Camp Big Island, Sylvan Lake

Originally Published August 9th, 2017

“Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl: it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.” -Henry David Thoreau

I once had a very unique professor who taught several of my philosophy courses. He shared a quote with my Eastern Religions class that went something like, “I wanted to explore the universe, so I started on my hands and knees in the backyard.” I don’t remember where the quote came from. I don’t remember if it was Hindu or Buddhist. But the image created by those words stuck in my mind. I pictured an old Buddha in orange toga on hands and knees—studying each blade of grass as if it were its own universe. The old Buddha with childlike curiosity. From a child’s vista the backyard can seem like an infinite jungle of dense forest and tiny pre-historic creatures. I remember as a child, finding strange insects and imprisoning them within the confines of a mason jar. G.I Joe was always in a perpetual war to save the front stoop from invading ants. I once went on a mining operation, quarrying the shiny rocks from the base of my parents’ home—to their dismay. The sandbox was an island, rife with the ruins of ancient cities, megalithic structures, and the occasional cat turd. Now that I’m grown, the backyard turds have been replaced by that of my two dogs (I would not advise getting on your knees and exploring that landscape). But, the wisdom of Dr. Spath, my philosophy teacher, can still be heard years later: be curious. The world is big but there’s a universe in your backyard. Eventually, I want to travel the world. But, in order to do that I have a lot to learn. What better way to gain experience than by exploring the world, just beyond our front steps?

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Sylvan Lake

After our cat Tiger took over the sandbox, G.I. Joe was dismembered, and I lost interest in flushing bugs down the toilet; I expanded my universe. The sheen waters of Sylvan lake were only a short bike ride from my house. Here I found an entirely new universe to explore. I remember sliding down the fosslized cement dam, before the lake was drained and the dam was replaced with a steep— much more dangerous dam. As the waters receded, islands were made from sandbars that existed throughout the man-made lake. It made it so I could walk or swim to the tiny islands. I recall exploring the shores, searching for lures, treasures, and hunting crawfish.

One particular outing my sister’s fishing pole was dragged into the lake by a large fish. Later that day, I felt a tug on my line and reeled in a giant bass—to see that it was attached to our lost fishing pole. Talk about bad luck! Across the sandbar was a tiny island with a house in the middle—Gem Island. At one point I remember traveling there with my dad. I thought it was such a strange thing, to live on an island—to travel home by boat. What if they ran out of toilet paper? These are the thoughts I had as a kid (and still do). The residents only lived there for the summer. I remember the complaints they had about the house sometimes flooding. The man who owned it told us the island would soon be uninhabitable—as it was slowly sinking. A miniature Atlantis. Sylvan lake is home to many islands. As a child, these were the only islands I visited.

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The Big Island

Growing up in Rome City, I slowly became aware of the lonely places. The ruins of a once bustling tourist town. The great brick buildings of Sylvan Springs, now empty and haunted. The railroad corridor which carried famous pilgrims to the Chautauqua Festival, now a wooded trail flanked by steel. I walked these trails as a kid, skipping fists full of railroad rocks, listening for a train whistle. Somewhere the ghost of Gene Stratton-Porter walked these woods. I learned about her from a young age. The famous author, photographer, and naturalist who found inspiration in the swamps of our town. On field trips to her Limberlost cabin, I saw for the first time, the big island of Sylvan lake.

Boy Scout Island sat directly across the lake from Gene Stratton-Porter. Early residents called it Rattle Snake Island. Like many of the ruins of my town, it was camouflaged in deep green mystery. The only way to reach it was by boat. There was a marsh connecting it to the mainland— but you dare not cross that. Rattlesnakes! During the 1930’s it became the Anthony Wayne Council’s summer camp. I guess the name Rattlesnake Island sounded adventurous! The scouts went with a less terrifying name— Camp Big Island. The site consisted of some fifteen cabins, a large dining hall, concession stand, and chapel. Roughly one mile of trail ran around the edge of the island. The interior was swamp, occupied by— you guessed it! Rattlesnakes!

For years the scouts trained in canoeing, swimming, & various crafts—all while acquiring badges exclusive to Big Island (these vintage badges are now sought after by collectors). Huge bonfires would take place at night. Occasionally, staffers would dress like Native Americans—singing & dancing by fire. Huge battles of “Capture the Flag” sent crazed scouts running and hollering through the woods. Evidently, scaring off all the snakes. In fact, Boy Scout Island was so popular, the name stayed— even after the scouts were gone. A few years after the camp was sold, a tornado destroyed most of the buildings. The island was abandoned.

Decades later, Big Island was purchased by the Sylvan Lake Association in order to preserve the natural state of the island. Volunteers cleared away debris and poisonous plants, re-opening the walking trails. While most of the scout camp was destroyed, the chapel remained. A public dock was built along with a pavilion. Finally, in the spring of 2012, visitors were free to explore. The chapel began offering services the second Sunday of the summer months—complete with a boat shuttle for visitors.

I knew at some point the island was purchased, but had no idea it was open to the public.  When I found out folks were going there, I instantly wanted to visit the cryptic island of my childhood. I dredged the internet for as much information as I could find (which wasn’t much). Then, once again I found myself at the pier of Gene Stratton-Porter, looking out at the big green island.

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Camp Big Island, Nature Preserve

Speedboats growled by, leaving our kayaks bobbing. The wake tossing us back to our childhoods, that summer smell of engine smoke and lake water. Kids screamed in the distance, zooming by on large floating creatures. It was mid-day July and we had just left the dock at Gene Stratton-Porter—edging closer to Big Island. Ashley and I waited until it was safe to cross, then paddled furiously as there are no stop lights on the lake. As we glided closer we could make out the huge stone cross marking the chapel, the only real sign of settlement from outside the island.

