Just north of Portland on an island that sits in the middle of the Columbia River (which, incidentally, empties into the Pacific Ocean), Sauvie Island is a quiet respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Full of farms, cornfields, and beaches, here is where the city folk enjoys the quiet life. The main attraction is no doubt the pumpkin patch. Every September and October, gaggles of kids with their parents in tow come to Sauvie Island to experience probably the best pumpkin patch, corn maze, and hayrides in the region.
But what is probably a bit more well-known on the island is Collins Beach. Why? Well, because it is one of only two designated ‘nude beaches’ in Oregon. Clothing is indeed optional here. And it is a lovely beach for sunning, so if you’d rather keep your clothes on, please do.
But wait! There’s more to this beach than naked bodies. Tucked discreetly behind the trees sits a strange craft. And yet it is not so discreet with its bold colors; a victim of many years of attention to wayward artists. Resembling a UFO, it sits landlocked and lonely, and covered in graffiti.
A Controversial History
For decades, nary a soul seemed to agree on when or how this saucer-like shipwreck came to its final resting place here on Collins Beach. The clothing-optional beach has seen its share of bare bums, but the craft’s origins are not so revealing. And then a local news story reported on the UFO-like structure on the island. That is when the skeletons came out of the closet.
Suddenly everyone had an opinion about it. But one man in particular stood above the fray of know-it-alls who seemed to have all the answers. His name was Richard Ensign, a resident of Hubbard, Oregon. While Mr. Ensign was no doubt a bit of an eccentric, it seems that he laid down $10,000 of his own money to build a concrete (yes, concrete) sailboat so that he could make a quick getaway should society as we know it finally collapse and he would need to take to the water.
As I said…he was an eccentric man.
An Experiment Gone Tits Up
Harken back to 1972. Even though the exterior of the boat was concrete, the innards were filled with foam (for general floatiness); the 31-foot self-righting boat was powered by two sails, and a paddlewheel was aided by your standard 6-cylinder vehicle engine. After the boat was complete, Ensign took to the water on the boat’s maiden voyage down the Columbia River with his crew of eight men. Their destination: Astoria, Oregon. A fishing town that sits at the confluence of the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean. That voyage was met with moderate success: after some fits and starts, it took the crew several days to get there (only about 60 miles away). Over the next two decades, he used the boat only occasionally, and in 1996, flood tides from a storm deposited the boat too far above the water line at Collins Beach, where it promptly ran aground. There it remains to this day, well out of reach of the current high-tide water line.
I wasn’t entirely sure this legend was real, so I ventured to find out for myself. Arriving at Collins Beach, it didn’t take me long to look upon the graffitied eyesore with my own eyes. Once you take a short path through the line of trees onto the beach, turn left. It is just a short walk and you can’t miss it. There it sits, tucked into the leaves like a little boy at bedtime. It is close to the Warrior Rock Trailhead, if that is of any help.
Final Resting Place
It looks so at home nestled in there like it’s part of the landscape. The only difference is, grafitti artists use it as their own canvas, and when I returned a couple of years later, it had been redone. There is a way to go up into the hull of the forever-run-aground craft, and someone has thoughtfully erected a narrow plank so you can easily shimmy up inside of it and have a nap. I’m almost surprised I didn’t spot anyone up in there. It’s a cozy spot should you need a place to spend the night (for free, no less).
It’s a good question as to why exactly it looks so UFO-like. Perhaps that’s just how Ensign fashioned the hull – it was all part of his eccentric experiment – to see if such a design was useful on the water. As history would have it, the experiment failed. Or….is it really a UFO? No one seems to be able to contact Ensign or any of his relatives to this day. Still, it is an interesting adornment on Collins Beach and a nice day trip from Portland to explore the island.
Just avert your eyes if you are not partial to naked people lying in the sun.