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January 16, 2006

Texas Aquatic Harvesting — Specializing in 'Extreme Island Annihilitation'



I didn't see this sport in the last X-Games — you?

It's not a sport, silly billy — it's a business.

Texas Aquatic Harvesting, which, oddly enough, is located in Polk County in the heart of Florida, is the company you call when you've got a floating island in your lake or bay that you've had enough of.

They'll come into your town, they'll help you party down, they're... wait a minute... that's not right.

The company uses 90–foot–long boats with large blades to carve up islands that "average the size of Yankee Stadium," project manager Mike Hulon told New York Times reporter Pam Belluck in a November 6, 2005 front–page story about out–of–control floating islands.

She wrote, "He also uses boats that he calls 'cookie cutters' [above], which act like Cuisinarts on an island, 'turning it into puree.'"

When Belluck told Hulon about the kinder, gentler approach that people in Springfield, Massachusetts were taking to their floating island (the Springfield Conservation Commission has mandated that the island, about the size of a football field, must not be tethered, altered or otherwise impeded from its natural inclinations and wanderings), "Mr. Hulon practically sneered. 'Bunny huggers,' he said."

Here's the article.

    And Sometimes, the Island Is Marooned on You

    The island of Island Pond had it in for Andrew Renna.

    Or so it seemed one Saturday evening a few weeks ago. In the middle of a pounding storm, Mr. Renna looked out across the pond, which borders his backyard.

    ''It was raining crazy,'' he recalled.

    ''I said, 'That wind's going to blow that thing right over here.' Ten minutes later it did. When it moves, it moves pretty quick.''

    The island, about the size of a football field, made a beeline for Mr. Renna's house -- crushing his three-foot chain-link fence, swamping his red-blue-and-purple flagstone patio, wrecking his dock, flooding his shed, hobbling his weeping willow, and drowning the oregano, cilantro, tomatoes and peppers in his garden.

    Then, with an insouciant shrug, it came to a standstill in Mr. Renna's backyard, an interloper squatting in stubborn silence.

    ''Normally when it floats you can actually hear the roots rip -- it sounds like ripping up carpet,'' said Mr. Renna, 51, a roofing and siding sales manager.

    ''But this time, it didn't make any noise.''

    Island Pond's island has been floating for as long as anyone can remember, buoyed by a mat of sphagnum moss and gases from decomposing plants.

    It is a curiosity and sometimes a nuisance for the 20 or so homes around the shoreline of this nine-acre pond in Springfield, Mass.

    Sometimes it boings mischievously around as if the pond were a pinball machine, sailing, for example, into Richard and Beverly Vears's backyard just hours after they moved in.

    That gave a neighbor a perfect welcome gag: telling the Vearses he was a tax collector who would charge them for the extra property.

    Locals, including city officials and the pond's owner, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, which runs the adjacent Cathedral High School, say the wandering island is a rarity that must not be tethered, altered or otherwise brought to heel.

    ''There's only two in North America,'' said Stan Tenerowicz, environmental affairs administrator of the Springfield Conservation Commission.

    He said that 12 years ago, Cathedral High tied the island to shore to spare homeowners an unwelcome floating visitor, but the conservation commission ordered it unchained.

    ''Tethering it would be a type of alteration of a wetlands system,'' Mr. Tenerowicz said.

    ''And this is a pretty unique natural resource.''

    It turns out, however, that the claim of ''two in North America'' is apocryphal, according to experts on floating islands.

    Such islands appear across the country and around the world -- familiar enough that Minnesota issues removal permits to homeowners, and prevalent enough in some lakes in Florida that they are chopped up or pulverized by large machines with sharp blades.

    ''People who live near a floating island always claim that it is the only one,'' said Chet Van Duzer, author of ''Floating Islands: A Global Bibliography.''

    Mr. Van Duzer estimates that there are dozens of floating islands, sometimes called floating bogs, in several states including California, Indiana, Maine and Ohio.

    Many others once floated but have since been destroyed or become land-locked, said Mr. Van Duzer, including ones on Lake Ontario in New York, Bolton Lake in Connecticut and Kettle Moraine Lake in Wisconsin.

    ''Globally, they're not rare, and in this country they're not rare,'' said Stuart E. G. Findlay, a senior scientist at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

    The islands usually form in wetlands, where plants take root in peaty soil or sphagnum moss in a shallow lake or riverbed, said Dave Walker, a senior project manager with the St. Johns River Water Management District in Florida, where, he said, ''you can get acres and acres of floating islands on a lake.''

    When the plants decompose, they release gases that can create buoyancy, he said.

    And if there is a surge in the water level, from a flood or hurricane for instance, the peaty mat can break away from the bottom and float.

