Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Elk Rock Island expedition

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Today's adventure takes us out to funky little Elk Rock Island, in the Willamette River down near Milwaukie. I don't do islands very much here, since I don't own a boat (not yet, anyway), but this one you can actually walk to. Elk Rock Island is really just a part-time island, when the river level's high enough. The rest of the year it's sort of a peninsula, connected to the mainland by a stretch of weird undulating bedrock. But even then, it still kind of looks like an island.

Getting to the island is a little confusing, and it doesn't help matters that there aren't any signs for it. Not any that I noticed, at least. Although it's a Portland city park, you'll need to head down to Milwaukie if you plan to get there by land. It's a bit south of where River Road branches off from McLoughlin. If you're coming from the north, when you veer off toward River Rd., you're initially on 22nd Ave., and you briefly cut over on Sparrow St. before you're on River Rd. proper. Where everyone else turns left, you want to turn right. Continue down the hill on Sparrow. You'll go under a low trestle, and shortly after that Sparrow ends where it joins with 19th Ave. The not-very-grand entrance to the park is here. But before you park here, check out all the “No Parking” signs. I get the distinct impression that someone (neighbors? the city?) really, really doesn't want you parking here. So you can go park somewhere else and walk back, now that you know where the entrance is. Or you can do like I did, and somehow manage to not notice all the scary “No Parking” signs, park here anyway, and wander off into the forest. Maybe you'll be as lucky as I was, and only realize you were parked illegally just as you're driving off. Or maybe you won't be.

Updated 2/3/21:The island is now a Milwaukie city park as of 2016, which hopefully is a more workable arrangement, as much as I'm a fan of weird legal oddities. There's a discussion of the pre-2016 situation further down in this post; I kept it around as a historical curiosity, and for context since the rest of the post describes the island as it was circa 2008. Although as far as I know nothing's really changed since then except the name on the deed to the place.

Anyway, let's assume that you're at 19th and Sparrow now, and not in a car, by whatever means. Perhaps you biked here, and spent the last paragraph sneering at my vehicular travails. There's still no sign of any island at this point, so you just need to get on the trail and walk a bit further. There really is an island (or semi-island) here, honest.

Incidentally, the ho-hum forested area you're walking through here is called “Spring Park” (or very rarely “Keller Park”, as on the above Google map). Unlike the island itself, Spring Park is part of Milwaukie, and a pair of official maps indicate that the North Clackamas parks district runs it. If you're curious about the place for some reason, or you just can't get to the island because the river's too high, here's a 2004 Oregonian article on Spring Park, and a more recent article at the Oregon City News. Also, here's a photo from Spring Park, with a typical bit of the foliage:

Elk Rock Island

But I digress. Once you're out of the woods, you'll see either a.) something like the top photo, or b.) something like the top photo but with more water. If it's option a, you've come to the weird undulating bedrock I mentioned earlier.

Elk Rock Island

Apparently this little plug of land here is a remnant of a very old volcano. "Very old", by local standards, means about 40 million years. Most surface rocks around town are a "mere" 10-20 million years old. These rocks, known as Waverly Heights Basalt, (see this doc from the state, "Geology of the Portland Area"). are about the oldest rocks you can see without leaving town and driving a fair distance, or digging down a fair distance. Which is kind of sad really; just like recorded human history doesn't go back very far here, the oldest rocks we've got aren't too impressively old either. You won't find any dinosaur bones here, because they died out a good 25 million years before the aforementioned volcano appeared and then eroded away. Well, this is all true unless you're one of those creationist wingnuts, in which case the Waverly Heights Basalt rocks are 6000 years old, just like everything else, and all of modern geology is a godless commie liberal pinko gay terrorist plot, and modern geologists hate freedom. In which case you probably ought to leave this blog immediately and never come back. And do it quick before you read anything else that upsets you. And you probably ought to leave the island too, while you're at it, and go build yourself a Y2K bunker in some godforsaken, faraway red state.

Elk Rock Island

If you're still here, and you can pick your way across the mini-moonscape, you'll get to the island proper. As you can see, it's not really all that big. The city says it's 13 acres, although I don't know if that's at low water or high water. The city classifies it as a “natural area”, and it's supposedly home to herons and bald eagles, although I didn't see any while I was there. Like most city parks, has trouble with invasive species, so the city conducts controlled burns from time to time. I didn't see any evidence of that either. A couple of recent Oregonian articles about visiting the island, in which we learn it's a nice place to enjoy winter wildlife, if the river doesn't kill you. There's also a 2003 article, "Saving an Island Oasis", and the island also featured in an Oregon Field Guide episode a few years back (which sadly isn't available online).

Elk Rock Island

The center of the island is densely forested and crisscrossed by a number of trails, but I found it much more interesting to walk the circumference of the island, which is quick and easy and you're much less likely to get lost that way.

