the "south" end of the island has been accreting soil and is longer and wider than it used to be. I remember that tree the bench, and the view. Looking at the 1990 photo, you can see that the floods between 1937 (after the big ones) and 1990 have carved a channel from each side of the island. From my memory, in the early 1970s you could not canoe through the slough at the upper, canal side of the island.

In 1958, the Brookmont Dam was built. Before this time, the Island was in a flowing river, not in the backwater of a dam. Does anyone know how much the water level was raised by the construction of the dam? The 1921 pictorial map of the island also shows a smaller island on the upstream river side. Could the ridge of rocks we can swim to from the float be the remnants of this island, washed away by the higher water levels? Old photos from the 1930s of the steps to the ferry landing seem to show a much longer staircase. At one time the plans for Brookmont Dam and the fish ladder were in one of the old file cabinets in the Club House. Perhaps we could find them and solve a couple of mysteries.

-- Johnna Robinson