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As we rode our plastic boats along the coast I was reminded of a scene from Jurassic Park. The main characters were approaching by helicopter. Below them the green forest bulged out into the water, veiling everything. This was Camp Big Island, the enigma. There was no sense of what remained ahead. Only what we could imagine in our minds. What does a ruined scout camp look like? Will we discover the fossilized remains of a-frame tents—the bones of countless canoes? What kind of ghosts still wander there? What strange creatures are free to occupy this island—alone? One hundred and ten acres of land—alone. The deep interior swamp, bubbling and scurrying—alone.

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Arriving at the dock, the island seemed even more esoteric. The trail leaving the shore was somewhat overgrown. The roof of a pavilion leered, framed in green, past a small incline. We sat on a bench facing the lake and had lunch before our hike. For all we knew we were alone, save the the muffled voices of people on pontoons. The trail forked and we could go either left or right. We began to tip-toe left in the direction of the pavilion, keenly aware of our footsteps. My brain was primed for snakes and every twig seemed to come alive, slithering away. Every crackling leaf, the rattling end of a serpent’s tail. Either my focus needed to change or this was going to be a long mile. Ashley picked up a walking stick and jutted it out before us as to scare anything away. We headed down the path.

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The trail stretched out long then disappeared into the forest. The canopy covered us in green patches of sunlight. The woods was alive. Birds dove down from the tops of trees while tiny chipmunks raced along dead timber. Poison ivy could be seen just beyond the trail. Stone benches dotted the path with memorial plaques. Along the way we could see the remains of telephone lines—chopped up to clear the path. Several ditches were piled high with scrap metal. Through the trees we could make out the figures of rusted relics—a large oven or refrigerator. As we reached the camp, tall chainlink fences stood, encasing the ruins. “Is this where they kept the Velociraptors?” I asked jokingly.

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The masonry of the twin chimneys had withstood the tornado. However, the forest nearly swallowed them up, like ancient obelisks. Vines pushed and snaked their way through every aperture. Below the surface sat the dilapidated foundation. An eerie feeling came over me as we explored the grounds. The loneliness from my childhood was here in this place. In front of us lay yet another series of Rome City ghosts.

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Reaching an elevated ridge we could hear the roar of boats through the trees, circling us like dinosaurs. We walked past the sad remnants of a Lincoln Log cabin, reminding us that anything left in this woods would be eaten alive. Down the path the trail slowly opened and we arrived at the sandy chapel steps. The cross stood austere against the backdrop of speeding boats and million dollar homes. Like the fireplace monuments, these stone structures had survived many years of weather and decay. Now, on bright summer Sundays, travelers sit for church services. But today, roaming the empty catacombs between each pew, we were alone. The lines of breeze block benches—alone. The long circle path back to our kayaks—alone.

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The trail began to twist, curl, and climb like a snake through the woods. Thinning at one point as if the forest floor had swallowed it whole. Up a small hill it became difficult to see where the path continued. We followed deer tracks through small valleys until we reached another large mouth of trail. “There’s something huge over there.” Ashley whispered. Adrenalin pulsated as my attention was shifted towards the tall grass of a swamp. Through a curtain of orange mesh seperating the trail from the swamp, I could see the distinct light brown chest of a deer. “It’s a deer.” We mirrored the frozen animals, standing still. Slowly, they moved out of site. We could hear the crisp lime grass as the deer slowly lurked into the shallow swamp water.

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There along the path, simultaneously we became aware of the vast number of un-named birds. Birds of multiple shapes, sizes, colors—there in the trees. At that moment I pictured Gene standing here, looking up with black box camera in hand—calm and curious as a Buddha. The Bird Woman. These swamps were her universe. These trails a universe. Every step, every tree, every bird—a universe.

A pre-historic screech rose above the bird song. The cry of a Great Blue Heron tore through the leaves as it launched like a Pterodactyl. Startled, we both looked up and noticed a woodpecker. Identifying it only as we had seen in the cartoons—Woody Woodpecker aka Pileated Woodpecker aka Hylatomus Pileatus. His tiny red head, grappling and poking up the tree.
“Is that a woodpecker?” asked Ashley.
“Yes.”
“I’ve never seen a woodpecker.”
“Me either.”
We watched as his red head disappeared above the roof of the forest.

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We reached the end of the path, completing our exploration. We made the roughly one mile trek around the island without seeing one Rattlesnake—or any prehistoric beasts. However, I wasn’t about to push my luck. As we walked tiredly back to the peer, the silhouette of a deer walked along the water, slow and quiet like a ghost. We really weren’t alone after all I thought. There was something watching us from behind—and just a few steps ahead.

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As we kayaked back to the Cabin of Wildflower Woods, we felt like giants. Louis and Clark—skin pickled in SPF and DEET. The big island was no longer a mystery. No Rattlesnakes to battle. No turds unexpectedly unearthed. But like kids we walked a little way past our front steps, and discovered just a bit more of this tiny blue-green dot.

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.” -Carl Sagan

This blog is dedicated to the spirit of Gene Stratton-Porter.

Dream. Explore. Be curious.

For more information on Camp Big Island visit http://www.sylvanlakeindiana.org/big-island.html

All photos were captured using a Fujifilm X100S

Thank you for reading!

-Tim

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