Joining the party aboard the E&E Paddlefish.

It was well past my usual bedtime when I was invited aboard the Paddlefish, along with my friends Mia and RJ. The Bee Gees were pumping through speakers; tinsel and disco balls cast the deck in a dazzling light. Encouraged by a welcoming, tipsy hostess at the gangplank, RJ donned blue tinted sunglasses, Mia hoisted a beer, and we all laughed as we danced across the barge.

Just a few hours earlier, I’d been enjoying a lazy late September Saturday morning. After frying up some pancakes, I was contemplating my preparations for putting Luna, my wooden cruising-catboat, away for the winter. Yet I couldn’t seem to focus on the tasks involved. Maybe it was the unseasonably warm weather, or the thought of scraping bottom paint; but all I could imagine doing this weekend was squeezing in one more overnighter.

With the forecast in the 80s, and five to ten knot west-northwest wind, I quickly arranged to pick up my friends and go, chores be damned. With the boat hitched to my car, we tossed tents and a few sleeping bags, a box of croissants, and our backpacks into Luna’s little cabin. Eight miles later we rolled into the parking lot of the James Gleason Boat Ramp on the Columbia River. Quickly sorting out the rigging, hanging the outboard, and raising the mast, we launched Luna and pushed off from the dock.

As predicted, the wind was blowing slightly upriver, and we were stoked. RJ had sailed in his teens, but this would be Mia’s first time on a sailboat. I was glad that Luna’s broad beam makes for a steady, calm ride, so she could get a feel for the motion of the wind and avoid the continuous crew shifting often needed to balance a small boat. RJ took the tiller, easily remembering skills learned years ago. When we had to jibe, Mia hooted and grinned. I was tickled to be barefoot and totally relaxed, heading downwind with nary a boat in sight to block the view.

We were heading to Government Island State Recreation Area, a sandy, cottonwood-studded 1,760-acre complex of islands between Oregon and Washington. Separated from either shore by less than 2,000 feet, the islands seem located in some weird fourth dimension of Portland. While they’re adjacent to a popular bike path, and visible from the Interstate 405 bridge and Portland International Airport, they are unsigned and accessible only by boat, making the area something of a mystery spot, unvisited by most Portlanders.

The current was mild, and as we passed the halfway point toward the docks at Sandy Beach, I was contemplating how grand it would be to share a quiet sunset there with my friends. However, when I looked toward our destination, something seemed awry. I’d forgotten my binoculars, but the docks appeared to be gone — or completely full. The mood aboard Luna was still jubilant; although the sun was dropping lower in the sky, the wind held, and our voyage seemed just long enough to feel like we were truly getting away, yet short enough to maintain our enthusiasm.

When we neared the docks, I was shocked to find that my squinted first impression was correct: every inch of space was occupied by a flotilla of huge motor cruisers. We’d set out to visit our own private destination and ended up at something akin to the Boats Afloat Show. Somewhat daunted, we prospected around the edges for a gap. Surely a space for a little 19-foot boat could be found? Now under power, with the centerboard up, we slipped between the shallows along the shore and the shadow of tall boats with flybridges. Luckily, one awkward spot remained, removed from the scene, right at the base of the gangway. We moored carefully, unwilling to get too close to all that gleaming fiberglass.

Although I was disappointed to find such a crowd at a typically tranquil location, my friends hardly noticed, happily scrambling ashore in search of a camping spot. With no other tents in sight, the island still held magic for them, and soon I felt the same way. I jumped into the river, marveling that it was possible to swim so close to home, so late in the season. Then I lounged in the cockpit, drying off in the lingering warmth of the day.

As the sun set, we relaxed around a bluff-top picnic table. The crowd of illuminated boats on the docks below was now just another source of interesting color on the water. To the north, the suburbs of Vancouver, Washington glowed; the lights of an occasional airplane streaked overhead, and to the west, a peachy sunset was reflected in the water. It sure felt like summer, even if the sun had dropped below the horizon at 7:30 p.m. After a leisurely dinner of grilled sausages, music drifted across the water. Assuming we’d be anonymous in the dark, we decided to head down to the docks to see what all the hubbub was about.

The action was coming from a large blue barge, which we were shortly to learn was the Columbia River Yacht Club’s 85-foot party boat, the E&E Paddlefish. Tonight, the club was hosting a 70s party, and the Paddlefish was packed with members decked out in funky clothes, wigs, and big smiles. Hailed as welcome guests, we were ushered aboard, encouraged to don peace-sign necklaces and tinted glasses, then urged to eat, drink, and dance. And as the assorted revelers shimmied on the deck, singing along to “Stayin’ Alive,” that’s exactly what we did.

The next morning, when I peeked out of my companionway, the Cascades were silhouetted by the deep purples and rich oranges of a rising sun. A ground fog curled mysteriously across the water, enveloped pilings and boats. Back up at our picnic table, my friends were steeping tea, and the world seemed full of possibilities.

After packing up our gear, we sailed slowly down river, and a contented silence came over the boat. After a long while, RJ spoke up. “It seems that we’ve been away for a long time.” Everyone nodded in quiet agreement.

Tomorrow we would all return to work, but today’s journey home was still before us. My friends had gotten their first taste of sailing on the Columbia, I’d been able to savor a last overnight of the season; and best of all, we’d all broken through to the fourth dimension — which this time had turned out to be a particularly groovy spot.

The author aboard his catboat Luna at Government Island.

Bruce Bateau sails and rows traditional boats with a modern twist in Portland, Oregon. His stories and adventures can be found at