Sand Island, lower Columbia River, OR 20–21 Nov 2021


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted on]

Sand Island and East Sand Island lie in the mouth of the Columbia River. Although the islands are closer to the mainland of Washington than Oregon, they are actually on the Oregon side of the boundary.

That the boundary runs north of the islands is due to the islands’ migration northward from their original charted position in 1877. When Washington was admitted to the union in 1889, the boundary was fixed, by article XXIV of Washington’s new constitution, at the midpoint of the channel north of Sand Island. When Sand Island later migrated north, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1908 that the boundary migrated with it. At the Supreme Court’s further gentle urging, the post-migration boundary was settled by the two states in the 1957 Oregon-Washington Columbia River Boundary Compact, approved by Congress 1958, leaving us the seemingly anomalous boundary of today.

The two islands used to be a single, large island until they separated due to erosion in the 1940s. Prior to the trip, ignorant of the islands’ convoluted political history, I erroneously believed that Sand Island (the larger, western island) was the property of the Oregon Department of State Lands. I also recognized, correctly, that East Sand Island was the property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Camping is allowed on Oregon state lands but not Army Corps lands. Thus, I believed I could camp on Sand Island. In fact, as I learned after the trip, both islands are the property of the Army Corps, pursuant to an executive order dated 29 Aug. 1863 and an act of the Oregon State Legislature dated 21 Oct. 1864. I should not have camped on Sand Island.

00 Route map.jpg

00 Route map. Sand Island is a short paddle from the Washington mainland but a long paddle from the Oregon mainland.

To get an early start Saturday, I drove out Friday after the kids were asleep. I car-camped at Cape Disappointment State Park, one of the loveliest car-campgrounds in Washington. In the morning, I was delighted to find shorebirds foraging on the ocean beaches.

Shorebirds were present in large numbers throughout the trip, not just on the mainland but also on both of the Sand Islands and even on the docks in the marina at Chinook where I launched.

From Chinook, it was only a mile to my first stop at East Sand Island.

01 North Head lighthouse.JPG

01 North Head lighthouse, est. 1898. Today, the dangerous Columbia River bar is illuminated by dozens of lighted buoys and beacons, but in the 19th century, there were only a handful of lights.

02 Sanderlings Cape Disappointment.JPG

02 Sanderlings, Cape Disappointment. These fall and winter residents forage at the edge of the breaking waters, sprinting away to avoid being splashed.

03 Least sandpiper Chinook marina.JPG

03 Least sandpiper, Chinook marina. I was surprised to encounter this species outside the fall migration season, but Seattle Audubon’s Birdweb confirms that least sandpipers winter on the coast from Grays Harbor south.

04 Dunlin and sanderlings East Sand Island.JPG

04 Dunlin and sanderlings, East Sand Island. The dunlin is our quintessential overwintering saltwater shorebird.

05 Surf scoter Chinook marina.JPG

05 Surf scoter, Chinook marina. It’s very unusual to see this species out of the water.

06 Chinook marina.JPG

06 Kayaking Chinook marina. Parking was $5 per day, with a $10 launch fee.

East Sand Island is the scene of a grisly blunder by the Army Corps. The Army Corps operates some of the largest dams on the Columbia River. The dams have had a catastrophic impact on salmon populations. Despite billions of dollars invested into such increasingly desperate measures as salmon hatcheries, salmon ladders, salmon tanker vehicle transports, and salmon-propelling air cannons, the salmon continue to decline.

The Army Corps, as well as the other federal dam-managing agencies, have terrible difficulty admitting the dams are driving the salmon to extinction. Over and over, they propose measures to preserve salmon that do not involve breaching the dams. Over and over, the federal courts find these measures will not save the salmon. The agencies have revised their biological opinions and other environmental reviews in 1992, 1993, 1995, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2014, and 2020, and each time the agencies have either been reversed by the courts or else have reversed themselves in response to litigation. The agencies simply cannot bring themselves to admit the truth: the dams are killing the salmon, and breaching the dams is the only way to stop it.

One of the Army Corp’s worst schemes to avoid acknowledging the impact of the dams was to blame double-crested cormorants. In 2008, one of the many biological opinions later to be invalidated identified double-crested cormorants nesting on East Sand Island as chief culprits for the salmon’s decline, owing to the cormorants’ consumption of salmon smolt. The Army Corps hatched a plan: rather than breaching the dams, they could kill the cormorants.

At the time, East Sand Island was home to North America’s largest colony of double-crested cormorants, some 28,000 adult birds, nearly half the entire double-crested cormorant population west of the Rocky Mountains. What luck for the Army Corps that they just happened to own that particular island!

The subsequent invalidation of the 2008 biological opinion did not, in the Army Corps’ mind, invalidate their scheme to kill the cormorants. Between 2015 and 2017, the Army Corps shot 5,500 adult cormorants and oiled the eggs in 6,100 nests to euthanize the chicks within. Human “hazers” patrolled the island, kicking apart the fragile nests.

The colony collapsed. The survivors of the massacre abandoned the island. By 2018, when the Army Corps ceased fire, only a few hundred double-crested cormorants remained.

