CARETAKER'S LOG


Sunday -- March 22, 2020
Water Level at Little Falls: 4.0     Water Temperature: 56

 

The ferry is closed.

 

This is one of those stories that reminds us that you never really know what's going to happen next. It was Thursday, March 19, St. Joseph's Day, and the weather promised to be warm and sunny. I couldn't think of a better way to get away from people than by setting out in a canoe, so I planned a mini expedition up to Minnie’s Island, about two miles upstream. There is an abandoned house there that was once used by the Potomac Conservancy, and since it had been about eight years since I last visited, I thought that it would be a fun place to explore.
 
Minnie’s Island is not visible from Sycamore Island. There is a big bend in the river, so instead of hugging the Maryland shore I made a b-line towards the inside of the bend on the Virginia shore. Good birding all the way and I even saw some hooded grebes that were now in their bright orange breeding plumage, a rare sight this far inland. Once I got past the lake-like water above the dam I had to fight against a pretty strong current. I hadn't checked the river gauge before I left and the river was higher than I had expected. Usually, if the river is over 3.5, I don't attempt to paddle upstream too far. I found out later that the water level was 3.8 and rising, no wonder it was difficult.
 
No worries, it gave me a chance to try some alternate routes upstream and it was fun to hug the Virginia shore for a change, especially since there were a few hikers to wave to as they hiked along the trail at Turkey Run Park. I made it past the rocky point with the high cliffs above me on my left and soon I was paddling hard to get past one of the ridges that I needed to ascend in order to reach Minnie’s Island. It felt good to exert myself and get my lungs pumping. I took a water break behind an eddy and prepared for the next ledge. This ledge gave me a lot of trouble and I started to wonder about just how high the water was. The large volume of water forced me to traverse across the river, looking for an easier path upstream. By now I was working really hard and sweating. It was really starting to feel like an expedition as I was determined to reach my goal despite the ledges and pushy whitewater. I was forced to traverse back across the entire river, maybe 200 yards toward Maryland, until I reached the shelter of some small islands. There I was able to squeak through some small channels between the rocks and closer to my goal. I was pretty hankered by then but my destination was within reach. Just one more 100 foot channel to overcome. A group of crows greeted me and kept watch over me as I rested and listened to their chatter. There was an attractive looking sand bar on the far side, at the very bottom of Minnie’s, but I chose not to land there since the vines looked impenetrable. I crossed the channel and tried to paddle along the Virginia-facing side of Minnie’s but the current was just too strong and I had to land at the first tree along the bank that I came to. It was about 3:30 by then.
 
Minnie’s is smaller than Sycamore Island but the banks are high and steep. I had to crawl up twenty feet to level ground and then I had to struggle through the jungle of vines that made it difficult to get to the upstream side of the island where the house was. I was amazed at how overgrown the island had become, but otherwise not much had changed since my last visit. When I reached the house, I climbed the steps to the large deck and I peeked in the windows. I was surprised to see that there were still a lot of miscellaneous items scattered about inside; books, binoculars, bleach bottles and a potbellied stove. There was also an EARTH DAY flag hanging by one nail outside, above the bolted door. I stood on a chair to pull it down and I stuffed it in my pack. I was pretty certain that no one would miss it. I ate my snacks and drank some water before I walked around the house to see what else I could find. There is a small cove next to the house and as I stood by the water I started to feel some discomfort in my chest. I brushed it off, thinking that it was just my lungs recovering from the trip upstream. I wasn't worried but I thought that maybe I should start heading back to Sycamore Island, since it had taken me longer than I thought it would to paddle up to Minnie’s, plus I had a good 30 minute paddle back. I worked my way back to my canoe and noticed some yellow ragwort flowers blooming on the bank, but I didn't seem to have the energy to dig out my iPad to take a picture. I climbed into the boat and let the fast current carry me back the way I came. It was 3:50 by then.

