Adventures in Bush Camping: Sauvie Island, Thursday July 5

My bike beside the mighty Columbia, Sauvie Island

Tent* camping on a bike tour can be broadly divided into two categories: camping in sanctioned campgrounds, and “free” camping, camping in maybe-not-legal spaces. Free camping is also known as bush camping and stealth camping. Some people will only camp in sanctioned campgrounds, others will only free camp. There are many economic and philosophical reasons for those who choose either side of the divide. Many bike campers will do either. I usually end up in sanctioned campgrounds, but sometimes I’ll end up free camping.

Last week I got the wild idea to do some free camping on Sauvie Island, the very rural, very flat riverine island just north of Portland on the Columbia River. Sauvie is one of Portland’s favorite cycling destinations. Unfortunately, camping options suck. There are two commercial RV parks but nothing else. I don’t care for commercial RV parks.

Cool, eh?

However, I have heard of people bush camping on the island, as much of it is undeveloped land. So I got the idea that we might try our hand at camping near Warrior Rock Light, a lighthouse (yes! A river lighthouse) on the far northern tip of Sauvie. It is at the end of a dead-end road, and requires a three mile hike in on a path. Remote. I’ve heard of other cyclists camping out there, why not me?

Or rather, us. By Thursday afternoon I had assembled a crack team** of bike campers to head out there and test the waters: myself, Ed G, Joey, and the enigmatic Todd B. We departed from North Portland in the early evening, rode through the Peninsula and across the St. Johns Bridge and then onto the island, pausing at the island store for supplies and water, since there would be none where we camped. (Well, there is the Columbia River, but I wouldn’t dare drink that, filtered or not.)

The ride up the island was great: flat, bucolic, quiet, and the day grew shorter. By the time we reached the first of the beaches along Reeder Road (about 15 miles in on the island) it was almost dark. And we saw a couple county sheriff cruisers. Uh oh. We heard there was lax law enforcement on the island, so this was a bad sign. We wondered if they would stop to question us, as it was 9 pm (a hour before curfew on the beaches) and we were almost at the end of the road, meaning we really did not have much reason to be out this way at this time. But thankfully they didn’t and we got to the end of the road. So now, three miles along a trail to our goal.

But there was no trail. At least we couldn’t find one. There was what looked like the start of a trail that abruptly ended at a barbed-wire fence. And there were no visible trails from the beach. The beach itself stopped a short way up from the end of the road, so we couldn’t ride or push bikes on the beach (not that I really wanted to.)

So then it was onto Plan B: the commercial RV park down the road. I had checked their website and it indicated that they offered tent camping. But this was not to be. When we got there, the manager informed us that they no longer offered tent camping, just RV spots. Even though they had a large patch of lawn that would have easily accommodated the four of us. (We learned later that the website was still in the hands of the old owner, not the current owner. Which is all well and good, but the sign out in front of the place still said “Tent Camping”. You can take care of that one, bub.)

Joey (l) and Ed G. (r). Not pictured for obvious reasons: Todd B.

So now either Plan C: Find another place on the island. Or Plan D: Go home. Thankfully we didn’t have to go that far to find a secluded spot on a beach to set up camp. The three of us (Todd decided to scuttle the mission) laid out our sleeping bags and pads on a high spot above the sand*** and hung out while watching the almost-full moon rise over the Columbia. It was a great night to be outside as it was not too cold and not that many bugs. I did get woken up by barges (and their giant wake) passing by the beach in the night.)

In the morning we ate some quick breakfast and made coffee. I managed to watch The World, the luxury round-the-world apartment ship cruise down the Columbia. We headed back to town, pausing for more breakfast at a mediocre (but cheap) dive in Linnton.

Looking upstream, towards Portland.

All in all it wasn’t the bush camping we hoped to do, but it was still good. Hopefully I’ll figure out how to get down to Warrior Rock.

*or bivy, or hammock, or etc.
**As opposed to a team on crack.
***I brought my bivy sack but ended up sleeping on top of it.

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