Sand Island offers quick getaway for campers, day users
Seeking a desert island in the middle of St. Helens?
Look no further than Sand Island.
Located just east of the St. Helens' shoreline on the Columbia River, the mile-long island, which was created from piled up river dredge spoils, offers a quick and easy getaway for day users and overnight campers alike.
Recently, the city of St. Helens, which owns part of the island, approved a deal with St. Helens business owners Brad Hendrickson and Andrew Niemi, to run a private campground on the island, which has been named Sand Island Campground LLC.
The duo leased the land from the city and spent months clearing out blackberry bushes, installing fire rings, establishing campsite markers and setting up a full-time camp host, before opening.
Hendrickson said they began seeing people make reservations around July 4 and interest in camping had been building slowly since then.
Sand Island Campground offers 60 tent sites which can be rented out anytime of the year. Each site can host up to six people, and five sites are designated as group sites and can hold up to 12 people. The regular sites are $30 a night, while group sites are $50.
To make the deal even better for locals, Hendrickson said they are hoping to start a rebate program where St. Helens residents will get a $10 credit to be redeemed at a local restaurant.
A free shuttle boat runs throughout the day to transport campers and day users to and from the island. Currently, the shuttle runs on an on-demand basis, but the goal is to eventually run it on a regular hourly schedule.
"We're having to grow things a little at a time," Hendrickson said.
David Appel is the camp host and the shuttle boat driver. He said he enjoys being on the island and helping people who come over for recreation.
When asked what his favorite part of the island is, he noted the variety of wildlife, from birds like osprey, owls, hawks and red-headed woodpeckers, to deer that swim across the river occasionally. He said he has also seen raccoons that scavenge as well.
Heather Bell and Tauni Osterman, two St. Helens residents who were enjoying one of the northernmost campsites on the island this week, said the scenery and solitude make the experience enjoyable, along with the amenities.
"The horseshoe pits are awesome. The surrounding view of the night lights of St. Helens, which were so beautiful," Bell said. "The 360 degree view right here is awesome."
The proximity to St. Helens is an added benefit. While she and Osterman regularly visit the island, this was their first overnight camping trip.
"What's great about it for local people is you're a hop, skip and a jump away," Bell said.
While the island offers a sense of solitude and quiet, a number of recreational activities are also available. Each campsite is set up with a small solar-powered lamp, a fire pit and picnic table, and several horseshoe pits are dispersed throughout the island. On the south end is a sand volleyball pit open for anyone to use. The camp host has recreational equipment that can be checked out for use.
Day use on the island is free and anyone can visit. Mike Schambaugh, a St. Helens resident and manager of Dillard's Marina and Moorage, said he comes to the island nearly every day and brings his grandkids and family out at least once a week.
"It's like being out on a desert island right here in town," Shambaugh said. "It's kind of cool."
The man-made island also offers some unexpected delights, especially when strolling on the shoreline, he added.
"This is all dredge. There's all kinds of arrowheads and Indian beads and artifacts and it's legal to pick them up if it's an incidental find if you're just walking around," Shambaugh said. "You'd be surprised and the history that we get to share with the people out here."
Having a shuttle available makes the island more accessible and increases the likelihood that people can visit, even if they don't have their own watercraft, both Shambaugh and Hendrickson explained.
"Half of our locals haven't even been there," Hendrickson said. "It's a fantastic piece of land and it gives you a totally different view of our city."
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