03-02-2023 Sauvie Island on the Columbia River in Oregon

I am going to add a quick list here before I lose track.  Of the more than 275 species of birds that call Sauvie Island home, we saw bald eagles, Canada geese, white front geese, lesser snow geese, tundra swans, sandhill cranes, several species of unidentified ducks, redwing blackbirds, and many many robins: some of the birds we saw on this rainy day exploring Sauvie Island. 

When we woke this morning, the skies were seriously overcast, with rain threatening in all directions we could see.  The weather apps gave us a few very short windows without predicted rain, and Mo and I loaded up Mattie in her warm coat, put on our own warm weather coats and pants, and were in the car by shortly after 9 am ready to explore what we could of the eastern portion of Sauvie Island that borders on the Columbia River. 

Before I continue with the story of our day, I want to cite the website where I found much of the information I am sharing.  When you see words in quotes, in italics, I have lifted them directly from this website:  Sauvie Island.org, with much of the historical information provided by the author and Sauvie Island resident, Donna Matrazzo.  I find it nearly impossible to share so much information that I have learned recently without resorting to what I have read, and yet I want to share it in detail.  Sauvie Island was a complete surprise to me and is definitely a place worth visiting.

From the Sauvie Island Visitor Guide, a brief history of the refuge:  “Sauvie Island Wildlife Area was established in 1947 with the primary objectives of protecting and improving waterfowl habitat and providing a public hunting area. The initial purchase of five acres in 1940 and subsequent purchases through 2012 have brought the wildlife area to its present size of 11,643 acres, of which 8,153 acres are under fee title to the department and 3,490 acres are managed through a cooperative agreement with the Oregon Department of State Lands. Currently, the wildlife area supports a biologically diverse association of wildlife which includes at least 275 species of birds, 37 species of mammals, 12 species of reptiles and amphibians, and numerous species of fish and plants.”

Although many roads leading into the deeper recesses of the wildlife areas are closed until April 15 to protect nesting birds, we had plenty of roads to explore that were open to us.

We had no more than exited the park and rounded the first corner in the road when we were thrilled to see hundreds of snow geese interspersed with Canada geese foraging in the stubble left behind after the harvest from last season.  I took a few photos of the geese, a bit sad that I hadn’t brought my Lumix camera on this trip.  The Samsung S22 Plus is a great phone and takes great photos, but it does have trouble in low light with high-contrast images. 

Snow white snow geese against a darker background are especially challenging, as you will see in the photos in this blog post.  Still, I am including the less-than-perfect photos because they show just how many birds we saw throughout our day exploring the island.

The first side route along Reeder Beach road led us down a muddy track toward Willow Beach, where the signs stated emphatically, no camping was allowed. The signs throughout the island also state “No alcohol allowed” between the dates of April and September. 

Despite the signs, we saw what appeared to be campers in old trucks with a wobbly rain shelter parked on the north end of the beach.  The view of the river was lovely, even in the gray light, but it was too chilly to do much walking and we returned to the main road.

Not far north of Willow Bar was the main viewing platform for the refuge, with long ramps leading to the deck, and railings on all sides with views of the distant wildlife area.  We saw a few birds in the distance, but most impressive were the interpretive signs on the platform with excellent information about the refuge.  Mo and Mattie stayed in the car while I braved the intensifying rain to take some photos.

Continuing north along the road, we reached the more well-known Reeder Beach, but without climbing the steps that scaled the steep dike along the river, it was impossible to see the beach.  When I once again got out of the car to take a photo or two, I was greeted by the unmistakable cacophony of sandhill cranes.  I was astounded to see literally hundreds of gangly brown birds not far from the road to the west in another grassy meadow. 

The cranes from a distance look ever so much like gangly two-legged deer until you look a bit closer.  They are a sandy brown color, with a touch of red that doesn’t show up very well in photos, especially with the phone.  Still, I have to share these photos just to show you how many cranes we saw throughout the day as we drove Reeder Beach Road as far north as we were allowed at this time of year.

