A little excitement down at the Island

-- by Joe Hage

Sycamore Islander, February 2003

The scene: Steps down to the ferry are under water
and debris drifts by.
This may come as a surprise to many of you, unfortunately not a big surprise to me, but I made a mistake. I didn't realize it right away and it took me all day to see just how big a mistake it was. My blunder was deciding to take the ferry to the mainland when the river level was over nine feet at the Little Falls gauge. At the time of my decision I was unsure if I wanted to test my canoeing skills in a river that was just about flood stage. And maybe I wanted to test the limits of my new method of holding the pull-rope with a carabiner tied to the railing of the ferry. However good these reasons may have seemed then, I later learned how bad an idea it was.

Starting across.
I knew the river was going to rise and I made ready for imminent flood. I made a big trip to the Safeway, rented some movies for the kids, and picked up a six-pack for daddy. Back at the island I secured all the island canoes and flipped them upright so they could rise with the water. I did the same thing for the membersí johnboats and other boats not stored in the canoe shed. I tied down the picnic tables, and I raised the pull rope as high as it would go. This would be my first flood and I was a little nervous.

A tree comes by once in a while.

On Friday morning when we got up, the river was really high. The Island had been reduced to a fraction of its former self. The bench by the ferry landing on the Island was completely submerged. At least half the boardwalk was under water. And the current out in the channel was moving pretty fast with tree limbs and other debris sailing by. Soon the

Just a little farther...
phone started ringing. I told Tryon that everything was under control and how I was keeping the kids home. I also told him of my plan to take the ferry across the river. I wanted to stay put but I had to pick up something at the Italian Embassy and that day was the only day it could be done. He told me he would come down and watch me cross. I get ready to go and before I know it, David Winer and Tryon are on the opposite bank with their cameras at the ready.

AhhhÖ nothin' to it.

I attach my canoe to the ferry, just in case, and with my heart pounding I head out into the current. The force of the river is incredible, even with my system of carabiners it's a real struggle to reach the mainland where I had to walk on top of the railing to reach dry land. Some good pictures, some back-slapping, and I was off on my errand.


I love this kind of a challenge. I love testing myself against the forces of nature. (Within reason, of course.) So on the way back from the embassy I played over in my head all the steps necessary to get myself home safely. By the time I reached the ferry and saw the river in its menacing color of brown, I was pretty excited. As I was getting ready to go, Ann Marie, our new Club President, walks up in time to see me off. She's obviously a little nervous about me going across and I do my best to sound confident and reassuring. I play it all through my head one more time and with my heart in my throat I pull myself into the big, fast-moving water. At first itís not bad, like on the way over, hard, but doable. I quickly reach the support rope at the halfway mark and I clip the second carabiner to the pull-rope. I'm thinking I'm home free now and I turn and give Ann Marie the thumbs-up and a big smile. But then, just like some adventure movie when you think you got it made, CRASH!!!!!, half the railing thatís attached to the pull-rope is ripped from the ferry by the force of the river. Luckily I'm not pulled into the water (temp 40, air temp 30's -- bad day for swimming) but now I can't reach the pull-rope. I decide not to panic.

What, we worry?
I attach a rope to the other railing (the unbroken one) and attempt to pull myself through the current to reach the pull-rope. Guess what, CRASH!!!!!, that railing snaps as well. So now I'm stuck in the middle of the river and two chains are all thatís keeping the ferry from washing down stream over the dam. The chains are of equal length, which leaves me broadside to the current and powerless against its enormous pressure. The ferry rocks and giant tree limbs whiz by, sometimes bumping the ferry. By this time another member has joined Ann Marie on the shore and my kids have come out to the other shore wearing over-sized waders and laughing at their father. I reluctantly ask them to call Tryon and before long there are half-a-dozen Island members at the shore wielding throw-ropes, life jackets, and cameras. We decide that I need to get Tryon on the ferry to help me. Boy, was it ever smart of me to bring my canoe.

Attempting to slip the corner cable-attachment,
but canít get slack due to currentís enormous force.
Solution: take the canoe to the Island for a hacksaw.
I have to get into my canoe and face the raging Potomac to pick up Tryon. The noise of the water churning beneath the ferry is so loud that I can barely hear the shouting from the shore. I manage to get into the boat and, Wow, I find the canoeing much easier than I thought it would be.

The two of us navigate into the partial eddy created by the ferry and we both crawl back onto the ferry as it rocks in the river. Alas, even with Tryon's help we are unable to move the ferry against the strong current. The final solution is to hacksaw the chain from the end of the ferry on the mainland side so we can slice into the current and get to the Island. This we are able to do without further mishaps and I paddle Tryon back to the mainland where all concerned breathe a sigh of relief. Two hours after that first railing broke, I make it safely back to the Island and wave good-bye to my new friends.

-- photos by Tryon Wells and Dave Winer