Gone a’Fowl: A reporter journeys to a forgotten inner-city island

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For years, it had beckoned: The tiny island, sitting smack dab in the middle of the Schuylkill River — just daring this reporter to get there.

What was it? More importantly, what was on it? (My best guess: treasure.) On a recent Sunday afternoon, I pulled up to the Schuylkill’s western bank with the cheapo inflatable kayak I had purchased on eBay in a delirious moment — and slipped into the murky waters to find out.

The island is little more than 100 feet from the shore (fortunate, since said kayak currently leaks just a little less quickly than you can pump it back up). I aimed for the island’s only notable characteristic, a set of grandiose stone steps on its northern side, leading up from the water like the stairs of an ancient temple. A few minutes later, I scrambled onto them, and discovered not gold, but goose feces. Lots and lots of goose feces.

Peter’s Island, as the little mound turns out to be named (even on Google Maps), has left a surprisingly faint trail in Philly history, considering how long it’s been there. Illustrations of it date back at least to the early 1800s (in them, it looks considerably less ominous than it does now). By the mid-20th century, the island had actually ceased to be an island at all, according to Adam Levine, a historical consultant for the Philadelphia Water Department who runs the website PhillyH2O.org. A mountain of sludge — the remnants, Levine says, of a century of coal mining that had washed its way to Philly — had simply extended the river’s western bank all the way to the island. It remained a peninsula until some time in the 1950s, when the western channel was dredged back into existence, and the sludge pumped 11 miles southwest to create land in Eastwick, near the airport.

Aside from that, Peter’s Island seems to have been relatively overlooked by mankind. Which is probably why another species went ahead and took it over.

The place is littered, it turns out, with goose nests, enough that it’s hard not to step on one by accident. And doing that would be unpleasant indeed, because in the nests are goose eggs — and sitting on some of those goose eggs are geese. I discovered this by almost walking into one.

The goose didn’t budge from its squat, but craned its neck menacingly. As I fumbled with a camera (see photos on Naked City), I was ambushed by another, non-nest-squatting goose, who’d been hiding in the brush and then came at me, hissing. I feinted sideways, not wanting to cede ground on my southward march, until another goose appeared from the opposite direction, also hissing. I retreated.

That’s just as well, says Chris Crockett, Deputy Commissioner for Planning and Environmental Services at the Philadelphia Water Department, who pointed out to me over the phone that geese are federally protected animals.

Crockett first visited the island himself about 13 years ago, during a time when the little island had its last, brief fling with public attention, thanks to a goose population that had gotten, Crockett says, out of control.

“Back in the day,” he says, “once you got out there you couldn’t set foot on the island; before you even got onto it they started hissing and honking. And if you did get off on the island, the whole place was in an uproar! It was a very intense kind of experience.”

Using Peter’s Island as a base, the geese would swim to the Schuylkill’s banks in Fairmount Park and gorge themselves on its grassy lawns. They destroyed vegetation, laid bare fields and, of course, pooped. A lot.

“You ever hear the term, ‘Slippery as goose … stuff’?” Crockett asks. “That [bike] trail was pretty slippery.”

They still do all of these things, of course — but it was worse, Crockett says. Much worse. “Hundreds. We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of geese. Maybe 125 or more in a single parking lot,” he says. “It became tons of poop per year.”

Peter’s Island — and the stream of goose poop that flows from it — happens to be situated a short ways upstream of the city’s main water intake for the Schuylkill River. And stuff, as it were, flows downstream.

The Water Department began reviewing ways to cut down on the pollution and, in 1999, theDaily News and local TV news stations flocked to the story, helping prompt a brief goose frenzy.

“People were sending me goose recipes,” Crockett recalls, laughing.

In the years since, the Water Department and the Department of Parks & Recreation have pursued a plan of goose discouragement, planting vegetation that geese don’t like at the edge of the water and putting up signs to discourage people from feeding them. According to recent goose surveys the Water Department has conducted, the numbers have gone down dramatically, Crockett says.

When I described being chased by just two geese, he seemed genuinely pleased: “The numbers are down,” he remarked, “and the geese still have their little island. So everybody got something they needed.”

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