Memoirs of a Saturday Caretaker

by Christopher Thomson

I started coming to Sycamore Island to work on finishing a kayak that my father and I were building together. I'd ride my bike over from Western Junior High, race down the wonderful hill on Tuscarawas, hide the bike on the old trolley right-of-way, run down the rickety old stairs, and feel that I was in a totally different world. I'd then have a couple of hours to work on the boat before my father paddled in from work and I could get a ride home.

Soon the boat was finished and I'd paddle up the river, exploring the channels between the islands. One day I heard that Kyle, the Saturday Caretaker, was quitting. The idea of spending Saturdays on the Island and getting paid $8 for it seemed too good to be true. My duties were to man the ferry from 9:00am to 9:00pm, pump out the ferry, and mop the club house floor. Pumping the ferry caught my imagination right away. The pump was a big tinware contraption with wood and inner-tube innards. There was a big solid brass cover on the ferry that unscrewed with a brass wrench (or a heavy wire one which Mr. Davis had made for times when the real one was misplaced).

In the summer there were usually lots of people to ferry back and forth. Often there were great barbecues to which I'd sometimes get invited. During the slow times I'd practice rolling my kayak near the canoe float or playing horse shoes.

In the winter not many people came to the Island and I'd look forward to the regular visitors who would come with interesting projects. The tree-to-tree outdoor electric lighting system for the steps and the Island was always in need of attention. Mr. Lowenstein would come down and screw a light bulb in the fuse box socket for each circuit. If it lit up, we'd know that the current was leaking to the ground somewhere on that circuit. We would follow the wires until we saw where they were touching a tree and then put up more porcelain insulators until the light went off.

One winter day it was so cold that Mr. Davis was afraid that if he left, the ferry channel would freeze. He worked the whole day chipping at the ice, stopping only occasionally to smoke one of the butts of his big cigars out of a corn-cob pipe. I worked with him, but he could see when I started to get bored and would tell me to go ice skating.

Mr. Wilcox was another regular visitor. He taught me to play bottle billiards and tried to teach me the subtleties of putting English on the cue ball to make it go where it should. He had great stories of the past legendary bottle billiard players of the Club. I would practice a little each Saturday in hopes of some day beating him.

Mr. Burchell was always working on one project or another. I still use some of the little tricks that I learned from watching him. I think it was he who kept the tool shed organized. There were really some marvelous tools there. Maybe there still are. It's been years since I've been on the Island. The hand drill had big smooth-running gears and a metal plate so you could really lean on it. I also loved using the wooden four-pulley block-and-tackle with its long, always neatly coiled, heavy duty rope. I could slide the canoe float over the mud by myself with it.

Often after work friends would come and we would canoe up to Rupert Island and camp. We liked to canoe early in the morning when the mist was rising from the water. One morning up above Ruppert we found a log jam of 2x4s and plywood cement forms washed down from the Cabin John Bridge. We stored them away on a little island above Rupperts. The next week we brought hammers and crow-bars and started taking them apart and building a tree house. This was the beginning of a series of tree houses that got more and more elaborate. They were either washed away by floods or torn down by vandals, but I was always able to salvage the wood and rebuild. I got pretty good at canoeing with stacks of plywood on the deck. The last house was high in the trees of a small island above Ruppert Island and lasted for several years. It had a waterproof roof, linoleum floor, and an oil drum stove. It was comfortable in the summer and winter, if we covered the windows, and we camped there often.

Starting fires with curly sycamore bark, wading in the smelly mud, swimming from island to island, searching through flotsam and jetsam after each flood or high water, and skating for miles and miles are all wonderful memories of Sycamore Island.