October 12, 2009

Life on the Island

River Camp 2009
California Island
Manitou Bluffs Conservation Opportunity Area

September 11 - 18, 2009
text by Ruthie Moccia, photos by Ruthie Moccia, Francis Baum, Melanie Cheney, Rod Power, Dory Colbert

The Big Dipper scoops low as if seven diamonds have been strung above my tent to dress the night horizon. Their sparkle is brilliant against the pitch black of the sky; there is no moon. Sand under my feet sifting down through my toes. Sounds of chatter and laughter rise from faces lit by the fire behind me. Someone says we’ll have to sort the linen in the morning. Something about napkins being thrown in with tablecloths.

It is all behind us now, meeting the most outrageous challenge of our lives together on the river. At this moment we are as connected as a zebra mussel to a ship’s hull.

I see the memory of myself standing at the edge of California Island with hundreds of containers just unloaded from our boats. Cardboard boxes, canvas bags, backpacks, plastic 20 gallon tubs packed with dishes, cooking utensils and kitchen supplies, a slew of 10 gallon water jugs, 4 huge rectangular coolers packed with food on ice. Survival items for what would be our mission during the next eight days. Hands on my hips, staring at a spot where we would erect the nun, words passed through me without sound or censorship. “Will this seem worth it a week from now?”

Instinctively I knew the answer to be “yes.” River Relief does not disappoint. Within a few minutes, Racin’ had our Flying Nun kitchen erected and tents were strewn across the island, each on the foundation of its new home. The site for the fire pit was designated with folding canvas chairs and a few hay bales. Just then the weather turned against us. We raised two pop ups to shelter us from the pouring rain, stood there watching it, and in that few moments of down time noticed we were starving. We munched on wraps filled with roasted red peppers and cold lentil salad. These were listed under “Friday Lunch” on the week’s menu. Things were clicking.

The rain subsided to a drizzle and a few procrastinators zoomed into tent making. I had draped a tarp over my gear when the sprinkles began but Liz had persisted through the rain. “Forty people for spaghetti dinner tonight,” Mel smiled quietly with eyes rolled toward a stormy gray sky.

It crossed my mind that we could call and cancel the dinner invitation but no one else expressed that thought. Every pair of hands had a task. By the time the guests arrived, the kitchen was fully functioning with propane gas burners boiling pots of water and heating pasta sauce. The campfire was blazing. Members of Sustain Mizzou and their coordinator arrived, having been loaded in our boats at Katfish Katie’s ramp. They were handsome, intelligent, clean, healthy college kids with brave minds and kind spirits. I like to think of them as “the young Americans.” They walked around checking out every part of this mile long island that held them smack in the middle of Manitou Bluffs. I mentioned to three of them, heading out to explore, that the woodpile was low and soon they came back with their arms full of washed-smooth gray wood.

California Island. The stories they had heard contained characters playing nude volleyball, skinny dipping, and frolicking under the moon in the ‘70’s, ‘80’s and beyond. The island landscape in those days included a deep grove of cottonwoods, nearly all of which were swept away by the devastating ’93 flood. The few left behind were taken later by the flood of ’95. There is a lot of driftwood here, but virtually no established vegetation. A rise of 15 feet for the river means the entire island is submerged.

Our guests that first night ate mounds of spaghetti and thanked us for cooking. They hung out in the nun washing dishes.

I said goodnight to the stars, then slept like a baby. By 8 AM all members of Sustain Mizzou had eaten breakfast and packed their gear. They sat in red River Relief life vests aboard the Hildy, heading out to be the brawn of the cleanup at Cooper’s Landing. Later, they had wild stories about the trash they found and a hot tub they got crazy about digging out. It isn’t every day you find a hot tub floating in an eddy of the Missouri River.

Which reminds me of the surprise of the sand under my feet and the way it is softening and becoming very fine grained in the shelter of the nun. So many people walk its paths; food draws more than ants. The sand toward my tent and out on the tip of the island is packed and stained dark, perhaps with river mud. But in the kitchen I feel as though I may be at the dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

It’s Saturday and I have been twenty-four hours on this island. Steve said he didn’t want me to feel trapped here. I’m not trapped at all. Today we go off island to man our booth at Coopers Landing for the annual ecology festival.

Once at Cooper’s, we hang our banner letting it sway between two trees. Mel draws people in, teaching them to make found-object mobiles; shells, rocks, smoothed glass and wood from the river dangling from brown sinew or silvery wire. I take to it with intense focus oblivious to everything else and she’s soon almost sorry she taught me. Children build pretend creatures from plastic bottles, paint river rocks with vivid nature colors or problem solve for out-of-balance mobiles. I’m in river heaven. An art piece in the making, a silent auction, riverboat rides, live music, Thai food, carnival striped umbrellas, and the return ride to the island at dusk. What more could you want on an Indian summer night? The air smells of fall and campfires. Bright golden cottonwood leaves drift across my view of the river.

