Tag Archives: Tolman Skiff

Sand Island: Swept Away By Summer Love

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.

1993

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.