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Lost Oregon: Go wild in Portland

United States

In which John Chilson continues his further explorations of Portland and vicinity, with a visit to Elk Rock Island

If you live in Portland, there’’s a good chance that you enjoy nature. Whether it’’s a leisurely stroll through leafy neighbourhoods, bird-watching in Portland’s miles of parks, biking around the 40-Mile Loop, or sitting on the blanket with a cold beer and watching squirrels be hilarious. Nature is everywhere amongst the built environment here. It’’s hard not to rub shoulders with something furry throughout the day.

Deer family along a highway on the evening commute? Check. Bald eagle soaring ahead on your lunch hour during the work week? Roger that. Geese crossing four lanes, holding up traffic on the highway? We got that. Turkey vultures circling above? Seen it. Coyote yip-yip-yapping during the night (and the neighbour’s cat mysteriously missing the next morning)? It happens.

In other words, it doesn’’t take much to ramp up your nature experience in Portland. There are numerous small, parks sprinkled throughout the city and surrounding environs, as well as acres of wetlands and paths that make you feel like you’’re in a forest, not the middle of a populated city. Nature is in the backyard, or if you want to experience it on a more in-depth level, it’’s only 20 minutes away. Elk Rock Island is a prime example of a nature experience in the urban landscape.

Technically not Portland proper (it’’s just a hair in Milwaukie’’s border, but owned by the city of Portland), Elks Rock Island is only accessible when the tide is low or by canoe across the Willamette. You need to park in a nearby neighbourhood and then walk down a dusty pathway to find it, and once you do, it’’s easy to remember the location.

This Tom Sawyer-Island-At-Disneyland-like place is maintained by volunteers who lovingly rip out invasive weeds and plants, and clean up after slobs that leave their beer cans behind. There are pathways that wind round the inner ring, where during a recent spring walk we spied trilliums in bloom and small creatures such as snakes, butterflies and birds. You can also climb a small hill – that was part of a volcano millions of years ago –and look across the Willamette at Elk Rock itself, a sharp cliff where Native Americans rushed elk over the cliffs, according to legend.

Also as part of its colourful history, the island had a nightclub and dance hall that, during prohibition, doubled as a speakeasy. Thirsty Portlanders enjoyed dancing, drinking and various shenanigans on the island until a fire destroyed the hall. The only surviving structure is a lonely, abandoned stone staircase that goes to nowhere on the side of the island.

Nowadays, explorers can enjoy grasslands, hiking paths, rock climbing and an impressive view of the Willamette. We recommend that you walk the perimeter of the island along the river, and climb up on the volcanic rock where you can see Elk Rock across the river. After enjoying the view, venture onto the footpath that snakes into the island and go for your hike around the island. There are also flat, grassy areas where you can throw down a blanket and enjoy lunch.

Naturally, on any given day you will also undoubtedly see: a dude with a pit bull; a homeless camp; used condoms; empty beer cans, and groups of adult men racing their remote controlled off-road toys. Just a small reminder that the island is in an urban area, and that Elk Rock Island is for everyone to enjoy –whatever that entails.

Be sure to visit John’s site, Lost Oregon, for much more local lore

Published 10 September 2013

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