When I tell people that I have an island in my backyard, they display an initial, romantic swell of interest. But when they learn that the island is in a river, and is not a wave-pounded gem off Maine's rockbound coast, the image quickly loses its luster.
To me it makes no difference. Ocean or river, land surrounded by water has charms all its own.
I live in an old clapboard house on the Penobscot River in central Maine. Two years ago, I had a larger kitchen window installed for no other reason than to improve my view of the riverine island that is little more than a stone's throw from the edge of my backyard. The sight of my island on even the most dismal days is enough to make dishwashing a pleasure.
I really shouldn't say "my" island, because it is part of the common wealth of my town. It's a sizable place - 60 acres' worth of forest and meadow, rocky on one side, muddy on the other.
And yet relatively few people I know have ever been there, even though a 100-year-old bridge runs out to it and it is freely accessible by canoe or kayak.
Their lack of interest, or lack of awareness that the island exists, is my great fortune, for more often than not I can count on being alone there. And there is nothing like being in a canoe and making landfall on an island. In the silence, and solitude, and beneath the boughs of the great red oaks that reach out over the river, I feel the strongest compulsion to "claim" the place, as if I were planting a banner for some sovereign liege.
The sense of discovery does swell great when one sets foot on an island. This is because one never knows what one will stumble upon.
After last spring's runoff had subsided, for example, I hiked inland from my landing point and came upon a rich harvest of wave-washed, sun-bleached lumber, which found new life as shelves in my workshop.
Then there are the traces of past human activities. Such as the old foundations from homes that once existed on the island but are now remembered by only a few old-timers; the 100-year-old clay pipe I found along the shore during a period of extremely low water; shards of bone china; and these gems: hand-carved mother-of-pearl buttons scattered about the island - remnants from an erstwhile woolen mill.
When I moved into my home 12 years ago, I quickly discovered that I could circumnavigate the island in 30 minutes.
As I paddle along its western and northern shores, between the island and the mainland, the channel narrows to the point where the swamp maples form a canopy overhead.
Through the dim tunnel I glide, the gloaming interrupted by occasional, brilliant swords of sunlight passing through breaks in the trees. Ducks scurry from their covers in the reeds, muskrats dip and surface in silence, siskins flit about, and, in the distance, a great blue heron slowly rises on its broad wings and seeks renewed solitude upriver.
I emerge from the safari at the north end of the island, where the Penobscot broadens majestically, thundering over a rocky ledge that straddles the breadth of the river. Ospreys circle overhead, and kingfishers, their harsh rattle piercing even the roar of the cataract, dart swiftly over the water in search of food.
I maneuver the canoe into the current, lay my paddle across my lap, and allow the river to do the work now, giving me the grand tour of the eastern, rocky face of the island. From this vantage point, there is not a human habitation in sight, only water and forest and sky. I might just as well be in the Amazon basin, or in darkest Africa.
It strikes me that the native Americans of a thousand years ago, who once fished and hunted this area, and transited these waters, would immediately recognize all of this as home, so little has it changed.
As the current brings me to the south end of the island, I pick up my paddle again and slowly curl the canoe back into the western channel and toward home. Here the water is as still as a lake. A few homes, including mine, dot the mainland side, but the island side is strictly the purview of maples, birches, oaks, and a magnificent beaver lodge. This is the face of the island I see each and every day.
Approaching my home, I watch as another canoe, a red one, moves out from the reeds, headed for the island. Despite my sense of ownership, I feel a deep pleasure when I see someone else setting out for the island, a sort of vicarious quiver of anticipation of what they will discover there.
On this occasion the adventurer is a young woman with a pair of binoculars. We draw alongside each other.
"See anything good?" she asks.
"Ospreys, kingfishers, muskrat," I enumerate. "And there's a great blue heron around the north end."
"Neat," she says, hoisting her binoculars as evidence of her intent. Then we push off and go our separate ways.
I hadn't told her everything. I want to continue the illusion of the place being "my" island. I think I can manage it - so long as I'm the only one who knows where the wild asparagus grows.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society