A dead sapling snapped off in my hand, sending me downhill with a clattering of rocks and a tearing of thorns.
I was climbing the formidable west slope of Turkey Island, a few minutes’ paddle from the to get pictures of a blue barrel lodged high up in a tree by flood waters.
But I couldn’t pass up the chance to get to know another of the Potomac River’s islands. Some, such as Turkey Island, are rocky and picturesque, with imposing cliffs that gleam in the afternoon sun. Others are low-lying and mysterious. Each has its own personality and secrets to share.
My next attempt at gaining the summit was successful, and well rewarded. There before me was a park-like forest so open and airy that I could imagine an English hunting party riding through it, ladies in their elegant gowns and hounds eagerly straining at their leashes.
I examined the island’s many rock outcroppings, set out as in a sculpture garden. Great cubist slabs lay split and stacked, while massive hunks of stained quartz glowed in the sunlight.
I ventured out on a narrow ledge that hung over the river. Except for my fear of heights, I could have been one of those heroic figures in a Western panorama by Thomas Moran, gazing off into manifest destiny.
From my perch I could see more islands. Tough and resolute, they defy the river’s power and force its currents to flow around them.
A taste of the Amazon
Further up the river, above Great Falls, the islands descend from a different lineage. Instead of challenging the river, they are the river’s own creation, formed by sediments washed downstream.
As the river moves, the islands move too, sometimes even disappearing altogether. Flat and featureless, their long forms mimic the shape of the river that created them.
King among them is Watkins Island, nearly seven miles long.
Putting in at Pennyfield Lock I crossed the channel and entered one of the island’s backwater sloughs. It was like being on an Amazonian adventure, with squirrels for monkeys and kingfishers for macaws. The sudden waves that rocked my kayak were produced by a startled school of big carp.
Getting out of my boat, I sank halfway to my knees in a soup of black mud and decaying vegetation. But the mud coating wasn’t enough to protect me from the stinging nettles that guarded the shoreline. Scratching my legs to get relief, I stumbled into a carpet of poison ivy. Mosquitoes spotted an easy target and joined in.
I pushed through the thicket of paw-paws and spice bush, continuing on until I reached the island’s Virginia side.
There, by the shore, I found a future archeological site. Its main altar consisted of a pile of beer bottles and cans flanked by half-burnt logs. A pair of boots hung by their laces from a nail driven into a tree.
The occupants left in a hurry, leaving socks laid out on a log, as if to dry. A tent sat tossed in the bushes, muddy but otherwise intact.
I wondered what happened. When a civilization suddenly vanishes, archeologists look for causes in such things as epidemics, warfare or drought. Here on Watkins Island, maybe the people just couldn’t stand the mosquitoes.
I returned by my kayak, again scratching from another encounter with the nettles. Island hopping on the Potomac isn’t always fun. But it’s one more way the river can give us a break from shopping malls, beltways and overly busy lives to enter another world.