I quickly passed by the two most difficult ledges, but I wasn't enjoying the rapids as I might have otherwise. I was starting to feel worse and found myself being reluctant to paddle. My phone made the noise that someone had texted me. I dug it out of my pack to see who it was but I didn't seem to have the energy to reply. My chest pain was getting worse by then, and I figured it would be a good idea to tell someone where I was and how I felt. There was no question, I had to call Mary. Thankfully she picked up the phone. I told her that I was experiencing chest pain and if she would be so kind, could she please call my cardiologist, just to see if they are open and around. We hung up, but I must have sounded distressed because right away she called me back, even before calling the doctor. Joe, she said, go to Lock Seven. I don't think that I was thinking very clearly at that point, and I told her that maybe I had already passed Lock Seven. Thankfully though, I realized that I was actually parallel with the lock, but still a few hundred feet out in the middle of the river. Yes, I said, I'll paddle to Lock Seven and meet you there.

 

That was at 4:00. While she was busy driving and calling the doctor I was fighting off the urge to take a nap. My body did not seem like it wanted to paddle and I sat there with limp arms for a few seconds. I was hoping that the river would carry me in the right direction, but I quickly realized that I needed to paddle if I wanted to get to shore. By now, with the pain radiating down my left arm, I was sure I was having a heart attack. I had felt this kind of chest-crushing pain before, back in 2016 when I needed my first stent, so even though that had not been an actual heart attack, I knew the signs and I guessed that I had over-exerted my heart in my ascent to Minnie’s. I could see the white of the lock house to my left but I had one more tricky ledge to navigate. I knew the slot that I had to hit and now I was very glad to have the extra water in the river to get me past that small and bony passage. I made it past the ledge, had to, but the pain by now was debilitating. Decision making and route finding were near impossible as I floated past one more tiny island to a place where I could see a low gravel bank. I gathered my strength and I went for it.

Once the tip of my canoe touched the shore, I slid off of my seat and slumped down with my butt on the bottom of the canoe and my back resting against the seat. I waved and shouted to a lady that was walking her dog along the trail. I wanted someone to lead Mary to where I was. She wasn't much help. My phone rang and I instinctively picked it up. It wasn't Mary so I hung up and dropped the phone back down to the bottom of the canoe. Turns out that it was my cardiologist calling. Soon Mary arrived, she had no trouble finding me, and I was so happy to see her racing across the gravel bar. Even before she reached me I told her to call 911, I was having a heart attack.

 

Calling 911 from a mobile phone can be confusing for the dispatchers, but Mary knew what to say about our location near Glen Echo, and the dispatchers had the rescue squad from the Glen Echo Fire Department on their way. That must have been about 4:15. Right away we heard the sirens and Mary assuringly told me that that sound was for me. It seemed like a long time between the time we saw the fire trucks and the time the EMTs arrived at the canoe but it was still only 4:32 when they did the EKG on me while I was sitting in the canoe (after putting a mask over my nose and mouth, of course). My phone rang again and this time Mary picked it up. It was the cardiologist again who started asking about my symptoms until Mary told him that we had already called 911. It was amazing, Mary was on the phone with the doctor and with the dispatcher, who was on the line with the EMTs, directing them where to go. As it turned out, my cardiologist was the emergency doctor on call that day, so there was no hesitation, I was going to Suburban, even though Sibley might have been closer.

 

What a break. No hugs or kisses, my job was to sit still, I didn't even have the strength to open my eyes. I was awake and listening to the EMTs and it was amazing to hear them make dozens of split-second decisions. It seems that they may have deployed the river rescue guys too and there was another ATV rescue vehicle coming along the towpath. After looking at my scary EKG they gave me a nitroglycerin tablet to open my arteries and a few baby aspirin to chew on. They pulled me out of the canoe and onto the gurney and six of them carried me up to the towpath from the river and then directly into the ambulance. I was in a lot of pain and my breathing was very shallow. It reminded me of some of the survival stories that I've read and I just kept thinking that I just had to keep breathing and hold on.
 
