A third place is not your home, it’s not your work, but it’s the third space where you find a sense of belonging, where people know your name, where you feel a sense of agency to make change or care for the space.
For Rick Duncan, that space is a piece of land covered in flora, home to fauna, looped with a one-mile trail, and in the middle of the Allegheny River accessible only by watercraft. It’s called Sycamore Island, and Rick has been its lead site steward for ten years.
“It’s become my place where I can get away,” Rick said. “My special hideaway spot to get peace and quiet in a beautiful setting close to home.”
Rick became involved with Sycamore Island when the Sylvan Canoe Club put out a request for its members’ help in shuttling representatives from Allegheny Land Trust and several potential project supporters when the island was for sale. As a canoe club member, he volunteered and happened to be in the same canoe as ALT VP of Land Resources Emilie Rzotkiewicz for the ten-minute paddle over to the island.
“By the time I’m getting out of the canoe, I was signed up as a site steward. Emilie gets right to the point!” Rick said.
Nearly ten years later, Rick is still the site steward visiting the island seven months out of the year maintaining the one-mile trail loop that he helped flag and create, clearing trash from the trails and shores, and managing invasive and nuissance species like poison ivy, which dominated the island prior to his volunteer work. In the summer, Rick is at his home-away-from-home about two times each week.
“Beyond maintaining and slightly improving things, I try to leave it pretty wild,” Rick said. “I want it not to be a phony, manicured park or somewhere that is too orchestrated and controlled. It should be somewhere you feel like you’ve found on your own, discovered in the middle of the river.”
Having grown up in a military family, Rick moved around frequently, but found that his favorite places were those with trees, trails, and nature. When Rick moved to Pittsburgh for school, he yearned to get away to somewhere more forested, nearer to nature. When Rick discovered Sycamore Island years prior to ALT’s involvement, it provided that escape, so he visited often with his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Jamie.
“We would pull up on the shore, skip rocks, eat a snack, and go,” Rick said. “It was covered in poison ivy, and we didn’t want to hike through it. Once I became the site steward, cutting back that poison ivy was my first priority.”
The majority of the trail is now successfully cleared of poison ivy, making it a much more enjoyable space for the thousands of visitors who paddle there each year.
Rick’s work has made a big difference at the island, and he serves as the epitome of an ALT site steward. In addition to his own work on the island, Rick manages, communicates, and organizes a Friends of Sycamore Island group via Basecamp, which allows fellow fans of the island to organize outings and cleanups there throughout the year.
There are two reactions from island visitors that Rick says make him smile and feel fulfilled in his work.
The first: “Wow! I didn’t know this existed right here, so close to the city.” And the second: “How can I help?”