The tragedy of East Sand Island is all the more painful because of its stupidity. The surviving cormorants dispersed up the river, where they ended up consuming even more salmon than before. On East Sand Island, at the river’s mouth, salmon smolt had formed only part of a varied diet for the cormorants. After the cormorants fled upriver, they encountered a less diverse ecosystem. Here, salmon became a much larger part of their diet, with each cormorant consuming three times as much salmon as before.

Paddling out to East Sand Island, I felt as if I were visiting a crime scene. When I arrived, I found a screening fence on the western tip of the island. All cormorants nesting east of the fence remain at risk of eradication. Cormorants to the west of the fence are safe. I found cormorant nests on both sides of the fence, including some nests on the fence itself.

07 Kayaking Baker Bay to East Sand Island.JPG

07 Kayaking Baker Bay to East Sand Island. A minefield of half-submerged pilings surrounds both islands. With careful navigation, I managed to hit only one.

08 Anti-cormorant fence East Sand Island.JPG

08 Anti-cormorant fence, East Sand Island. Hopefully, this shoddily constructed fence does not reflect the level of workmanship the Army Corps applied when it built its dams.

09 Cormorant nest East Sand Island.JPG

09 Cormorant nest, East Sand Island. There were eggshells next to some of the nests.

10 Alex and cormorant nest East Sand Island.JPG

10 Alex and cormorant nest, East Sand Island. Cormorants have been nesting on the anti-cormorant-nesting fence.

Even if I had been allowed to camp on East Sand Island, I wouldn’t have wanted to. The violence and stupidity of the Army Corps has left too deep a mark on the island. Who would want to spend a weekend in sight of a fence aimed at excluding seabirds?

Larger Sand Island to the west was more to my liking—although, as I note above, I was wrong to camp here, too. Here were long beaches of firm, light sand, perfect for miles-long hikes. In the uplands, various dune grasses had taken over, obscuring the ground and making the footing treacherous. Scotch broom and gorse occupied the more fertile sectors.

The high-water mark was choked with debris, driftwood and human garbage alike. Sticking out of the stand, just above the tideline, I found a wine bottle with the cork still in it. Could it be a message in a bottle, I wondered, excited? No, it was half-full of liquid. But the cork looked to be intact and dry, too, not saturated by saltwater. I pulled the cork and took a sniff. Wine, not seawater! The bottle must not have been at sea longer than a couple days.

I don’t usually drink alcohol on outdoor trips, but this was too much fun to pass up. I brought the bottle back to camp and enjoyed it with a plate of spaghetti, artichoke sauce, and chicken.

11 Alex reading on Sand Island.JPG

11 Alex reading on Sand Island. Even though Sand Island is in a river estuary, it is subject to ocean swells and tides.

12 Surfbird Sand Island.JPG

12 Surfbird, Sand Island. This handsome shorebird forages under rocks, not mud or sand like the smaller species.

13 Late afternoon Sand Island.JPG

13 Late afternoon, Sand Island. Even on a nine-foot tide, there is enough room on the beach for a tent without having to retreat to the uplands.

14 Wine bottle Sand Island.JPG

14 Wine bottle jetsam, Sand Island. Uppercut cabernet sauvignon leads with a robust flavor on the palate, but the follow-up is weak and watery, like an amateur boxer throwing an uppercut punch only to lose his own balance in the attempt.

In the morning, I wandered around the island, enjoying the birds and scenery. Thanks to an approaching high-pressure system, the weather was calm and clear, at least in most places along most of the coast.

Locally, however, the Columbia River received a strong land breeze blowing down the river valley. It was looking like drysuit conditions for the paddle home, but luckily, the land breeze subsided after eleven o’clock, and I faced flat water on the return.

I was grateful for the reprieve, because the lower Columbia is a tricky place to paddle. The river current meets the tidal current, which meets the incoming ocean swell, which meets the wind waves. Even under the benign conditions I encountered, I still had a scare when I attempted to shoot a half-ruined pile dike. At the last moment, I was warned off by current rushing parallel to the line of pilings. The fast-moving water might have pinned me against the pilings.

15 Sunrise Sand Island.JPG

15 Tent at sunrise, Sand Island. There was no rain but plenty of condensation.

16 Sanderlings Sand Island.JPG

16 Sanderlings, Sand Island. These little birds are at home on the coast in a way we humans never could be.

17 Cape Disappointment lighthouse from Sand Island.JPG

17 Cape Disappointment lighthouse, est. 1856, seen from Sand Island. Scotch broom and sharp-bladed grasses make camping on Sand Island unappealing anywhere except on the beach.

18 Northern harrier Sand Island.JPG

18 Northern harrier, Sand Island. This raptor is a common sight in open, marshy fields.

19 Horned grebe Baker Bay.JPG
19 Horned grebe, Baker Bay. During the non-breeding season, this is one of our most approachable seabirds.

20 Paddling under beacon Baker Bay.JPG

20 Paddling under beacon, Baker Bay. Sticks hanging from the metal grating are evidence of cormorant nests.

Sand Island and its neighbor reminded me of the Pacific Northwest as a whole: beautiful, complicated, a little bit treacherous, still wild, and still in recovery from years of abuse. May all the dams and fences come down, and may the cormorants occupy every square inch of sand.


[Cross-posted on]
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