A view from Sauvie Island reveals Mount St. Helens rising over the Columbia River.
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Plenty of Oregon bridges are more picturesque than the short span leading to Sauvie Island’s 24,000 acres of bottomland at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, 10 miles northwest of Portland. But none is quite as transformative. “As soon as you cross that bridge, all the stress of the city just washes away from you,” says Heather Hanselman, a lifelong island dweller and owner of Blue Heron Herbary.
Roughly the size and shape of Manhattan Island but with a population that barely tops 1,000, Sauvie has strawberry stands instead of high-rises. And the cranes here are sandhill, not industrial.
From late spring to late fall, visitors can load up on fresh produce sold from family plots: green beans, squash, and cucumbers from Kruger’s Farm; apples and sweet corn from Sauvie Island Farms; u-pick flowers at Columbia Farms (opens in June); and pumpkins pretty much everywhere in October.
Hanselman grows more than 100 varieties of lavender at her herbary. Simply walking onto her property qualifies as aroma therapy. She also has a flock of chickens, including Araucanas and hilariously undersize Malaysian seramas, known as the world’s smallest chickens. They strut around with puffed-out chests, unfazed by the fact that they’re barely tall enough to peer over a pop can.
For many visitors, wild birds are the main attraction. Designated wildlife areas are open to birders from mid-April through September and take up nearly half the island, mostly on the north end.
But birds don’t necessarily stick to boundaries, and in the winter and early spring, bald eagles perch along the riverbanks, snow geese rest up on ponds, and sandhill cranes gather on marshes and fields visible from Reeder Road, the main north-south thoroughfare. In spring and summer, songbirds such as sparrows, orange-crowned warblers, and spotted towhees make a racket in every thicket. Wood ducks, great blue herons, and other waterfowl liven up ponds and marshes year-round.
On a warm day, visitors from Portland and beyond head to the island’s sandy edges along the Columbia. One stretch—Collins Beach—is clothing optional, and most people opt to go without. “As soon as the sun comes out, people of all ages are out there naked,” Hanselman says.
Sauvie is also popular for some fully clothed pursuits, such as fishing for bass and catfish in Sturgeon or McNary lakes, river fishing for steelhead and salmon, and cycling on the island’s flat roads. Hikers have lots of options, too, including a three-mile path starting at the north end of Reeder Road that goes to Warrior Rock, Oregon’s smallest lighthouse.
When it’s time to cross back over the Sauvie Island Bridge—perhaps with a load of produce, snapshots of birds, and some residual sunscreen on unusual places—you may be surprised to discover how close you are to the city. Sauvie is never far from the bustle. It just feels like it.
Photography by Andréa Johnson
This article was first published in May 2011. Some facts may have age gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
For more information, including an island map and safety advice for cyclists, visit sauvieisland.org.