THE BORDER LIFE
 
FLUVIAL ISLANDS
River Dave's Journal
This article appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on January 2, 1998.   
 
   Rivers are creators and sculptors of landscape, artists in their own right. They form valleys, gorges and plains, carving up the earth into manageable sections with specialized habitats. Many property and political boundaries between estates, counties and even countries are demarcated by streams and rivers.

   My favorite piece of river art is the island.  Whether it is a lichen-covered rock just big enough to sit on protruding from the middle of a stream, or a large chunk of vegetation-covered land that is a mini-continent in itself, I find an island to be a place of almost magnetic attraction.

   More often we tend to think of coastal islands, those magnificent, ocean-swept separations from a mainland. I have visited some beauties in my lifetime -- Block, Ocracoke, Cumberland, the Florida Keys and Trinidad. I even spent a full year of my life on the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, unwinding from a decade of stressful living in the Middle East.

   But there were also those countless times I stayed in an old Anglican hospice on the island of Zamalak in the middle of the Nile River. It was the only way I could alleviate the urban intensity of my business trips to Cairo.

   This past month, I spent several days on Marajo Island, a big hunk of land one third the size of North Carolina, plugged into the delta of the Amazon River in eastern Brazil. This experience stirred up a fresh appreciation for that magical piece of river art known as the fluvial island.

   Since most of us need something closer to home to identify with, I recently explored the islands located in the Eno River and found them to be quite intriguing.  In my scouting, I located four large islands in the river, each one possessing an interesting history or special significance.

   Coon's Foot Island, the only one I found to carry a modern name, is a sliver of fluvial land about 800 feet long and from 5 to 20 feet wide, positioned downstream from the Cole Mill Road bridge. It supports a string of sycamores, pines and cedars clinging to the rocks beneath its shallow soil.  A peculiar arrangement of river stones at the end of the island reveal an ancient weir, where native Americans trapped fish into the long narrow channel between this strip of land and the main river bank.

   A second major Eno River island is found just east of the Pleasant Green Road bridge. It is also a strip island, but somewhat wider and shorter than Coon's Foot. It supports modest vegetation, including one immense pine, but its distinction as an island lies in its relation to recent human history.  This island was part of the property the Bernheim family gave to the Eno River Association as the first piece of land to begin the Eno River parklands in 1970. It would only be natural for us to refer to it as "Bernheim Island.''

   A third island, which I often visit on my wafting expeditions at West Point Park, I have always referred to as "Cedar Island.'' An immense red cedar tree stands on the eastern point of this triangular island.  The western side of this island faces the Sennett Hole, that favorite spot of relaxation and meditation on the Eno River.

   Cedar Island is covered with a thick undergrowth of mountain laurel which blossoms beautifully in the spring. It is also home to several towering loblolly pines that become perches for the first wave of tropical migrant birds to arrive at the Eno each spring.  It is a customary pilgrimage of mine to paddle up to Cedar Island during the third week of March and welcome the yellow-throated warblers broadcasting their cheery treetop  tropical tunes. Just imagine what exotic islands they must have hopped in order to finally arrive at their well chosen destination of Cedar Island on the Eno!
 
  The largest fluvial island on the Eno is located west of the Guess Road bridge and can be easily reached by walking down from the end of Sterling Drive off Umstead Road.  Having no name, I discussed with Eno River State Park officials the history of this acre-sized, triangular island. An 18th century original land grant map from the postcolonial state of North Carolina, shows the property was granted to a Thomas Lewis. So for want of a better designation, I will refer to it as "Lewis Island.''
 
   I recently surveyed this island's more than 100 individual living trees and noted 25 different species represented, making Lewis Island the most botanically rich of the four major Eno islands. Its western corner looks like a lumber yard with crisscrossed, horizontal tree trunks that were washed up during the flood following Hurricane Fran.

   The island is nestled into a riverbend with slopes on the opposite south and east banks rising nearly 100 hundred feet.  The most unique feature of Lewis Island is a venerable old river birch that leans over the water on the east side. One can climb half way up the trunk to a huge, flattened burl that makes a regal sitting platform for meditation and contemplation of the river. I ascended to this magical spot and lazily opened my lunch of bean burrito with extra guacamole.

   Coon's Foot, Bernheim, Cedar and Lewis are the four largest pearls in a necklace which includes dozens of smaller ones, making up the string of Eno River islands in Durham and Orange Counties. There remain many more to explore and name as they beckon us to crawl out from behind our urban walls to discover them anew.

   In reality, our universe is composed of a mass of concentric islands. The Milky Way Galaxy is an island in this vastness of space. Our solar system is an island in our galaxy. The planet Earth is a precious island in our solar system. The spheres get smaller and smaller until you find yourself perched on a burl in an old river birch on a rocky island in the middle of the Eno River.

   At times, I personally enjoy shrinking my world to more manageable borders where I can study the details and understand the significance of a more closed and integrated system; a microcosm where I play a bigger role, where I become familiar with all the forms of life, and even call individual rocks, plants and animals by a personal name; where experiences are had that provide memories that will last for years or even make legends for future generations to enjoy; where thoughts can be wafted that will hover on that spot, contained for many moons to come ...

   Ahhh, the insular experience of life! And to be surrounded by water is a primal positioning that connects us with our earliest moments of existence. More particularly, fluvial islands have that unique quality of being engulfed by moving water that flows in a single purposeful direction, as compared to coastal islands with their more rhythmic tidal pulses. Both experiences of water are unique, meeting both aesthetic and spiritual needs in our lives at different times.

   In his voyage on the Concord and Merrimack rivers of New England, Henry David Thoreau romanticized his experience with islands in a delightful way: "An island always pleases my imagination, even the smallest, as a small continent and integral part of the globe.  I have a fancy for building my hut on one. Even a bare grassy isle which I can see entirely over at a glance, has some undefined and mysterious charm for me. There is commonly such a one at the junction of two rivers, whose currents bring down and deposit their respective sands in the eddy at their confluence, as it were the womb of a continent. By what a delicate and far-fetched contribution every island is made! What an enterprise of Nature thus to lay the foundations of and to build up the future continent, of golden and silver sands ...''
  
Photo by Riverdave: the Eno's Cedar Island as seen through the woods from the north bank of the river