Elk Rock Island

As you're walking around, you might notice a low stone wall right on the water, along the western shore of the island. You can kind of make it out in the above photo – I'd have tried to get closer and take a better picture if I'd known what it was. The island's a quiet place these days, but it was quite the happening spot way back in the early 20th century. The stone wall is all that's left of the Rock Island Clubhouse, a rowdy "dance hall" that used to, uh, grace the island, back in the old days. Sounds like it was quite an operation, complete with booze, broads, police raids, the whole deal. And then the whole place burned to the ground.

The Milwaukie Library's list of newspaper stories about fires & fire departments mentions the November 23rd, 1916 fire that destroyed the "Clubhouse" on the island. The land bridge was probably underwater that late in the year. I don't know if the place was operating at the time, but just imagine being all-out sloppy drunk on a scrubby little island in the Willamette, during a dark and probably wet late November, and then the whole place catches on fire. That doesn't sound like very enjoyable.

Nothing anywhere near as exciting happens on the island these days (that I'm aware of), although there does seem to be an occasional paintball problem here. (Note that the state legislator behind that proposed law is also a founder of the Friends of Elk Rock Island.) Oh, and there was a stabbing back in 2001 after a drunken party got out of hand. Also, the The Portland Spirit ran aground near Elk Rock Island back in 1997, which the Coast Guard blamed on sloppy navigation and a misplaced buoy. FWIW.

The neighborhood on the Milwaukie shore (back where you may or may not have parked) is still called "Island Station", named after a long-vanished streetcar stop, which presumably was here for people heading to go drinkin' and dancin' and carryin' on. A page about a current rails-to-trails project mentions the old Island Station streetcar stop, and includes an period photo.

Elk Rock Island

For more history and background and tales about the island, you really want to check out a really excellent post about the place, at Wobbly Little Legs. Quite honestly, it's much more interesting than the post you're reading now. It's even got a cool ghost story. If you're only going to click on one link in this post, this is the one you'll want to click on.

More photos at Fidgets by Jeff. A local newspaper article about the annual Audubon bird count, with a mention of the island. Someone mentions they'd lived in Portland for 38 years and never knew Elk Rock Island was here. It hasn't quite been 38 years for me (yet), but I know the feeling. A mention in a pdf about "Portland's Forgotten Greenspaces". And a mention from a dog's perspective, sorta, with photos, at To Aire Is Divine.

Also, there's a letterbox around here somewhere, if you're into deciphering cryptic clues, which I'm not.

Elk Rock Island

Across the river, you might've noticed the high cliffs that drop straight down into the river. Those cliffs are Elk Rock proper. The island gets its name from being near Elk Rock, not from being Elk Rock. That probably confuses a lot of people. As for the "Elk" in the name, a Native American legend holds that this was a good spot to stampede a herd of elk over the cliff.

On the left (=south) side of Elk Rock is what looks like a dry waterfall. Apparently that is a real waterfall, albeit a seasonal one. I had no idea there was a waterfall this close to town. It may be that when it's flowing, the river is also so high you can't walk out to the island, and so the falls don't get a lot of exposure. I don't really know. I've only come across a couple of photos so far of the falls, in this recent newsletter from Willamette Riverkeeper, and it's just a small black-and-white photo on page 10. There's a better photo of the falls on Flickr, apparently taken from the Portland Spirit around this time last year. But last year was an especially wet autumn. It certainly wasn't going when I was there. So clearly, this calls for further investigation on my part, at some point when the falls are flowing.

In the present day, the area across the river is part of the Dunthorpe neighborhood, an ultra-ritzy old money area that's home to the city's power elite, along with a number of pro basketball players, a couple of privacy-obsessed Hollywood actors, and even, supposedly, Linus Torvalds himself. Along with the Riverdale neighborhood a bit further north, the Dunthorpe area has so far managed to avoid being annexed by the city of Portland, or any of the other surrounding cities. Because, you know, only the little people pay property taxes. (No offense intented, Linus, if you read this.) So you have a weird situation where both the island and Elk Rock itself belong to the Portland Parks Bureau, but lie well outside Portland city limits.

Elk Rock Island

Perhaps, if you read this humble blog regularly, you've noticed my tendency to get all nitpicky about exactly who owns a given chunk of land, what the place is officially called, and that sort of thing. It seems the Elk Rock area is really kind of a wonderland for my pedantic tendencies. There's the ownership vs. city limits thing I just mentioned. And as I noted earlier, the park on the Milwaukie mainland side goes by two different names, for reasons that remain unexplained. Then there's the island itself, which is called either "Peter Kerr Park" or "Elk Rock Island Natural Area". And then there's a 3 acre parcel across the river that includes Elk Rock itself, the near-vertical cliffs high above the river. This is called either "Peter Kerr Property", "Peter Kerr Natural Area", or even "Peter Kerr Park", or (according to PortlandMaps) plain old property ID# R331706. I don't have a property ID for the island itself, since on top of being outside Portland city limits, it's also over the Clackamas county line, and so the city doesn't have useful GIS data for it.