A bit north of Reeder Beach is the infamous Collins Beach, known for its clothing-optional status.  On this cold rainy day, I couldn’t quite imagine clothing being considered optional, but I suppose on a hot summer day the views might be a bit more than we would want to see.

I am quite certain that in the warm summertime, Sauvie Island will be filled to bursting with city folk escaping from Portland and Vancouver to enjoy the water, the wildlife, the trails, and the beaches.

At the far northern end of Reeder Beach Road, there is a trailhead to the Warrior Rock Lighthouse. “Warrior Rock lighthouse helps guide river traffic on the Columbia River. It once contained the Pacific Northwest’s oldest fog bell. It is Oregon’s smallest lighthouse, and one of only two Oregon lighthouses still operating which are not on the Pacific Ocean.”

Snow geese and Canada geese near the Lighthouse trailhead

The trail is six miles round trip and not accessible by road.  On this cold rainy day, or any other for that matter, I wouldn’t be up to a six-mile trip, so we had to settle for reading about the history of the lighthouse and seeing photos online.  Another option is a day trip on a private boat tour for $80.00 that goes to the site. Never mind.

We returned a mile or so to a road leading west to the Gilbert River boat ramp, enjoying more sightings of geese and sandhill cranes in the meadows and wetlands on the west side of the road.  The dirt road out to the boat ramp was a one-way route, with a large parking area at the ramp on the banks of the Gilbert River. 

We discovered another possible kayak launch site leading to Little McNary Lake and the slightly bigger McNary Lake toward the south.  It was a bit muddy but would be an easy launch on a warmer day when I wouldn’t mind rolling into the water to exit my kayak.  With so many signs saying the areas were closed between November and mid-April, I might question whether kayaking is allowed in these areas at this time of year. 

Still, you can see from the image that the complexity of waterways between the Gilbert River and the Columbia River is a kayaker’s dream.

We meandered back toward camp driving on a few of the roads that were open to us and found many more sandhill cranes, ducks, Canada geese, and a beautiful bald eagle perched high on a tree overlooking the wetland. 

We once again passed the large field where we saw so many snow geese on our way out.  I asked Mo to stop, and she said, “Maybe you can get the sound of the geese”.  Great idea…and I turned on the video camera to capture the sound.  Imagine my delight when the geese decided to fly.  This sight of snow geese flying like huge sheets billowing in the wind is one of my favorite things. Be sure to turn up the sound to hear the beautiful noise.

After our day exploring the island, I wanted to know about the history of the place and found the website I referred to earlier in this post.  Here are a few excerpts:

“Sauvie Island was formed beginning more than a million years ago in the Pleistocene era, from mountain sediments washing downriver, stopped by a ledge of large rocks. Over eons, the soil accumulated and the ledge became the island’s northern end, today known as Warrior Rock. Annual freshets layered mud and sand to a depth of 30 to 50 feet, shaped eventually into soft, rolling contours, speckled with dozens of lakes and ponds. The result became an island landscape unique in the West.”

“The original inhabitants of the island were the Multnomah tribe of the Chinook Indians. There were 15 Multnomah villages on the island, and the 2,000 islanders lived in cedar log houses 30 yards long and a dozen yards wide. Each family would have its own entrance and fire pit within. They hunted, fished, and gathered plants year-round. The Multnomahs were flathead Indians. Babies were tied to a flat board, with another piece of wood fixed across the baby’s brow, pressuring the skull to flatten in a continuous line from crown to nose, resulting in a look respected for distinction and superiority.

Women wore a mantle of animal skins and a fringed skirt of cedar bark, anointed their hair with fish oil, and wore ornaments of white shells called hiaqua. Wapato, the arrowhead-leafed wild potato, was a major food source. The women would go out in a lake or pond with a canoe and harvest the bulbs by digging into the mud with their feet. Wapato was roasted and eaten, dried, stored, and traded to other tribes.”

As I read more about the history of the island, I learned about the first white explorers who landed on the island in 1792 and then about the landings by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805 and again in 1806 on their return upriver.  There is a bit of a gap in the history of the island between 1806 and 1835 when the following paragraph says much about the history of the indigenous tribes of our country.

