Just off the shipping channel in the tidal Delaware River, opposite the mouth of the Schuylkill, lies a half-acre island of scrubby trees, windswept pebbly beach, and upwards of ten thousand discarded plastic bottles. Nameless on those maps that deign to show its existence, the loosely knit group that sets up camp here twice each winter for the last thirty years calls it Rat Island.
One weekend each mid-November, and again in March, the sandy grove in the center of the island sprouts tarps, tents, an outdoor kitchen, and a riproaring driftwood bonfire. As they have for three decades now, the late-night crew will tune in to WXPN’s Stars End ambient music program, and place a call to DJ Chuck Van Zyl to let him know that the Rat Island encampment is listening.
Through the night the occasional cargo ship glides silently past, just a stone’s throw away. Long after midnight, once the roar of jets landing at Philadelphia International Airport has died away, there is an eerie stillness here, on this forgotten corner of the world, at the far edge of the city.
The next Rat Island encampment is tentatively scheduled for the weekend of March 17 and 18.