Portland Park Series: Elk Rock Island

Portland Park Series: Elk Rock Island

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Jaquayala Seamster wasn't sure where she was going Thursday morning.

All the 16-year-old knew was that as part of her job on the Youth Conservation Crew for the City of Portland, she was going to be working outside at a park or natural area. When she and her 11 co-workers arrived at Elk Rock Island, she wasn't sure what she was in for. A few hours of working up a sweat by helping restore the area that she had never even heard of prior to Thursday morning, she's a fan of one of the most unheard of spots in the area.

"I like it," she said. "It's a different place."

Different is right. Thanks to a 40-million-year-old land bridge, Elk Rock Island is connected to the mainland. The island, which totals a little less than 13 acres, is accessible at low water at the Spring Park trailhead on SE 19th Avenue and Sparrow Street. Spring Park is owned by the City of Milwaukie, but Elk Rock Island is City of Portland owned.

The history of the island is relatively unique as the island itself. There's an urban legend that said on the opposite side of the Willamette River from Elk Rock Island is Elk Rock. It's the rocky cliff that extends down to the Willamette River (Highway 43 runs on top of the cliff). The urban legend is that the Native Americans would run elk off the top of the rock and into the river and then gather the elk on the river's edge and harvest them.

Eventually, Peter Kerr, a Scottish grain exporter and Portland businessman who died in 1957, bought the area in 1910 and gave the island to the City of Portland 30 years later with the stipulation that it be preserved in its natural state, which is part of the reason why the Youth Conservation Crew was out there Thursday.

That natural state serves as a teaching and learning tool for many because of its uniqueness, mostly because of the exposed basalt. The island also represents part of an ancient volcano that erupted about 40 million years ago. The lava flows formed the predominant bedrock called Waverly Heights Basalt. Some believe the basalt may be the oldest exposed rock in the Portland area. To put it in context, the common Columbia River Basalts formed 10-25 million years ago.

"It's a pretty unique environment," said Youth Conservation Crew leader Neil Dytham, who helps lead the crew around the area to restore all natural areas. "We really haven't worked in any area like this. The ecology  of it is rather different, too ... It's definitely a different challenge in terms of the ground. It's either really sandy or really  rocky in some parts, as other places we tend to work have more of a layer of mineral soil."

One of the most unique features about Elk Rock Island is that it is relatively secluded. In fact, the area to cross on foot to the island is under water for most of the year, making the only way to get there is by kayak, canoe or some other sort of marine vehicle for a large chunk of the year. But even with relatively mild winter the metro area has faced this summer, it was low enough to walk out to Thursday.

"I'd say the cool thing about it is that it's inaccessible for a good part of the year, so now a lot of people come out here," said Holly Prohaska, a Youth Crews Conservation team leader. "It's very seasonal, which keeps it a little bit more of a pristine area."

After the Youth Conservation Crew took a lunch break from weed whipping, brushing off the trails and a variety of other projects that need to be done, Mark Wilson, Restoration Ecologist for the Lower Willamette River Watershed, Portland Parks & Recreation's City Nature Division, came out to Elk Rock Island to talk to crew members about the value of their work and how it helps Elk Rock Island thrive. He told the group that recently more than 40 Douglas Fir trees were taken off the island in order to help its oak tree population because communities of oak trees, like the ones on Elk Rock Island in which some are more than 200 years old, are magnets for biodiversity. More than 200 species fo mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects use oak trees for their homes and food.

After the group took a short tour with Wilson, they crew resumed its work in order to help Elk Rock Island continue to live in its original state.

"It's the kind of place where you could stay for a week doing things, but there might be more pressing matters at other parks that we need to look at," Dytham said.

With all the work that needs to be done on not only Elk Rock Island, but other natural areas in the area, it seems like a giant task to take on, but Seamster is ready to tackle it. Instead of taking down weeds, moving logs and any other variety of manual labor, she could be working in a grocery store or at a store in the mall. But that's not the route she's taken. She enjoys nature and making a few bucks at the same time.

"This is my third year and I feel like if I'm at a grocery store or something, I'll be stocking shelves and not being active outside," she said. "I like being outdoors."

With the help of the Youth Conservation Crew, ecologists, City of Portland Parks employees and others, the public can enjoy Elk Rock Island, too.