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Adventuring on Sand Island

Other than $160,000 for a new pair of bathrooms, Sand Island will remain an isolated, and unique city park


Photo Credit: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - The sun sets over Grey Cliffs Waterfront Park as seen from the western edge of Sand Island. The island is only accessable by boat, something that changed during a short city-sponsored ferry experiment in 2008 that led to overcrowding, alcohol abuse and violence.Sitting a few hundred yards from the shoreline in St. Helens, Sand Island been an object of fascination ever since it was formed from dredge spoils in the 1920s.

The 42-acre park, which is operated by the City of St. Helens, boasts sandy beaches on the eastern shoreline, winding trails through the island's interior and countless opportunities for a young imagination to come alive and revel in the island's undiscovered adventures.

And eventually, after a year of spying the island from Old Town near the courthouse, the idea of exploring the tree-shrouded mystery became too much and I packed my things into a little inflatable boat and set out across the choppy water for the docks on the marine park's western edge.

Immediately, it became clear that the quick paddle I had imagined wouldn't go quite so smoothly. The wind and the slight current battled one another for possession of my little raft, distracting one another for just long enough to facilitate an escape to the quiet waters near the island's shore. A short survey of the park along the St. Helens side yielded a relatively sheltered campsite, complete with a fire pit, a view of the marina across the way and a nearby picnic table.

Dragging the table to the fire pit and setting up my small tent made the little alcove into a temporary home, and it was due time to explore the campsite's surroundings. To the north, and through a small clearing, stood a pair of restrooms and a collection of other vacant campsites. A trail led into a stand of cottonwood trees, and upon taking the mowed path, it wound its way into the wide expanse of sand on the far side. A few more campers came into view, their tents set up on the lee side of the island and away from the prevailing wind. The light scent of campfire wafted from the north, but other than the group camping near the docks where I had landed, the island was completely empty.

Night fell, but the wind didn't. Starting a fire wasn't a simple task, taking half a box of matches, but eventually the flames caught on the bundle of wood I had brought across and dinner – chili and chips, with a cider fished from my cooler – was in order.

Photo Credit: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Sand Island is aptly named - the eastern edge offers a wide expanse of sunny, sandy paradise. As the last of the sun's rays set and the warm wind continued to howl, the city lit up, sparkling its lights across the water and reminding the campers within view that they weren't as the island's relative isolation would suggest, tucked in some far-away corner of the lower Columbia River.

The morning, after a slightly uncomfortably winding night's sleep, brought further exploration. After a walk up the beach on the St. Helens side and underneath the northern set of docks, the island cleared, exposing a grassy area with several ornamental fruit trees and a handful of fire pits. The island dropped off, descending down a small sandy cliff to the beaches on the northern end, where the wind whips walkers around the island to the south, following the cliffs until a path opens to the grassy area between the sand and the tree line to the east.

The south end, similar to the north, opened once again to a grassy field dotted with wildflowers between the trees and the river. The beach led back to the southern docks, and a path snaked its way back to where my campsite was hidden. The sun was high in the sky by now, and it was time to pack things once again and head across the still choppy channel to Grey Cliffs Waterfront Park, where the boat was deflated and stuffed back into my trunk.

Driving home, I couldn't quite decide whether the park was too good to share or not. It's a delightful experience, especially having to paddle across the water to reach the empty campground, and exploring the small island was a jump back in time to wandering my parent's property as a kid.

At the same time, filling the island with would-be adventurers brings its own set of issues, something the city of St. Helens is keenly aware of.

In 2008, St. Helens ran an experimental ferry to the island throughout the summer. The idea behind the project, according to city counselor and liaison to the St. Helens Parks Commission Doug Morten, was to get people on the island with hopes of boosting tourism.

Increased traffic to the park led to a host of problems. Cramped space and little to no oversight from city police or park officials meant island-goers were free to do basically whatever they pleased. “Ruckuses, fights and disruption” became a serious issue, as were alcohol and drug abuse, according to Morten.

“The city had hardly any budget to clean the park,” said Morten. “There were literally tons of refuse.”

And along with the high numbers of visitors in the summer of 2008 – stories of over 500 people on July 4 – came a crisis with the island's restroom facilities. Currently, the island has three restrooms, each of which relies on a composting system to get rid of waste. Solar panels were installed “five or six years ago” to run motors that stir and aerate the waste, but according to Morten, it's not a very efficient system whatsoever.

With help from a grant from the Oregon State Marine Board, which is funded by boater registration fees and marine fuel taxes, St. Helens will be demolishing two of the old restrooms and constructing updated facilities – at the cost of $80,000 each.

Photo Credit: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - A collection of pilings sit and decay in the water between Sand Island and one of the island's two docks. Islolated in the middle of the Columbia River, only boaters can reach the city-operated park.It won't come out of the city's park's budget, which “isn't very much” according to Morten, but will greatly improve a park he believes to be a major player in the development of the waterfront in St. Helens.

Reestablishing a ferry to the island has been part of the conversation among the council members and the parks commission in the years since the Thursday-through-Sunday experiment was pulled with the close of 2008's summer months. Originally fueled by the “tourism push,” the ferry was shut down because of a lack of resources to properly police the island. The city, according to Morten, still doesn't have a boat for the police to use. The Columbia County Sheriff's office has a marine division, but St. Helens lacks the man power and the funds to have a park host or regularly check out conditions on the island. Thanks to help from the state, funds are in hand to clean the marine park, but Morten says the city wouldn't be able to enforce laws on the island unless further development pushed the park past its “primitive” stage and warranted camping fees to support a park host.

At this point, the only enforcement is the hope that campers, kayakers and explorers will heed the signage asking for garbage to be packed out and additional signs letting visitors know that all city and state laws apply on the island.

Until those things are in place – better facilities, updated campsites and a way to keep tabs on island activities – the park will remain in its current state, with the new restrooms being one small step in a long term, hopeful plan.

“We might take a big leap forward one of these days,” said Morten, who was excited at the prospect developing the park into a jewel for the city. “We'll see.”