“Surfing is something that you do at home,” a friend admonished one day. At the time I found it an odd statement, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew exactly what he meant.
At the time we lived within walking distance of a beach in Southern California where we surfed daily. It didn’t matter if the weather was fine or the waves too storm-tossed to be considered rideable: we were there. Some folks would go charging to another spot in town if they heard the swell would be bigger; others would go off on surf expeditions to Mexico, Fiji, or Hawaii, but day in and day out, we’d go to the beach by our house. By convenience, affection, habit or some combination, we loved it fiercely and we’d end up surfing at home.
Eventually life pulled me away from the sea. I still surf on occasion, but I now find myself in much the same position with my life as a sailor. While I can drive to any number of locations on the Columbia or Willamette rivers in just a few minutes, I consistently find myself happily lost in what I call the Ross Island Triangle, which just happens to be right near my home near the Willamette.
The triangle extends about three miles upriver starting near the diminutive skyscrapers of downtown Portland, stretching south to encompass a wide section of river that flows around Ross, East, Hardtack, and Toe Islands. As the river spreads out, the current and the time seem to slow down. The islands and east banks of the river near the islands become covered in cottonwood and other water-loving vegetation instead of buildings. The west bank fills with walkers on a paved path, backed by condos of various sizes and ages. Nevertheless, as you move from the roar of the downtown bridges and into the backwaters of Ross Island, there is a definite feeling of being away. Not away like you’re out in the wilderness, but definitely away from the everyday of city life.
There’s a rough beauty in the Triangle. Old pilings poke up from the shore, rusting equipment is trapped under blackberry brambles on shore, and huge chunks of concrete can lay just beneath the surface of the water. Shantyboats covered in shredded blue tarps are tucked off the main channel, graffiti covers old bridge abutments, and a gravel processing operation hogs a sizeable portion of Ross Island. All this contrasts with a heron rookery which brings the treetops to life in early spring and leaping salmon in the fall. You’re as likely to spot a deer trotting along the shore or a merganser flying overhead, as you are to find a rusting steel cable as thick as your wrist or a pile of crumbling styrofoam.
When people ask why I continue to go out there time and time again, I struggle for a good answer. I could just as easily head to a wildlife preserve with a quiet lake or the wide open waters of the Columbia, but I feel at home on this stretch of the river- the way you do with a pair of broken-in shoes. I know where the shoals are, the location of the eagle’s nest, where to find agates, which beaches to avoid due to homeless campers, and how fast the water moves during the spring freshet.
The Triangle is an imperfect place, but there’s something refreshing about its relative stillness, the lack of polish, and the way nothing there rushes, nor when I visit, do I.
Kudos to John the fishing sailor and Aussie Steve for the photos of Row Bird.