400 head of cattle swam across the Columbia River from Washington to Sauvie Island, creating the first ranch almost 200 years ago. That was the piece of Sauvie Island’s history that I could remember, and I told it to the grandkids as we drove, first crossing the majestic St. John’s Bridge, and then the smaller Sauvie Island Bridge.
They had questions I couldn’t answer, like why boats weren’t used, and how the rancher (for whom the island is now named) himself got across. But they were properly amazed, as I was when I first heard the story. Cattle swimming in the Columbia is an impressive image. But in retrospect, perhaps the stories I should have told them were about the native Multnomah Tribe of the Chinooks who would canoe, fish, hunt, and gather in this amazing place.
There’s no mystery as to why various native tribes and later settlers were drawn to this magical area, created over the past million years out of the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia, Portland’s two biggest rivers. The continual flooding made it an ideal place for both agriculture and wildlife. Today the 24,000 acres of Sauvie Island is a mix of ranches and farmlands, beaches and docks, with half the island protected as a wildlife area, managed by Oregon Fish and Wildlife. It’s differently gorgeous in all weathers, and enough off the beaten track to keep the larger crowds away (that and a $10 parking fee).
What the kids already know of Sauvie Island is their annual summer birthday excursions to the southern end for blueberry picking at Bella Organics. The corn maze, rubber duck racetrack, pig and goat petting corral, and sweet berries have been more than enough to captivate them – until now.
Driving up the west side of the island, we soon pulled over to examine a huge nest we spotted along the roadside, with a couple of white heads poking out the top. Bald eagle or osprey? We’d just purchased some “Get in the Game” level binoculars (still cheap), and were able to get a good look. Osprey we decided. The nine year old has a newfound love of birdwatching and bird photography, and began snapping away. The pair rose from their nest to soar above us in mesmerizing circles.
Continuing on to the Wildlife Viewing Area, we gazed out at the masses of ducks and geese in and around the shallow lake. But for me the prize was a few Sandhill Cranes grazing in the distance. I too am at the beginning of a new birdwatching fascination… something to do with the quarantine. We watched them awkwardly lift off, then majestically fly away.
Back in the car, we noticed cars parked along a path heading toward the Columbia side, and stopped to investigate. The unplanned detour totally delivered – a beautiful beach! Though fairly unprepared, we were overjoyed by the pull of water and sand. There’s nothing we like better than a beach, and this one offered full views of snow covered Mount St. Helens and Mt. Adams across the water, and a glimpse of Mt. Hood just topping the trees. The kids’ clothes dropped off a piece at a time and they ran headlong into the freezing water.
Small solitary fishing boats bobbed along, fishermen still and hunched over an array of lines, reels, and nets silhouetted against the water.
But the Columbia is also a shipping channel running from the Pacific, 100 miles downriver, into the Willamette and the Portland harbor. Along the shoreline people shouted out as an enormous ship materialized on one end making its way toward the ocean, while a smaller barge full of gravel, pushed by a tugboat, chugged directly toward it. The two vessels appeared to be on a collision course, and children along the shore watched in fascination, chanting, “Crash! Crash! Crash!” Speed boats dwarfed by the ship hurried around. The two larger vessels glided past each other without a hitch, and everyone cheered with relief. Then it was over, and kids splashed and ran in the big wake crashing on shore.
We de-sanded, refueled the hungry kids, and drove to the other side of the island to walk on the Wapato Greenway. Here, the Multnomah Channel connects the Willamette to the Columbia, defining the western edge of the island.
Not far from the trailhead, we found a tiny green frog, cementing the kids’ interest in sharp looking and listening. They pointed everything out to us in glee, and we did the same, reading information boards along the path.
We stopped at a small lookout on Virginia Lake, a seasonal lake which was still full of water and full of the arrow shaped leaves of the wapato plant that grows thickly from bulbs used by the natives for food.
They delighted in side trails that disappeared into the thicket, and wanted to investigate every single one. The nine year old now names each forested environment as “witchy woods” or “fairy woods” based on how much sunlight pierces the overstory, and whether the underbrush reaches out to grab her ankles.
We came to a bird watching blind that the kids thought a marvelous invention, and stayed hidden from our visual prey. Passing cows as they lay sleeping in a green meadow, we yelled a friendly moo. With an empty snack bag I took up trash collecting (WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?). The hike was full of variety, or maybe it was the kids’ perspective that made it that way.
At Hadley Landing, our turnaround point, they clambered and jumped on the boulder covered bank, while we were glad to sit and watch. People caught fish from the nearby dock or drifted by on boats. The glimpse of peaceful life passing along the water is one we can only guess at as we whiz by in cars on our way from one place to another. I was grateful to be there, happy to open this small but beautiful world to my grandchildren.
Six hours in, they were game for more, but we old folks had reached our limit. It was clear that they’re ready for longer, more intense hikes, so next time we’ll strike out into rougher territory, and go further afield.
On the ride back, the six year old planned out his next birthday, picking berries half the time, and the other half on the beach. He sighed contentedly. “That will be the best birthday ever.”
Thanks to Alan for some of the photos!