This past week I took my summer vacation. It was absolutely wonderful. It started off by spending some quality time down on the Willamette River by myself on the boat, and with a friend out on the river. There is no way I have time to detail all of the adventures that ensued that weekend, but basically it consisted of sleeping on the family boat–a Tolman Skiff, cruising the Willamette with a good friend, being boarded by the Coast Guard (yes I’m aware of how that sounds), seeing some horses running and swimming on Sauvie Island, enjoying Jimmy Johns on the deck of the boat, swimming off Kelly Point, and alas spending hours talking to a boy. A southern boy–a Texan more specifically. More on that small (read huge) detail later.
My brother and his wife flew in from NYC eventually and we crammed in some Portland musts including dinner with grandpa, a trip to Powell’s Books, and of course, our family breakfast at Bertie Lou’s Cafe in Sellwood. Breakfast filled with eggs, home fries, bacon, and of course biscuits and gravy marked the beginning of our annual voyage to Sand Island. I’ll probably be harassed if not killed by my family and our extended non-related relatives for divulging the existence of said island, but the fact is, there is no place quite like it, and it must be celebrated.
Looking south on Sand Island State Marine Park
Sand Island is located on the Columbia River right across from the small town of St. Helens, Oregon. One of the state’s beautiful marine parks, it was created to serve as a sand bar to protect the riverfront town from the wake of passing freighters. Over the years, tall cottonwood trees and an unknown number of wild animals such as racoons and deer have made this small oasis home. The Columbia River surrounding the island (as we refer to it) gives the much needed sanctuary from the hot summer sun, and has provided years of memories filled with swimming, sailing, and amazing river sunsets. My family has gone camping on the island every year of my life. We spend 51 weeks waiting to be reunited with its beauty–with daydreams of the sand between our to toes, and the cool evening breeze rocking the hammock as we gaze at the stars. Surely there could be no better place in the great northwest to spend one’s summer.
Looking north on Sand Island State Marine Park
Growing up, our family would camp anywhere from a weekend to several weeks on the island. No electricity, no running water, and no plumbing. Our non-relative relatives also camped with us. They had 5 kids. One couldn’t possibly fathom the amount of stuff they would cart across the river, then again, there were 5 kids. The oldest sibling was a boy my brother’s age, to this day they are still best friends. The second of the five was a girl–my best friend and kindred spirit–Babette.
The final three siblings were all boys, so I really lucked out with Babette. The 7 of us were wild on the island. Swimsuits were the only clothing item worn from dawn to dusk. It was common to not even bring shoes to the island. Most days, the 7 of us could be found down at the beach creating the most elaborate mud pit you’ve ever seen. After all, it needed to fit all of us.
From left to right: Michael, Babette, Stephen, Sammy, Jeremiah, Me, Christopher
Luckily our parents documented these events. It would take hours of swimming and pretending to be mermaids (for Babette and I at least) to wash the evidence of earlier mud fights away. Our parents would force us to bathe in the river, which as we became older, was quite the tradition. My mother always said that there was “nothing sexier than a woman keeping up her appearance while camping.” So Babette and I would (and still do) suds up in our suits and wash our hair as the sun set over the hills.
Several summers, we made treasure maps and wrote notes claiming the island as our own, and sealed them in empty bottles. After adding several layers of duct tape, we would fasten a rope to the bottle and then swim it out to the old wooden pilings off the north end of the island.
The north end of Sand Island, standing on top of the dunes
Once used in the logging industry, lthe decaying logs now jet out of the water like totem poles. Hoisting each other up onto the wooden crossbeam, we would tie the rope off and hide the bottle inside of the metal cables binding the logs. The bottle never did make it until the following summer as we had hoped, but we all liked to imagine that some other kids found it and followed our treasure map to nothing–our punishment to them for thinking it was acceptable for them to spend time on our island. Who did they think they were anyway?!
When night fell more adventures ensued. Capture the flag would span across the entire island, with our little shadows darting around trees and the sand dunes, scaring each other and then shrieking with shear terror/joy. Our dad’s would tell ghost stories around the campfire about graveyard rats, and about “Herman,” the scary man who lived below the glorified outhouse. Strange as it sounds (because how on earth did he live under the outhouse?) we believed that one for years.
When Babette and I had enough with the boys, and were tired of waiting for our turn with the BB guns, we would spend hours painting rocks and driftwood, trying our best to capture the beauty of the island.
Nighttime on the river, circa 1998
This past week we sat together at the picnic table once again, listening to music, drinking iced coffee from the cooler, arguing and laughing over whose depiction was better. We laughed about how we used to argue about who’s tent was cozier, and whether or not straight hair was better than curly. These are the moments that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I look forward to many more summers to come on Sand Island. Laughing, swimming, and being with the closest of friends and family.
Below are some more photos of the journey to the island.
Docked at the Willamette Sailing Club
Behind Ross Island, stopping for a dip and some relaxing in the sun
It really is a must to by smutty celebrity magazines while on vacation…
Lusting after the floating homes near Sellwood
On our way to the island, under all the Portland bridges, including the St. John’s Bridge
Close to the island at last!!!!
Warrior Rock Light, Sauvie Island, Oregon
Sand Island. In all of its glory
Sunrise on the island
Sleeping on the hammock might be the best part
It’s an island, so we obviously have to be well prepared…
And by being prepared I obviously mean being well-stocked with coffee options
Sailing at sunset