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Peer Work

Home  >  Peer Work
The Island
By Ed Craver
Genre: Non-fiction Level: Adult
Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

The Island was never mine—leased but not possessed. The only proprietary interest that mattered belonged to the River. Cartographers gave it no note, this five-acre kidney of land tucked in close but not contiguous with, the shore land my wife and I purchased in 1973. We never were consulted when in the early Eighties the River changed course and began dismantling and relocating the Island half a mile down-stream.

The Island was constructed at a time when the meandering Susitna River grew lazy and dumped its load of glacial silt in a slow flowing backwater. Settling silt collected and a sandbar formed. First, joint grass appeared, then came willows followed by alders. After a mat of growth had become established, cottonwoods sensing permanence put down root and the Island took on the look of a landscape.

They say Eddie Barge logged the Island in the Fifties. The Cat trail where he skidded out the logs was still visible when I first visited the Island. Saw logs left behind lay moldering in shallow graves. In a clearing near the River's edge I found the remains of an old camp. Around a fire pit, buried bottles and enamelware, broken and rusted, attested to its long use. No doubt workers building the railroad in the early Twenties came the short distance to find in the River's breeze a respite from a night of mosquitoes. The workers built their camp on the spot where river-traveling Tanaina Indians had camped. The Island had existed for some time. Over eighty rings were in the stumps of the cottonwood logs I cut to bridge island to shore. The Island had been around when gold seekers had come up the River in the late 1890s looking for another Klondike.

Shore land was my major focus in those first years. Clearing and building left me little time to venture over to the Island. Sometimes standing amid the raw and gaping wounds resulting from my efforts to turn forest to farm, I would look over at the wildness of the Island and feel chagrined at the savagery of my deeds.

The Island's green scrim of growth closed off the vast panoramic view of the Alaska Range. We could look up the slough between the Island and shore through a tunnel of vaulted limbs and see Mt. McKinley. Sometimes we would wend our way through the tang le of alders and go to the other side and gape at the amazing spectacle stretching from the Kichatna Spires to the south all the way to Mt. Mather at the northern end of the range. In between, pointy Mt. Russell, Little Switzerland, the Five Sisters, Foraker, Hunter, the Tokoshas, Mt. McKinley and the walls of the Moose’s Tooth—a hundred miles of marveling.

Over the years the farm grew, and the pasture was not sufficient for the livestock I was acquiring.    The Island then became subject to my own version of Manifest Destiny. I leased the grazing rights and began clearing the land. In two years, alders and willow gave way to timothy and clover. Holsteins and Brown Swiss crossed over to graze and ruminate under the cottonwoods where moose had bedded down during the day.

The allure of the Island pasture was such that the cows even in times of high water would swim the seventy-foot channel of swiftly flowing water. The cows would line the bank, none wanting to be the first one into the churning current. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they would push and shove on each other until one went in. Then all wanted to be the second one in. Like an alarmed pod of walruses, they would be in the water frantically swimming with panic in their eyes until hooves struck the far shore. They'd haul out on the bank, breathing hard and glistening from the shellacking. During the day lush grass and bugless breezes would make them forget the ordeal of the morning swim. In the late afternoon, with half a day’s milk bulging their udders, they’d line the bank and make the watery commute back to the barn for the evening milking. Even in winter they went to the Island. At forty below, their backs humped against the cold, they'd stand broadside to the low hanging sun in hopes warmth.

The cows went to the Island to have their calves.  It would be the uncleared portion of the Island that they’d head for when it was time, selecting one of the large spruce whose hanging boughs provided a cavernous space at the base of its trunk.  It was under one of these spruce that my son first saw the heaving and straining necessary to force a reluctant calf into the world. First came the front hooves, tiny yellow slippers, soft and pliable so as not to snag and tear the birth canal. The pink prow of nose resting on the forelegs next appeared through the vulva. Then, with a mighty push, the cow forced the bulky shoulders through, and the slimy sack of calf parts plopped onto the ground. The cow’s raspy tongue peeled the fetal covering from the calf’s nose, and it took its first gulp of air. She butted and bellowed at the newborn until it was standing. Deep in the calf’s brain synapses fired that propelled the calf the length of the cow in a search that ended with a mouth full of teat.

One bitterly cold and snowy November, I had gone to Anchorage for feed and supplies. Rosie, the Brown Swiss, was close to having her calf. I put her in the barn in a strawed stall and hoped she would wait until my return. My son came home from school and found her gone.  He knew where to look. Over on the Island he found her and the freezing calf under a spruce. A nine-year-old farm boy knows the import of such things and was soon faced with the Herculean task of getting the eighty-pound calf through two feet of snow and out of twenty below cold. That evening when I returned, the calf was in the entryway of the house being dried and warmed with a hair dryer.