During the next decades, the Native Americans weathered outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, measles, and tuberculosis. Then in 1829 a horrifying epidemic of a fever known as the ague swept across the land. Within two years, the natives were nearly extinct. Less than a decade later the Hudson Bay Company, with its Fort Vancouver just across the Columbia, sent a French dairyman, Laurent Sauvé, to establish a dairy. Around 400 cattle swum across the river from the fort. Sauvé was to produce butter for the Russian settlements in Alaska with whom Hudson Bay had a contract. The island came to take his name.

Sauvie Island, once the home of the great Multnomah tribe including chief Multnomah himself, is now named for the Frenchman who started a dairy there. I am surprised that there hasn’t been a movement to rename the island after its original inhabitants.

I read more about the history of the island, and the early settlers who came after Laurent Sauve began his dairy.  Not long after Sauvé began the dairy, in 1845, a party from the Savannah Oregon Immigration Society set out from Missouri across the Oregon Trail. Four of the 64 wagons carried Robert E. Miller, his wife Sara Ferguson, eight of their 11 children, and their families. They arrived on Sauvé’s island and settled near each other. The land where Howell Territorial park sits today was claimed by Miller’s daughter Julia Ann and her husband, James Francis Bybee. Bybee later headed, as did many pioneers, to the great California gold rush. He found gold and returned with enough money to build the nine-room classical Greek Revival house that stands restored on the property today.

The Bybee-Howell House on Sauvie Island

Mo and I decided to return to the island on another day to explore the west side of the island along the Multnomah Channel, a tributary of the Columbia River which separates the island from the mainland to the west.  We wanted to see the historic house that we somehow missed as we drove toward Reeder Beach.  The house is a museum but seems to be open only rarely, but it is fascinating to see such a solid, lovely house, built in the mid-1800s still standing so proudly.

Continuing north from the Territorial Park along the channel, we enjoyed many views of houseboats lining the riverbank and a marina with many moored boats.  I had to read about how houseboats deal with wastewater and discovered that floating houses in the Portland area are connected to water and sewage systems.  Wastewater is collected in holding tanks and then pumped into the system as needed to be disposed of in the same way that sewers operate on a land-based system.  I am glad no one is dumping gray water into the rivers, much less sewage.

Houseboats on the west bank of the Multnomah Channel near Scappoose

On the west side of the island, we saw old houses, historic farms, herds of black Angus grazing on the hills, and many small farms.  This island is a completely different place as summer comes and people come from many miles distant to fish, kayak, hike, and pick fresh fruits and vegetables.  There are many farms with all kinds of berries, including the famous Oregon Marionberries, a blackberry developed by Oregon State University in 1956 and my most favorite berry of all.

Sauvie Island was a surprise to me, and even though Mo picked green beans on the island in the early 50s, she learned much about it on this trip as well.  With the island located only 43 miles from Mo’s brother’s home in Beavercreek, I am hoping that maybe the four of us can meet for a camping trip here later in the season when we can kayak and hike and have a campfire on the river.  I can imagine that Dan might even enjoy a side trip to his childhood home in Columbia City as much as we have enjoyed our time here.

Author: kyotesue

Soil scientist/mapper working for 35 years in the wild lands of the West. I am now retired, enjoying my freedom to travel, to hike without a shovel and a pack, to knit and quilt and play, to play with photography and write stories about all of it.

2 thoughts on “03-02-2023 Sauvie Island on the Columbia River in Oregon”

  1. We’ve only been to Sauvie Island once, many years ago, in summer. I remember it as beautiful, but we were there for the birding, and it wasn’t anything like you experienced. You were there at the perfect time of year! I love the Snow Geese and the Sandhill Cranes. Seeing them in large numbers as you did is just magnificent. And like you, I love their calls. What a lovely birthday celebration for Mo!


    1. We have read that the birds are much less numerous during other times of the year. We got very very lucky to see all the birds we did. It was a great birthday trip in spite of the juggling. I will never forget the first time I saw snow geese fly when I moved to the Klamath Basin in 2002. We are going back to Sauvie in September, when we can kayak, and Mo’s brother and wife Chere will be joining us. Not as many birds, but not as many closures as well.


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