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We are the Islanders


It’s 1968.  It’s July.  I’m 13.  The sun is beating upon us.  Mercilessly. It has been for weeks.  The long grass all around us has been turned straw yellow.  But not us.  We’re brown from the work.  Forearms. Foreheads.  Legs.  Sweat trickles down my nose while I work yet it’s not even ten in the morning.

We are the tent platform brigade.

It started in June, the first month our family took possession of a property that was called Camp Mohawk, on the southwestern tip of Hay Island.  It had been operated as a girls’ camp by the Kiwanis Club of Kingston, before my folks Bob and Elisabeth Russell bought it.  There were fourteen buildings on the then fifty year old property.  All the roofs leaked, the massive boathouse cribs had rotted, and everywhere you looked there were bunk beds.

But not all the girls got a bunk.  Many slept in tent platforms under a canopy of canvas.  The platforms were wooden structures.  Fourteen by sixteen feet floors that supported the two by four open beam roofs above.   Which is where we came in.

Our mission was to take the tent platforms apart.  De-nail all the boards, stack them, and of course straighten out and collect all the nails.  There were four of us in this crew my two brothers and I, and the son of a family friend.

You know about crow bars and hammers right?  Every islander does.  Even I did at 13.  But a nail puller?  It’s an ingenious device that has two pincers at its base.  Jaws that open when there’s no pressure, and close when there is.  Because there is a three inch flange, connected to one of the pincers. The pressure gets applied by a handle that slides down the body of the thing and acts like a hammer, pushing these jaws into wood and around the head of any nail.  Pull back up on the body of the nail puller and you’ve got a lever, one which can bring any nail out of hiding.

The nail squeals when you pull as its sides rub against the wood.  But the shriek, which is higher pitched than you might expect, becomes your friend.  It tells you the nail is coming your way and can soon go into the pail, with its mates, to be straightened when you’re too tired to do anything else.

Day after day we toiled.  Day after day the piles of two by sixes and two by fours grew larger.  The mounds of slightly S-shaped nails multiplied with them.  And the tent platforms departed into history, their wood becoming desperately needed dock topping, porch flooring, or wall siding.

Now I’m 61.  The sweat is still trickling down my brow, but I try to keep out of the sun.  And there are the nails. Still the nails.  I’ve just dismantled a hundred year old wall that sided a replaced boathouse set of stairs.  The wall was a mish mash of original cedar shingles, the tongue and groove siding into which they were nailed, and the two by four and two by six additions that shored the stairs up, over this most recent fifty years.

Is it fate that has me banging on the tips of those nails, with my hammer, and yanking them out with my crow bar, while the .1%ers motor by my boathouse in their $400,000 yachts?  And what do the people in those boats know that I don’t?  They’re vacationing, while I’m pulling out every single nail, from every single board, because I know that’s what must be done so no one gets a nail through a foot or a palm.

The white cruisers glisten and their chrome gleams in the hard sunlight.  There is a deep throated rumble from the engines.  Occasionally, I catch glimpses of attractively clad people in wonderful bathing costumes.

What would I give to trade places with them?  Motoring along with not a care.

I ponder this as I yell at an intransigent nail.  I use a noun beginning with a “b.”  It describes children born out of wedlock.  For some reason this particular nail is a little one of those.

The swearing helps me know that I am where I belong.  So does the occasional prick from a nail tip, I didn’t notice but do now.  It too quickly joins the out of wedlock tribe.

I belong here on this rock because I am building.  It might not seem like that at the moment, but I am.  While there are metal roofs on all the buildings and the boathouse now sits on steel pilings, the creating continues.  We are the cottagers whose job is to give ourselves and the people we know loving memories that will last a lifetime.

That doesn’t make me better or worse than the good people in their expensive boats.  Just different.  I’m happy they’re on the water and I hope they come again.

Me?  Unlike the boaters, my choice has been long since made.  When I was thirteen, or even earlier.

I come because there’s always another nail that needs pulling; another nut that needs turning, and another memory that needs making.

Our pricked fingers and bloodied knuckles inform us that we have in some small but meaningful way, helped make the life that is around us.  Those moments of pain tell us that the building isn’t only for us.  It’s for our parents, who came before us, and our children who may follow.

That’s what keeps us coming back.

That’s why we are here to stay.

That’s what defines us.

We are the islanders.

By Mark R. Russell

Mark Russell first came to Hay Island in 1956, as a six-month-old.  The family summered on Hay Island, every year thereafter.  His mother and father purchased the Cedar Nook Girls Camp property, originally owned and built by the Lewis family of Virginia Beach, VA, in 1968. Mark and his three siblings continue to spend as much time there, as the seasons allow.  His time away from the River has been consumed by raising three, now twenty-something children, and working in industrial investment banking and business development. Today, he not only spends time on the River, but luckily for us, he is writing.  (See Mark Russell’s TI Life submissions here)

Posted in: Places, Nature
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Ewart Richardson
Comment by: Ewart Richardson
Left at: 11:10 AM Monday, August 15, 2016
One of my first views of your father was in the summer of 1971 or 1972 as seen from Moneysunk Island. He was doing the reverse of the job you described. A 6 x 6 crib was being assembled and he, from a seated position, would tap a 10" spike an inch or two into the timber with a large striking hammer. He then would shift himself backwards the appropriate distance from his target and drive that spike home with no more than four swings. Without a miss I should add.

I would watch him row into the 40 Acres to fish in a SW wind. When he had his limit he would row directly to his dock, guided by the well gimbaled bell ringing at his tie up spot.

An amazing man your father.
Greg Bell
Comment by: Greg Bell
Left at: 2:37 PM Wednesday, September 7, 2016
A very enjoyable personal essay Mark about island life. I'm so glad that you have embraced the 'Islander' term of reference, as I for one greatly dislike the popular catchphrase 'River Rat,' which I find offensive. My grandfather Joseph Pullaw, a true 'River Man' would think likewise. Growing up in the 50's and 60's on the river Hay Island played an important role in my life. We would visit your neighbours Lula Dee Root, a truly unforgettable river character and the Kalnins family who owned Hay Island Lodge. My family were also friends with the original caretakers of the Lewis' summer home, who lived on the island all year--Bert and Pearl Davis. Mrs Davis' father Frank Ames, was the caretaker of Forsyth lsland and has been featured in 1000 Island Life in previous issues. My mother would skate across from Gan. to visit Mr. & Mrs. Davis in the dead of winter. Thank you as well for reminding people that life on the river is often overly romanticized and that it takes a certain amount of grit sometimes to be an 'Islander'.