The city parks bureau doesn't have a lot to say about either the island or Elk Rock proper. They do appear as part of the city's Natural Vegetation Survey, wherein we learn that the terrain at Elk Rock is officially "Extremely Steep". That page refers to both parcels as the "Peter Kerr Property".

Elk Rock Island

Calling the whole area the "Peter Kerr Property" is not entirely off base, actually, since the whole area once belonged to Mr. Kerr, a Scottish immigrant and Gilded Age grain magnate. Besides these nature bits the city eventually ended up with, he also had a formal house and gardens up on the bluff. Those now belong to the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon and are known as the Bishop's Close. The house is now the bishop's official residence, and the grounds are open to the public. I think I was there once as a kid. Maybe I'll go take a look around sometime, I imagine probably not until next spring when the flowers return. The Oregon Historical Society has an extensive Kerr family collection, with a bunch of old photos and so forth, and if I was a real historian I'd probably go use that as a resource.

Fortunately, the Kerr estate does get a mention in a book by a real historian. A book I actually own, no less. MacColl's The Growth of a City spends a few pages on the Kerr estate, including a telling quote from John Olmsted, the designer of the estate. In a letter to Kerr, Olmsted explained why the planned manor house shouldn't be located on the bluff's edge, as Kerr had originally intended:

With respect to the new house site, my feeling was that in spite of the manifest advantages of a site close to the bluff, the distant view would be more agreeable from a site further back from the bluff, because in that case you could provide a picturesque foreground on your own place and could so manage the plantations as to conceal the sordid little houses of the town of Milwaukee across the river, while still retaining in full view the wooded hills beyond the magnificent view of Mount Hood.

"Sordid little houses". Ugh. And he didn't even spell "Milwaukie" right. I have no idea whether Kerr himself shared these sentiments, but when it came time to donate parts of the estate for park purposes, the land went to Portland, not Milwaukie, which would've been the geographically obvious choice.

Elk Rock Island

So you can't see the ex-Kerr digs, but a number of huge houses are visible across the river. One of the more prominent ones, located slightly downstream of the island, has a ghost story associated with it.

Also across the river, and invisible from here, is Elk Rock Tunnel, a 1/4 mile railroad tunnel under Elk Rock that's currently used by the Willamette Shore Trolley. The idea behind the Willamette Shore Trolley, as I understand it, is not simply to give old people something to get all nostalgic about; it also keeps the rail right-of-way alive in case they ever decide to run the Portland Streetcar down to Lake Oswego. More on the trolley/streetcar situation at Portland Transport.

Elk Rock Island

Speaking of elk, here's the Wapati IPA from "Elk Rock Brewing", which I understand is a store-brand label for either Fred Meyer or Safeway, I can't recall which. Either way, I'm told that the beer's brewed by Pyramid here in town. So the name probably refers to this Elk Rock, although it's not depicted on the label. If you were going to bring a six pack and hang out here (which is technically illegal, this being a Portland city park and all), this would be the logical beer to bring along, assuming it's any good. Mmmm.... beeeer....

Elk Rock Island

Um, in any case, once you're done circling the island, the way back is the same way you came in, and then it's off to the next adventure (or in my case, off to the office and the next fun meeting). That is, unless the city towed your car while you were out wandering the island, or the river rose in the meantime and now you're marooned here, possibly until spring. In which case the adventure is just beginning....


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the informative post! I've heard all sorts of cool stories about the place. Including the monster sized Carp to be caught around the island. Regardless, plan on checking it out in my kayak now!

Aaron said...

The Oregon Field Guide video you mention is available here:

Thanks for the post!

Lorita OLeary said...

This is a nice place to hike around because of the interesting terrain. I found it by accident one time exploring around the Willamette - it's close to where I live. Great blog. I'm going to post it on my Go Oregon Now Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Go-Oregon-Now/232578963434835

Thin-ice said...

I love Elk Rock Island.
I love your description & history of it.
I love your takedown of Young Earth Creationism.
(I used to be one until I educated myself and then realized what a fetid cesspool of ignorance it was.)

Thin-ice said...

(Thanks, Aaron, that is a GREAT OPB video! It answers a lot of questions about how it formed.)

Snowcap said...

I am starting to get used to the fact that almost every time I become fixated on a geographical feature in or near Portland and decide to Google it for more information, I end up on your blog - I really enjoy it so I'm starting to view it as a perk of having more or less the same hobby.

I went on a walk-through of the soon-to-be-renovated Elk Rock Tunnel yesterday, and also toured the Kerr Gardens above it. It was lovely, and there is a very odd interesting house to be seen up on the hillside on the other side of the tunnel. Well worth checking out, IMO, and you have until April before construction starts on the tunnel.

On another note, do you have any knowledge of Hog Island, in the Willamette south of Lake O?