Come late August, it dawned on my wife that we’d never managed to go on vacation this year. I’d been on a solo weeklong cruise, but Kate hadn’t spent a night away from home since 2019. Our college-age son had moved back during the lockdown, and his brother, a high school student, was driving us around the bend as only a teenage boy can. I detected a note of desperation in her eyes. But hotels were deemed “virus incubators,” we didn’t want to impose on friends, and we hesitated to leave the boys at home alone. (We’ve all seen “Risky Business” – right?) Still, the drive to do something was becoming unquenchable for Kate.

When a sunny Friday dawned with a steady west wind, a predicted high of about 75 and a low in the 60’s, an idea germinated.

“Kate,” I whispered, “be real quiet, but start packing some food — we’re going on an overnighter — and bring your life jacket. But we’re not leaving town.”

“Where are we heading, sailor boy?” 

“Government Island — to the dock with the good potty,” I replied. “It’s solar powered, and it actually smells nice.”

Reassured on this crucial point, she nodded and slipped a few cans of cider into a sack.

At lunchtime, I pulled off the boat cover and was loading the front hatch when my youngest son popped out onto the porch. “What’cha doing?”

“Oh, just packing some things for a sunset sail,” I said casually. It wasn’t a lie — just not the whole truth.

Around four o’clock, we rolled out of the driveway with food, a tent, and big grins. We’d successfully snuck out. Forty-five minutes later, the boat was rigged, and we slid Row Bird into the Columbia River. 

With a rising tide and the wind blowing upriver, we scooted away from the dock, giddy at having escaped the familiar monotony of our neighborhood. As the land slipped away, Row Bird gained momentum. Our destination wasn’t important — it was the feeling of freedom that mattered now. Bigger sailboats and a few motorboats passed by, each crew giving a friendly wave. I smiled, too, happy that no raucous party boats were around.

But as we reached the shallow mouth of the bay where Government, Tri-Club, and Lemon Island come together, my contentment took a dive. The beach was packed with sun-worshippers. Coolers of beer littered the beach, boomboxes were cranked up, and all were in close quarters, despite the pandemic gripping town just a few miles away. 

By now the sun was sinking low in the sky, creating beautiful bronze ripples on the river. “Are we going to be there soon? It’s getting dark.” I caught the worry in Kate’s voice.

“Well, we can camp just past these yahoos,” I said. “Or we can go a little further upstream to the dock –it’s always mellow up there, and besides, the light will last a while longer on the water.” 

“Okay, well, maybe a little farther,” she agreed.

As we approached the dock, the wind picked up and the light seemed to fade. Row Bird was leaving an impressive wake, and I was starting to feel anxious about the need to reef; yet I didn’t want to waste time stopping. With a few hundred feet to go, I hove to, dropped the sails and rowed up to the dock, where we were greeted with friendly waves and smiles. As the last of the daylight faded, a woman grabbed our lines and tied Row Bird up.

We wandered up the gangway, where I proudly showed Kate the facilities; then, in the dark, we set up our tent. Sitting together in the entrance, we looked out over the dark river and the lights shining from a dozen boats at the dock. 

Kate called home to the kids. “We decided to spend the night on the island. See you tomorrow.” We chuckled, knowing we’d pulled a good trick on them. Besides, we’d put our neighbors on party patrol, just in case.

But the last laugh wasn’t ours.

An hour after we’d drifted to sleep, the thump of music woke us. I popped my head out of the tent in search of the source, which turned out to be a group of ski-boat partiers. They’d pulled up on the beach, built a bonfire, and turned on a huge speaker. As the music grew louder and louder, I reluctantly stomped down the beach and implored them to turn it down. Clearly regarding me as an annoying old fart, they proceeded to crank it up. Deprived of the peaceful night we’d anticipated, we read, groaned, and flopped in our sleeping bags, attempting unsuccessfully to evade the beat. I seethed for a while, pondering vengeful schemes like tossing smelly otter scat into their boat, or craftily removing their drain plug.

I don’t know exactly when the music stopped, but as we rose to make breakfast, the late-night party receded like a bad dream. Kate and I leaned back in the cockpit, drinking tea and eating muffins. Neither of us said a word, but a sense of satisfaction prevailed. We’d escaped the day-to-day tedium of COVID times. The dock was quiet, the rising sun silhouetted Mt. Hood, and a the fresh promise of another day on the water beckoned.