Strangely, I noticed that the pandemic meant that there was almost no traffic on the beltway and we got to Suburban lickety-split. It was hard to gather the energy to answer the EMTs' questions. I told them that I was 5'7" even though I'm 5' 6", only because I was getting it confused with my age of 57 years. They gave me an IV and an oxygen mask. Soon I was seeing the exit signs over me as they whisked me through all the doors into the emergency room where I was met but a large welcoming party including my surgeon. He seemed more concerned than I've ever seen him and in the elevator he told me it was the real deal this time. I nodded my consent so he could give me the catheter like the last time. Also, while en route, his wife called and I heard him tell her to do dinner without him, since his patient was in the middle of having a heart attack. It was very helpful for me to have gone through this procedure before, different circumstances of course, and I was just hoping that they could catheter me through my wrist (which they did) and not my groin, silly. They were cool, calm and efficient as I lay there groaning. I was less scared now, not that I had much time to worry anyway. I was on the operating table so I was pretty sure I was going to make it, despite the extreme pain.

 

The doctor kept telling me to hang on every time I moaned and I kind of lost track of time. Before too long I could feel the warmth of the blood rushing back to my head and I knew that was going to wake up from this bad dream. As I regained some clarity I thought that they must have had to do another stent since the pain was not going away, but no. I received just the one stent, and surprising to me it was in the exact same spot as my first stent four years ago. It was 6:18 by the time I was wheeled into the recovery room. It was weird, I was only one of two patients in there. So different than the last time when I was just one of maybe two dozen outpatient cases. I suffered chest pain throughout the night which was normal considering everything but I was feeling good on Friday and they let me go home at 4:00.

 

I just need a week's rest and I'll be back to my normal activities! Wow!



GUEST LOG (and photos) by Sherry Fizdale
Saturday -- March 21, 2020

I did not get the message that the Island was closed on Saturday the 21st for coronavirus safety, and biked down for a visit. The afternoon substitute caretaker also did not get the message because he was there to ferry me over. Brand new member Wilson Barmeyer was on duty, warming himself at a fancy metal fire pit he carried down for the day. It’s very high tech with a double-hull and ventilation holes top and bottom that circulate air and somehow prevent smoke from getting in your eyes. I think the Club should procure one of its own.

The bare shelves in the super market inspired my visit to forage for greens. This time of year is when nettles emerge from wet and shady ground (Urtica dioica, from the Latin urere “to burn”). If you’re not sure if it’s nettles, grab a few with your bare hands and you will find out. Then proceed with gloves to pinch off the tender tips. I picked a bag full to bring home, and took some into the kitchen to cook and enjoy on the spot. A rinse, a quick boil, and then top with olive oil and salt. Delicious.

As I walked down to the nettle field at the south end of the Island, I spotted a mother goose on her nest looking stunning amidst the bluebells. [See photo at top of Islander] She was not hard to spot because her mate hissed at me and the nest was very close to the trail. So if we all get back to the Island before the goslings are hatched and gone, Beware!


Saturday -- March 21, 2020
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.5     Water Temperature: 56


The ferry is closed. Due to the Coronavirus the ferry and the Island will be closed until further notice. Thanks.


Friday -- March 20, 2020
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.7     Water Temperature:52


It hasn't been difficult to achieve my "social distancing" lately, since hardly anyone has been visiting the Island. I'm a little surprised. The kids are out of school so I thought that I might get busy, but I guess it hasn't been real warm yet. Not exactly Sycamore Island weather.

Lucky for me I have my bird friends to keep me company and right now the variety of birds is at it's best. Over the last couple of days I've sighted 37 different species of birds! Not only do we have all of the beautiful, wintering waterfowl here still, but the cormorants, wood ducks and great blue herons are now arriving to begin their mating season. We also had two rare migrants pass though. I saw three hooded grebes, still in their winter plumage, diving around the ferry and there were several red-breasted mergansers treading water out in the middle of the river.

The Canada geese are also preparing to build their nests and one breeding couple has staked out an area near the trail at the bottom of the Island. I may have to erect a detour sign there to direct folks around that menacingly defensive couple.

Friday -- March 13, 2020
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.6     Water Temperature:51


It's nice and warm out today but remember folks, you can't use the Club boats until the water temperature is 55 degrees or above. The river is 51 now so maybe we can use the Club boats later this weekend.

