Walking to Warrior Rock

Last October, I found my perfect walk. Scribbling in my guidebook after, I noted it was “Everything you want in a hike!,” scattering more specific enthusiasms over the rest of the text. I made plans to return immediately: with friends, parents, by myself. Life gets in the way, though, and it shouldn’t surprise me that I’ve only just made it back today. On the plus side, the intervening months have made today’s walk a rediscovery, and not merely a visit.

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The first thing I’d forgotten was the drive. You think when you cross the bridge from Highway 30 that you’ve arrived on Sauvie Island, the trailhead can’t be far. But the trail to Warrior Rock is at the northern tip of this marshy piece of land between two river channels; the bridge is in the south. Sauvie Island is approximately Manhattan-sized. Even lacking a significant human population, it’s a long way on country roads.

It’s also utterly lovely, which makes for a curious double reaction. Come early, and you have 12-plus miles of soothing rural driving all to yourself. In October, fog lay in smooth ribbons over the cornfields, piled itself fluffy and white above farms golden with the stubble of spent crops. This midwinter morning, it squats low above the Columbia. Mounts Hood and Saint Helens rise disembodied behind it, freshly snow-topped against a brilliant sky. It is impossible not to enjoy these lonely miles. And yet. The greater the unfolding beauty, the more impatient my legs grow with gas pedals and brakes. I feel something like anxiety by the time I reach the end of the road.

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If I met no one on the drive, that’s because they’ve all beaten me to the trailhead. The unpaved lot that caps Reeder Road serves both hikers and, in season, hunters. Judging by the ratio of pickup trucks to Subarus, it’s the latter population that rose with the sun this January day. As I  shoulder my pack, crackling reports roll across the broad fields to my left. They repeat at intervals for the next three hours, yet I see no waterfowl rising from the trees. Perhaps they are used to the noise, and have learned to remain hidden. October’s hunting season was a quieter sort: dozens of boats moored in the Columbia, waiting in pre-dawn silence for the fall Chinook.

There are two paths to Warrior Rock: beach and trail. The trail is wide and flat, and I remember it as having good tread. I walked with my face upturned to the rainfall patter of cottonwood leaves, to the forest-filling rasp of a flock of sandhill cranes on the move. I spotted kingfishers calling at wood’s edge, overflying Canada geese, a couple of downy woodpeckers hard at work. Today the trail is a churned up channel of mud, threaded by slightly sturdier foot tracks wide enough for one. My eyes spend most of their time on the ground, searching out the driest tread.

Frost rims fallen leaves and bowed grasses, hardens the edges of the trail. Not, regrettably, the center.

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I’ve read that you can walk the entire way along the beach. Important qualifiers to that statement should read “at low tide,” “in late summer,” and possibly “if you’re lucky.” Both of my visits have required me to locate a path back through the woods when the beach ran out. This time, it’s barely worth a walk on the diminishing sand, but October’s wide and friendly shoreline led me a merry chase for some time, before vanishing into boggy reeds.

Very early, the only other footprints are heron and otter and raccoon — so many of the latter that it’s clear the beach is their nocturnal highway. An entire raccoongregation lives in those cottonwoods.

The geology is interesting, too: slicks of sticky clay bleed down the mostly sandy surface from woods to water. I can imagine a very dirty science class field trip out here. There’s little visible rock: mainly the Warrior itself, topped with a squat white lighthouse that claims the title of Oregon’s smallest.

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I was sick in October, recovering from/denying the existence of a chest cold. Sand, I remembered then, is hard work. Patience, especially with one’s own limitations, is harder.

Today’s limitation is external: this mud is a chore. It smells, too, like damp and decaying plant life, with a whiff of livestock manure. It’s a scent I encountered last while walking in sheep country: rancid mud, I called it then, and the thought wrinkles my nose. If it sounds unpleasant — it is. But it’s the sort of unpleasantness that highlights the clean gray river and the cry of the kingfisher, calls attention to the bright sunshine. I could live without it, certainly. But that’s not a choice I get to make.

It’s true enough – misquoting Emerson – that a trail is about the journey, not the destination. If there happens to be a fine destination on offer, though, I won’t complain, and I’ll bet Ralph Waldo didn’t either. Warrior Rock more than qualifies. The rock and its lighthouse (still working) are large enough to poke about. In the process, I get into an argument with my husband about which way is north. When we call on my compass as tiebreaker, it’s swinging wildly, less certain than either of us. We sit down above the river to theorize about the mineral content of the rock, dangling our legs over the side and peeling our oranges. Anyone so inclined would find this a friendly spot for a real picnic, basket and cloth and all.

The wide Columbia rolls quietly on a few feet below. A fantastically massive barge pushes smoothly upstream, silent but for its humming engine. The wake reaches our perch long moments later, a miniature tsunami that breaks violently against the rock, splashing my feet. (My husband, not about to get wet if he can help it, has cleared out.) I stay put, watching the river slosh about drunkenly in the drowned reedbeds. It subsides gradually, lolling back toward the opposite shore. A single fish leaps, and I try, lazily, and fail to identify it. My thoughts are surfacing the same way: infrequently, too quick to catch, gone without regret. For once, I don’t mind.

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My brain is a restless one, and even on the trail (or the beautiful drive toward it), I’m often thinking of today’s later tasks, worrying a problem, or planning my next trip. It’s rare enough to find a moment of mental quiet, when there’s nowhere else my mind wants to be. My instinct is of course to strive for them, but I’m learning that concerted effort toward an intangible end is in fact part of the problem. Instead, I cultivate interest in the immediate, and try to let everything else roll with the river’s current. Sometimes it works. Today, seated on the edge of Warrior Rock, a gift: here I am.

***

Drive north from Portland on US 30 to reach Sauvie Island. You’ll need an ODFW Wildlife Area Parking Permit to park just about anywhere, which you can purchase online, or from the island’s Cracker Barrel Grocery, right there near the bridge. At the time of writing, passes have just gone up to $10 per day or $30 for the year. ‘The year’ is calendar: good through December 31st of whatever year you purchase it – so get one this month!

Reach the Warrior Rock trailhead by driving along Reeder Road all the way to its end. There’s a good amount of a parking along the beaches here, and also immediately next to the trailhead.

The trail is easy (except in muddy conditions). The effective elevation gain is 0, unless you count the modest (and optional) scramble from beach to woods. Total hiking distance: about 6 miles. To extend, you can continue beach-walking from Warrior Rock toward the town of St. Helens.

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