OXFORD — When you disembark on the island at Oxford Lake Park, the first things you notice are the beauty and the bird poop.
No one lives on the island. Neither Mr. Roarke nor Gilligan greets the rare visitor; they aren’t there. Ducks and geese and turtles nest on the island, but that’s it. Except in the rarest of circumstances, people only see it from the shoreline, a tree-lined, acre-sized, manmade bump curiously withheld from public use.
Each week in the spring and summer, city workers charter a pontoon boat out to the island to cut the grass and weed-eat the edges. Otherwise, it’s an isolated, eerily beautiful place lathered in shade and discarded feathers. After last summer’s $2.8 million renovation of the park, the island today is manicured and lovingly kept, a poor-man’s version of the 17th green at TPC Sawgrass.
There may be no other speck of Calhoun County earth as prominent yet mysteriously unused as the Oxford Lake island.
“They won’t let anyone out here now,” laughs Ferrell Ingram, the Parks and Recreation Department retiree who captains the pontoon boat out to the island. If you’re caught on the island without permission, Oxford police consider it trespassing, so don’t try.
Still, getting here is easy for the fortunate few.
Ingram’s boat is powered by a trolling motor attached to two small batteries. The boat isn’t really a boat; it’s a homemade, wooden platform sitting atop four pontoons. Calling it the SS Minnow is a stretch. It has no seats or life vests but does have two paddles in case the motor gives out. Two metal chairs are folded and stacked up front. A rusty chain keeps joyriders from taking it out for a spin. Huck and Jim had it better.
From the lakeside dock, Ingram fires up the trolling motor and begins the three-minute cruise to the island. He kneels down to navigate, but visitors stand up for the shaky ride. The island has no dock, so you wait for Ingram to pull it close and then step onto land, not that much different from Neil Armstrong’s giant leap into the Moon.
Once there, the island greets you with silence. Glorious, soothing silence.
Old-timers at Oxford Lake corroborate the island’s pictorial history — a history that shows the island’s ever-changing landscape since the lake was built around 1889. Photographs at the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County show the island as a heavily wooded place that hosted weddings, hence its turn-of-the-century nickname, “Matrimony Island.”
“I remember when there were oak trees out there like this,” said Ingram, his arms opening as wide as they can. The lake’s distant past includes a petting zoo, bath house, swimming pool, canoe rides and other festivities. At one time, the island was part of the attraction, but those days, like the lake’s circus-like attractions, are lost to history. In Oxford today, tales still exist of holiday parachutists trying to land on the island.
A 1968 aerial photograph in The Star shows the island considerably larger than it is now; a treeless area on the island’s south side served as a launching pad for Fourth of July fireworks. Meddlesome beavers have occasionally stripped the island of its trees, the last time around 1990, Ingram remembers. In the ’90s and the first decade of this century, the spring-fed lake reclaimed nearly a quarter of the island’s west and south sides.
That was then. Now, the island is again pristine. Last summer’s restoration project brought the island closer to its original size, though PARD Director Don Hudson believes the island remains about 25 percent smaller than it was 50 years ago. Concrete barriers (like those that line the lake’s shore) now ward off further erosion. Six trees live there. Ingram points them out: two pin oaks, four water oaks. A stump marks the spot of an older tree, probably one of the beavers’ victims.
Oh, a little about those trees.
Like the shoreline, the trees have come and gone during the island’s 125 years. (So, too, has the underbrush.) Last month, Ingram sat under an island oak and explained how today’s trees came to be.
In the early 1990s, right after Ingram began working for Oxford PARD, the city bought new trees for the island. Planted in the spring, the trees were mostly gone that fall. (Those blasted beavers.) But good fortune had taken root on the island, and sprouts from the stolen trees began popping up the next spring, Ingram said. Using water from the lake, he nursed the island’s landscape back into shape.
“I just babied them and took care of them,” Ingram said.
In fact, the now-retired Ingram — maintenance man, grass-cutter, keeper of the trees — may have spent more time on the off-limits island than anyone alive today. “I’d say yes. There’s no doubt about that,” says Hudson, the PARD director. Do the math: Once a week, six months a year, 22 years — that’s a lot of trips to this isolated place.
Visitors to Oxford Lake Park get to see the island; visitors to the island get to see a 360-degree view of the park. It’s a vantage point few Calhoun Countians have seen — the renovated park, the lake’s improved shoreline and waterspout, the park’s walking trail. The island is oblong, slightly longer east to west than north to south; it takes about 70 paces to walk it edge to edge. It’s also larger than it looks from the shore. If the island was stripped of its trees, kids could play pickup football on it as they would in a neighbor’s backyard — the footing is solid enough.
Out on the island, Interstate 20’s bustle rumbles off in the distance, but you also hear the wind in the trees and the shallow water lapping up on the island’s barrier. The lake shore is silent, too far away. The island is peaceful and inviting, a serene place to pull up a chair and enjoy a summer day.