LIFE ALONG NISKA ISLE RETAINS A PIONEER SPIRIT

Michael Lopez Staff writer
Section: LOCAL,  Page: B1

Date: Monday, May 21, 1990

A tiny bridge, a matter of yards spanning a backwater of the Mohawk River, separates Niska Isle from the rush of traffic on suburban Rosendale Road.


Unpaved roads, cutting through the lush woods, lead to the simple ranch and saltbox homes of Niska Isle's nine families. On the surface, the homes, and the daily routine of the occupants, are not extraordinary.


But life on Niska Isle, where the Mohawk River ultimately rules, has retained a touch of the pioneer spirit.


Niska Isle families do without the conveniences the rest of the town takes for granted: water and sewer services and cable television. Worse, residents have watched helplessly as ice jams and floodwaters have encroached on the peninsula, threatening their homes.


"You really learn to respect Mother Nature. You really learn there's a much greater power than mankind," said Mel Burger Jr. Burger's father, E. Melvin Burger Sr., started his vegetable farm here in the mid- 1940s. Back in the 1880s, his great- grandfather farmed land on Niska Isle, which was submerged when the Erie Canal was built. Between the father and his two sons, the family represents a third of the neighborhood.


Burger, who makes his living as a wildlife control officer, last week flipped through pictures he keeps to record the wrath of the Mohawk. His office, in the basement of the home he and his wife, Ann, built in 1968, is a tribute to a passion he learned from river life - ducks. Embossed on wood paneling are scenes of ducks in flight, and prints of similar scenes adorn the walls.


His pictures, of a 1980 flood, show ice jams stopping a few feet away from his father's greenhouses.


Eight or 10 people have drowned nearby in the Mohawk since Burger has lived there, he said. In 1983, he and another man saved two people whose canoe capsized. "It's very treacherous. People don't respect it enough."


Neighbor Cas


E. Latkowski, who built his home seven years ago as a retirement spot, remembers having to leave it when the river overflowed in the mid-1980s.


But the river - and the isolation - are what drew Latkowski to Niska Isle. He used to fish in the area as a boy. "I have a warm spot in my heart for the Mohawk River. I've always loved this area."


Burger's father, who runs the 90- acre farm that produces melons, tomatoes, cauliflower and peppers for wholesale, rattles off the significant dates and events in the peninsula's history. According to the town handbook on local history, land ownership on the island dates back to 1667, and Mohawk pottery has been found there.


Using soil strewn on a greenhouse bench, Burger Sr. traced how the Lisha Kill, a tributary of the Mohawk, encircled the island in the 1800s.


Between father and son, they've kept track of how the island has changed, mostly because of outside influences, they say.


Development has turned the bottom portion of the Lisha Kill, once a clear trout stream, into wetland, Burger Sr. said. The building of the Thaddeus Kosciuszko Bridge on the Northway aggravated the ice jam problem, his son said, and development across the river in Clifton Park has reduced the waterfowl population.


Burger Sr. grows angry when discussing how the town, through its new revaluation, wants to assess 33 acres, which he said is mostly wetland and farmland, as residential land. He does not know yet how the new assessment will affect his farming business.


In a way, the river's dangerous tendency to overflow is a blessing, making it difficult to build new houses in a flood plain.


For Burger Sr., that means he can farm with "nobody looking over the fence. We're here by ourselves, and that's good."


Neighbors have affectionate nicknames for their way of life. They live in "Little Siberia," Burger Sr. joked. And Latkowski said Niska Isle residents call themselves "river rats."


Despite the inconveniences - in fact, perhaps because of them - Niska Isle residents wouldn't trade their way of life for suburban living.


"Some people never develop roots that big, I guess," Burger Jr. said. "This is home, that's all."