We’re trying to get a point across by being here. We want to put things back into balance in our little corner of the world. We want people to fall in love with the Big Muddy and recognize it as a vital part of their home that needs protected. Not caring for the river means not caring for ourselves. The river is here for us, but only if we are here for the river. The wide Missouri, with all of its organisms and vegetation ranging from white pelican to pallid sturgeon, from hundred-year-old cottonwoods to plankton, needs us. Tomorrow morning we host an excursion to Eagle Bluffs, an event featuring identification of the wild things that live here.

Monday. Boats for Birds, Bugs and Botany left the island at 6:30 AM and returned midday. Meanwhile, the port-a-potties arrived. I’d learned a lot while waiting for them, finally crafting a small Chinese-style latrine downwind from my tent. There were other projects on the island. Rod and I searched washed up gravel for Indian artifacts and objects to weave into mobiles. Joe built an 18-foot high driftwood sculpture. Eli erected a bamboo pole near the fire pit tying it with colorful silk bandanas and Indie strung up his tiger striped sarong beside it.

More guests, more cooking, more schlepping from boats and more filling of water bottles. A sister organization, Friends of the Big Muddy, came for potluck Tuesday evening and our own advisory board members were boated in for their monthly dinner meeting on Wednesday. Throughout the week, friends and supporters canoed or kayaked to the island to help out or hang out. One of our founders actually swam over from a nearby trail, appearing to have come from nowhere!

If our ultimate goal this week is to connect people to the river, what better spot to introduce them to than the very center, marked so beautifully by this strip of sand?

Every person who sets foot in one of our boats will get to feel the magic of this place.

The river speaks for itself and grabs you solid straight on with morning mist, glistening afternoon sun, warm reflections of sunset and, later, stars. The ominous potential from its swift current and the fast traveling refuse just beneath its dark surface must also be reckoned with. We saw the double barge come downriver after delivering its load and Brady recited the story of canoe paddlers trapped under it during the M340. Two seasoned paddlers from the Pacific coast, 400 feet in front, sucked under its wake and screaming. The tugboat captain heard their screams over a speaker system used to load the boat. He shifted into reverse, thus flushing them out, but only after they had gone completely under the barge, cross current. To their surprise, they lived.

Thursday brings the grand finale for River Camp. For this, a roll of trash bags in ocean blue is unwound across the island to show how far we have traveled, at a representational length of 6” per river mile, to clean up the river each year since 2001. At the northwest end lies Yankton, South Dakota. St. Charles, Missouri caps off the southeastern tip of the line. Somewhere in between, a hand lettered sign reads, “California Island: you are here.”

Over 100 supporters and sponsors are transported by boat for a sit down dinner of jambalaya, fried catfish, fried okra, hush puppies, green salad, and a lavish spread of desserts. Sous Chef Desmond slaves in the kitchen with as many assistants as needed. Soda Popp has arrived from his place on the Osage to fry up 40 pounds of catfish. Steve and Anthony arrange the banquet tables and Liz covers them with elegantly pressed white linen. Mel takes a boat out and returns with buckets of pink and yellow wildflowers. We set out silver serving pieces, china, silver ware, wine glasses and white cloth napkins. Vases are filled with the wildflowers and ball jars are filled with candlelight. My mobiles have been strung with fishing line to dangle from the grommets of the nun. Joe’s towering sculpture has turned into a “wishing tree” hung with solar lights and images of things we need: a new box truck, another boat, more tools.

Though the invitation stated casual dress, crew made a real effort to clean up, making us feel especially ready for this night. Jeff granted me the use of his solar shower and I feel gorgeous and glowing because of it. We shine as parking lot attendants, boat pilots, greeters, decorators, kitchen help, bartenders, servers, emcees and partygoers. Our special dinner guests are given a nautical card on which to write their own vision for the Missouri River and asked to tie it with twine to the wishing tree before the night is over. Later, boat pilots Steve, Mel, Brady, Racin’ and Jeff return to the island telling of guests who departed in the dark moonless night nervously holding their breath, but relaxed and chatted excitedly once they realized they were in good hands; hands that know the river.

Tomorrow we break camp and pack up. I’ll go home for the first time in eight days. It’s both exciting and sad. I will miss this island; it’s silken sand, it’s glorious sun and shining stars.

I wake up in my own bed, free of sand after a hot bath the night before. My feet slide over the edge of the mattress down to the floor. The oak boards gleam as the sun’s light streams into the window across the hall. The very room is glistening; it is perfect morning light. There is a dreamy glow wherever the sunlight lands and diffuses. My eyes drink it in rather than squint it away.

This is my ninth day since setting foot on California Island. The island has opened my eyes. It feels somehow like a new beginning.

Ruthie Moccia is a psychologist, writer and artist residing in the mid-Missouri area. She has been volunteer crew with Missouri River Relief over the past 3 years. River Camp was hosted by Missouri River Relief during the week of September 11th to 20th on California Island in the heart of the Manitou Bluffs Conservation Opportunity Area and was sponsored in part by Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation, Teaming With Wildlife and Conservation Federation of Missouri.

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