    Mr. Walker said some islands could even be precipitated by ''a large alligator burrowing'' on a lake bottom.

    The islands, which can be as big as an acre and six inches to six feet thick, are rich environments for wildlife, allowing small creatures to outfloat predators.

    Many of the islands sprout trees, which act as sails; the 20-foot birches, alders and pines on the Island Pond island can ferry it across the entire pond in as little as 20 minutes, residents say.

    In some parts of the world, like Loktak Lake in India and Lake Kyoga in Uganda, people live or fish on floating islands, Mr. Van Duzer said.

    In Springfield, few people seem to venture onto the Island Pond island; some residents say they worry about falling through its spongy surface.

    But it teems with birds and amphibians, and there is even rumored to be a turtle the size of a bear, nicknamed Big Ben, that ostensibly feasts on ducks, geese and anything else it can snap up.

    The island is kleptomaniacal, scooping up baseballs and tennis balls from the high school on its banks, and it gives safe harbor to some marijuana plants that have blossomed into a sizable patch.

    Some experts believe that floating islands are becoming more common or lasting longer in some places, especially where human encroachment has created reservoirs or where fertilizer use has made certain plants grow faster.

    Others, like Wayne Mueller, an aquatic plant management specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said that so many more people lived around lakes these days that floating islands previously unnoticed were being spotted.

    While the islands can be pretty, ''they are not benign,'' Mr. Walker said.

    ''They can crash into a dock, they can block a canal entrance, they can uproot a lot of vegetation.''

    In Minnesota, Mr. Mueller said, islands can become ''aquatic footballs -- people push it off their property and it becomes attached to another person's property.''

    State officials will sometimes ''stake down'' a floating island with long pieces of wood, ''pinning it to the bottom,'' Mr. Mueller said.

    Homeowners in Minnesota wanting to get rid of an island cannot use machines, he said, so they often spend hours using ice saws, axes or manure hooks to cut it up, then carting the soggy pieces away.

    In Florida, officials have tried pushing the islands with boats, roping them into corners and blocking their paths with wood pilings.

    And there is what might be called extreme island annihilation, done by the likes of a Florida company called Texas Aquatic Harvesting.

    Using 90-foot boats with large blades, the company carves up islands that ''average the size of Yankee Stadium,'' said Mike Hulon, a project manager.

    He also uses boats that he calls ''cookie cutters,'' which act like Cuisinarts on an island, ''turning it into puree.''

    In Lake Jackson, he said, ''those islands were full of marsh rats and rabbits,'' and once, when the cookie cutter got going, ''the alligators were in a feeding frenzy -- they would have three or four rats and rabbits in their mouths at one time.''

    Told about the kid-glove approach of the Island Pond denizens in Massachusetts, Mr. Hulon practically sneered.

    ''Bunny huggers,'' he said.

    But many Island Pond residents feel affection for their itinerant island.

    Dan Blais tried to plant tomatoes on it and named a pair of geese who return to it each year Hansel and Gretel.

    ''It's like walking on a waterbed,'' said Mr. Blais.

    ''I love to see it moving around.''

    Two weeks after the island plopped onto Mr. Renna's yard, Cathedral High School agreed to tow it to freedom, hoping to raise charitable donations to recoup the cost of $5,500.

    It commissioned CJ's Towing Unlimited, which towed the island in 2001, an undertaking that lasted 14 hours.

    This time, the process took five hours. CJ's used a truck that could pull 45 tons, two winches, a speedboat to stretch cable to the island, 55-gallon barrels to buoy the cable above the water and a team of burly men to attach the cable to trees on the island.

    With Craig Morel, CJ's owner, directing them through two-way radios, the crew members freed the island in half an hour, and it floated to the other side of the pond.

    There, it was temporarily tied to a stand of swamp maples, to be freed after officials lowered the water level in the storm-swollen pond.

    ''It'll probably go back to somebody else's property,'' said John Miller, principal of Cathedral High.

    ''Ultimately, it's going to float. It's a floating island. We don't want to violate its natural state. There's only two of them in North America.''

January 16, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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These are great machines! I love to push tussocks to them and watch them eat them! By the way did you rabbits can swim? They can in Florida. I used to run one of these for SFWMD and clean up the canals and Lake Okeechobee. Mikel Hulon cracks me up....bunny huggers indeed!

Posted by: MichealAnne | Sep 30, 2008 5:18:40 PM

Hey dont make fun!!! this thing really works ...hired these guys myself and what a blast we had playing in the marsh.Mark is a hoot and runs that machine like he has been on it his whole life...me i just like playing on the airboat!

Posted by: Tim | Aug 16, 2008 3:46:04 PM

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