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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.