Thursday -- March 5, 2020
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.7     Water Temperature:48


Exciting news! There is an active eagle's nest across the river in Virginia. It's a new nest, but it's in the same large sycamore tree that's downstream near the second mansion. It will be fun to watch the eagles again this year, we haven't had an active eagles nest there since 2017. Seeing the eagles make me think of our neighbor and fellow eagle watcher, Jack Caldwell. Jack lived up the hill where he could see inside the nest and he used to bike by here all the time to give me updates. Sadly, we haven't seen Jack in a couple of years, not a good sign.

Our other nesting raptors, the red-shouldered hawks, have built their nest as well and for the second year in a row, it looks like they will be nesting in the sycamore tree that's right next to our own boardwalk! They had one baby hawk last year and we got to see it as it left the nest and learned to fly.

Most of our bird-feeder birds will be building their nests this month. We saw some bluebirds on the Island so I bought a new bluebird house to encourage them to stay. Soon the pheobes will be building a nest under the tool shed, but the warblers won't arrive until April to build their nests.

Of course, the most dramatic and obvious nesters are the Canada geese. They have been making a lot of noise and doing a lot of chasing around for the last month and now it seems that they are looking for nesting sites.

Thankfully, the beaver are not stealing the spotlight anymore, but we did have the very unusual sighting of a red fox on the Island. The only other time that we've had red foxes on the Island was when the river was frozen and they could walk over. I really didn't expect to see a red fox here, since it would have had to swim over. A grey fox maybe, but not a red fox.

Monday -- February 29, 2020
Water Level at Little Falls: 3.8     Water Temperature:42


Things are looking a little different down here now, we had to take down a few trees. It's always different this time of year, without the leaves on the trees, but now, without that large, hollow tree by the board walk and without some of the other smaller trees near the ferry cables, things are looking kind of sparse.

Geoff, and his expert gang of tree trimmers, was here on Friday and in no time they began transforming the Island canopy. With their auto-ascender and their super-sharp chainsaws, they made quick work of the dead trees that were near the buildings and the other weed trees and invasive tress that we didn't need. It will be interesting to see what it will look like once the leaves are back and the canopy is full again. I love working with these guys, very efficient and no wasted efforts.

Speaking of efficient workers, I had to have the plumber, Charlie King down here recently as well. Unlike the tree guys, who can't be bothered with driving on the towpath to bring their tools down, Charlie King had to drive down the towpath to bring us our new hot water heater. It all went smoothly and I really appreciate having these professional contractors doing the work down here, unlike some of the fly-by-nighters we've had here in the past. I know, for example, that I don't have to worry about the hot water heater being properly grounded and installed according to code. (Apparently the plumber that installed the last hot water heater, during the renovation, didn't bother with connecting the ground wire and had added a second, unneeded valve to the "send" pipe, causing a potentially dangerous situation.)

It's nice to get things done during this time of year while the Island isn't busy. I also spent a couple afternoons cleaning the steps to the tool shed and deck. Our new captain would like to see some spiffing up so I'm trying out some different methods of cleaning in order to keep the decks and steps clean and free of mold and mildew. Maybe we'll purchase or rent a small power washer.

Thursday -- February 20, 2020
Water Level at Little Falls: 4.1     Water Temperature:43


I don't talk about bats very much here in this column. We often see them in the summer just before dark but these poor bats don't get any respect. I can name every bird that I see down here but when I see a small bat fluttering around, I just assume that it's a little brown bat,(the most common bat in Maryland), and I move on to something else. I suppose I could be excused for my lack of enthusiasm since small bats don't have any distinguishing field marks and, unless you can hold one in your hand, it is virtually impossible to make a positive ID. That all changed yesterday when I got the chance to look at a small bat up close and personal.

I was up in the tool shed, rooting around next to the shop-vac, when I heard a hissing noise. My automatic reaction was to think "Snake!" and I jumped back. I didn't see a snake but I heard the strange noise again and I thought that maybe the shop-vac was shorting out and making a sparking noise. Of course that was wrong because the shop-vac wasn't even plugged in. I was stumped, until I looked on the floor next to the shop-vac and saw a small bat lying on it's back, with it's wings spread wide, it's mouth wide open, and it was hissing at me. Doing its darndest to scare me away. It's wings spread out to about ten inches wide but it's body was only about three inches total.