The Island was more than pasture, however. It was a place where a young girl who had great need of what she called “peaceful quiet” could go and find it in abundance. It was uncharted country where a boy could scout for his perennially built forts. A friend would disappear mornings into a copse on the far side and work on a novel. Visitors would go over to the Island to adjust to changes in time zones and to other fundamental shifts in their lives. Beginnings and endings were celebrated and observed there. Neighbors with friends around them went to the Island and were married.      When old sled dogs died, I took them to the Island to be buried.

For me the Island was a place when farm work was done: cows milked, chores done, sled dogs fed, I’d go and Range watch. In summer when the day’s benediction and invocation are separated by only a few hours, Mt. McKinley and all her subalterns are gloriously backlit at midnight by the setting sun. It could be as overwhelming as living in a room with too many masterpieces.

At times the Island seemed my personal moated zoo. In spring and fall the cottonwoods provided perches for the eagles on their way to and from summer nests. There were foxes that cavorted like tailed dancers as they leapt high into the air looking for escaping red backed voles. Coyotes furtively bisected the Island looking for errant ducks and geese. Beavers came in the evenings poaching willows and cottonwoods for their winter larder.      There was a duck I never identified that laid her eggs in a hollow snag. A month later I walked by and was surprised by a rain of down as the ducklings fluttered to the ground and made their way to the safety of the slough.

My favorite birds were the slate-grey ouzels that arrived in winter to feed in the spring-warmed pools in the slough. Through some kind of physiological process akin to pulling levers and closing valves, the ouzels prepare themselves to walk on the bottom of the knee deep pools. Heads bobbing, they enter the pool pecking about like chickens after scattered grain. After feeding, the ouzels float on the surface contentedly.

A wolf bitch left her spoor in the soft sand of the Island as she lured unsuspecting puppies away to kill and feed to her own brood. Moose yarded up on the Island when the snow was deep and their own avenues were clogged. The moose would try the baled fare of the cows but found it lacking. The Simnental bull, Solomon, would get protective if a bull moose got too close to his cows. To maintain harmony among the ungulates, after feeding the cows I would go to the other side of the Island and cut willow brush for the moose.

In the spring of the new decade, the River and the marriage changed course. During the spring break-up, the River took out the logjam, a jackstraw of trunks and branches that had buffered the north end of the Island for years. By summer the River had created a new channel through the slough. Now the slough ran full all the time instead of just at high water, and salmon mi grated a stone’s throw from the back door.

The marriage had also been changed by forces that led it in new directions. From grinding forces deep within, fissures opened on the surface renting prior bonds. That summer I’d listen to the roaring water so near and feel the deafening silence of being the house’s sole occupant.

The relentless fingers of the River stirred the solid ground of the Island into the colloidal suspension it had once been, and swirled the muddy broth off downstream. Exposed roots tentacled out of the crumbling bank like surprised annelids, and the massive trunk of a familiar old cottonwood leaned and tottered like a drunk out over the speeding waters of the Susitna.

Lying in bed awake, separated from night’s companion of twenty years, I’d hear the popping and cracking of roots breaking and then the teetering old friend hit the water. Getting up, I’d look out the window and see the tree down, floating half-submerged.  The huge root-ball would be dragging on the bottom, the River pushing hard to get it moving.   Soon, what had been a short time before solid and enduring, was now reduced to flotsam.

When the familiar is eroding away, there is at the time only the awareness of the diminishment taking place; of how what was is in the process of becoming less. You close around what remains and that too becomes lessened. Then it’s gone, and you find a hole where much of your life had been.

But in time, from out of the midden of the mind, dream-like elements emerge that form around the void: a kind of shelf ice that in time we begin to edge out on and find that it bears us up. You start to remember rather than analyze. And the need to understand gives way to the thrust of memories. Once again eagles perch, fox cavort, a family picnics, a young daughter crosses a log bridge In search of “peaceful quiet” and a boy prowls the cottonwoods looking for the right configuration of trunks suitable for a tree-house.

Now little is left of the Island. A piece the size and shape of a beached whale bristling with willows and alders is all that remains. The River, out of some kind of deference, has turned its back on this remnant while moving the rest of the Island a short distance downstream and slowly rebuilds it.

There are dots of land still festooned with timothy that rise out of the riverbed in low water. In spring I walk these dots of land and feel beneath my feet the braille of a text that water never erases. 


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