I’ve been researching my family’s genealogy. It’s been interesting, but I got stuck on my dad’s side. His grandfather, Pat Fitzgerald, immigrated from Ireland via New York in 1862, and that’s where the trail ends. As you can imagine, many Pat Fitzgeralds came to the U.S. via Ellis Island in the aftermath of the Irish potato famine. In the back of my mind, I thought a trip to Ellis Island might help determine which Pat Fitzgerald was mine. Knowing a trip was not in my future, I decided instead to visit the Ellis Island in Missouri, where I would find nothing about my family, but it would be funny and I would spend the rest of this column entertaining you with interesting facts, or perhaps a lot of fiction, about my family.

Anyway, how did I know there was an Ellis Island in Missouri, given my inclination to stay within a 5-mile radius of my home? My friend Ken is the new executive director of The Audubon Center at Riverlands. While we had a cup of coffee, he talked about his new job and used words like ‘birds,’ ‘wildlife’ and ‘conservation.’ I was zoning out when he mentioned there were islands in the Mississippi River, one called Ellis. A story was born!

I decided to drive out to Ellis Island, but since I would be venturing out of my safe zone and heading into nature, I needed to bring some personal security, which is how my husband found himself driving me to West Alton. Carey likes to bird-watch. Periodically over breakfast he will announce, “There is a yellow finch in the backyard.” I am never quick enough to see it, so he could just be saying it to drive me crazy. Anyway, I promised him that we would see lots of birds in their natural habitat. After a 20-minute drive, we found ourselves at The Audubon Center at Riverlands, which is located off Highway 367 before the Clark Bridge to Alton. The center overlooks Ellis Bay, which is where you find the island. A tour provides information about the Mississippi River habitat, and birds like bald eagles, white pelicans and trumpeter swans.

A quick trip on an access road brought us to Ellis Island, which reminded me very much of a drop-off point in a Naked and Afraid episode. There is nothing on this island except nature. No trash, no people and the only noise is the hum of the cars traveling over the Clark Bridge. After a short walk across the island, you are standing in the Mississippi River. It’s right there—no barricades, fences or anyone to warn you away. So, I did what anyone would do and put both hands straight into the Mighty Mississippi, pretending I didn’t notice the dead fish washed up on shore. I was in a part of our city where time has stood still. You should check it out, if just for a walk, to bird-watch or put your hands in the river. Ken says it is an amazing place to watch water fowl migrate in the fall.

Here’s what I do know: It was a great way to spend an afternoon, and while I learned nothing about my ancestors, I did learn that cactuses grow in Missouri.

Contact Patty at phannum@townandstyle.com.