Grand Prize and First Place, Nonfiction, Open to the Public : The Island (excerpt)

By ED CRAVERMay 11, 2013 

Alaska Energy Authority, Susitna-Watana Dam

This section of the Susitna River will be behind the dam of the proposed Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project on the Susitna River north west of Talkeetna. The dam site is at mile 184 of the Susitna River. 120814

BOB HALLINEN — Anchorage Daily News Buy Photo

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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 1980s 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 1950s. 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. No doubt workers building the railroad in the early 1920s 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 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 tangle 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 -- 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 of warmth.

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.

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 migrated 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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