The poor thing was obviously in stress. It could spread it's wings and hiss but it seemed unable to fly. My guess was that it got trapped in the tool shed over night and it was now suffering from exposure and hunger. Or maybe it was hurt from flying into the windows trying to escape. It seemed helpless, but it didn't look like it was at deaths door so I tried to help it out. I scooped it up with a snow shovel, never touch a wild animal with your bare hands, and I took it outside to see if it would fly away. I rested the shovel and the bat onto a table but the little guy just kept threatening me with it's tiny fangs. It's little heart was beating a mile a minute so I decided to try to give it some water. I went to get the eye dropper of water and when I came back the bat was still there but it had wrapped it's wings around itself so that it was now just a tiny ball of fluff. So different looking than the menacing beast that I had first encountered.

I grabbed a box and an old table cloth and with gloved hands I put the bat into it's new little bed. I carefully tried to get some water into it's mouth without drowning it. It was amazing to see how readily the water beaded off of its fur, like it was wearing a raincoat. It was also amazing to get a close-up look at the bats wings. Tiny "hand" bones spread out to form wings, making it the only flying mammal. I always thought of bats as flying mice but it turns out, with DNA analysis, that bats are actually more closely related to humans than to mice. Go figure. I got more aggressive with the dropper until I saw it's little tongue moving. I gave her a little more water and then placed the box on a chair in the warm, winter bathroom, maybe she would recover.

There are ten bats species that are native to Maryland. The most common are the large brown bat and the small brown bat. I assumed that my bat was the later but after looking it up and doing some serious examining, I realized that this bat was an Indiana bat, still native to Maryland.

Several hours later I went to check on my patient, and surprisingly, the box was empty. I lifted the box, I moved the chair, I scanned the ceiling, but no sign of a bat. I looked behind the towel rack, I stood on a chair and looked on top of the lockers, but still no bat. I started to wonder if the bat had somehow crawled under the door. There was only one place left to look. I moved the fire extinguisher away from the corner and there she was, doing what bats do, hanging upside down. What I could not believe was that this bat was so small that it could hang from the edge of the three-inch baseboard and not touch the floor! I opened the windows, turned off the light, and shut the door. This morning, the bat was gone. I guess my little bit of nursing was all that it needed.

Friday -- February 14, 2020
Water Level at Little Falls: 4.8     Water Temperature:43


The ferry is open and it looks like it will be open all of this holiday weekend.

Happy Valentines Day and Happy Presidents Day!

Wednesday -- February 12, 2020
Water Level at Little Falls: 4.9     Water Temperature:44


The ferry is open again. The river was nice today and receded just enough for us to use the ferry again. Unfortunately, they say we may have to close again on Friday and Saturday. Fingers crossed.

Monday -- February 10, 2020
Water Level at Little Falls: 5.6     Water Temperature:44


The ferry is closed today and with the recent predictions, it looks like it will be closed most of this week.

I'm so glad that I fixed my mailbox last week when the ferry was still operating, it would have been a pain to carry those digging tools across the river in a canoe.

The Club and I share a mailbox up on MacArthur Blvd. and it was in pretty rough shape. I replaced it once, way back in 2004, and I had to replace it again since the door was rusted and it would not stay closed. I also had to replant the support post since the erosion there was causing it to slide downhill and look crooked.

Getting all of the tools up the hill was no small part of the job but the tricky part was to fit the new post in the limited space next to the neighbor's post. I dug a new hole and with the help of a bag of quick-set cement mix I was able to reset it. So now we have a shiny new mailbox, and it's nice and straight, pointing directly up at the noon-day sun!

No time to rest on my laurels though, today we have a new maintenance issue. The hot-water heater seems to be leaking. Always something.

Friday -- February 7, 2020
Water Level at Little Falls: 4.2     Water Temperature:45


The ferry is open today but it looks like it will be closed all weekend. It took the predictors a while to get it right, but I think we have an accurate forecast now, 5.4-foot crest on Sunday afternoon. Last Wednesday, they were predicting that the river would reach 7.6 feet, but that forecast had to be modified. I guess we didn't get the amount of rain that was expected.