The Sandy River, a tributary of the Columbia, began carving Oxbow Regional Park ’s landscapes two million years ago. The 56-mile-long river begins about 40 miles upstream of Oxbow, at Reid Glacier on Mount Hood.
The Sandy River flows, glass-green and silent along steep bluffs, then slows and chatters over gravel and sand bars bright with flecks of mica. On its banks, columnar fir trunks and mossy cedars weave a green tapestry skyward. Above them, the wind finds its voice on a ridge caught between the river’s bends.
It’s hard to believe this is Multnomah County, home to streetcars, high rises, neighborhoods and freeways. Here, in 1,000 acres of river, forest and ridge, visitors are sheltered from the rush of life in one of the nation’s extraordinary places, Oxbow Regional Park. They are not alone. Black bear, cougar and elk thrive in the protected lands within and beyond the park’s boundaries. The Sandy here, and for much of its run, is designated both a State Scenic Waterway and a National Wild and Scenic River.
Each year, 200,000 people come to Oxbow to camp, fish, boat, hike, learn about wildlife and wild rivers, and watch salmon spawn in a ritual as ancient as the Sandy itself.
The Sandy River, a tributary of the Columbia, began carving Oxbow’s landscapes two million years ago. The 56-mile-long river begins about 40 miles upstream of Oxbow, at Reid Glacier on Mount Hood. The park, at river miles 10 to 13, is nestled along two oxbows (u-shaped river bends) midway through the 12.5-mile-long Sandy River Gorge.
The archeological record shows that for at least 9,000 years, Native Americans hunted, gathered and fished here. They were here when Mount Hood erupted 1,500 years ago and again in the 1790s. In the latter eruption, superheated flows of mud and ash roared into the canyon, burying a forest at Oxbow that was revealed after floods in 2012. These stumps along the Sandy River are all that remain of trees buried in a lahar in 1780. In January 2012, the river changed course, washing away the sediments and exposing the centuries-old trees.
Salmon are emblematic of Oregon and of Oxbow. Thirty million years ago ancestors of today’s salmon began swimming out of the world’s rivers and into its oceans. There they grew to maturity in the abundance of the seas, returning to their native rivers to spawn and die. Fish were thriving in Oregon’s rivers when, 12 million years ago, the land began to rise, creating today’s Cascade Mountains. The salmon adapted, as always, to the changing landscape. Six million years later, today’s Pacific salmon, the icon of the Northwest, was born.
In 1858, not long after settlers first claimed land at the Sandy River’s confluence with the Columbia, a sawmill was built on the Sandy. As roads improved, by the 1870s settlers and sawmills had moved up the river canyon, to the area of today’s park. In 1883, Anderson Johnson homesteaded 40 acres across the river from what is now the park’s boat ramp.
Salmon, once so abundant in Oregon creeks that early settlers caught them with pitchforks, began to decline due to intense harvesting. In 1873, harvests of Chinook salmon from the Columbia River peaked at 43 million pounds. As with Columbia salmon runs, Sandy River runs began to decline significantly from that point on.
As early as 1896, with runs dwindling, the first hatchery opened on the Sandy. But the river’s salmon runs continued to decrease. Logging, to the edge of the river’s banks, and the resulting silting destroyed spawning beds, dam building for power generation and Portland’s water supply blocked habitat, and a 1904 flood deposited enormous amounts of sediment at the river’s mouth, hindering salmon passage for years.
By 1908 logging and lumber mills operated throughout the Sandy River watershed. But it wasn’t all about cutting down trees. In 1901, Jake and Anna Hossner grazed sheep and cattle in the area around what is now the Oxbow Regional Park office and the terrace to the south. They were visited each year by Native Americans who came to pick huckleberries.
In the 1920s, isolated Gordon Creek, a tributary upstream from Oxbow’s boat ramp, was home to bootleggers. In the 1930s, parts of what is now the park (across the river from the campground) were purchased by a developer who planned a community of summer homes nestled in old growth timber. The homes were not built.
Through the mid-twentieth century, logging continued in the area of today’s park, although one 160-acre parcel of old growth forest along the river was spared. Today, it’s a prized, rare grove of ancient trees within Oxbow.
And concern over loss of salmon habitat was growing. From 1957 to 1959 the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) purchased 221 acres along the Sandy River. Arch Diack, who grew up fishing the Sandy, began in the 1950s to envision the area as a public park where the land and river could be protected for future generations. He and his family donated property that become part of both today’s Oxbow Regional Park and nearby Nature Conservancy lands.
In 1962, ODFW sold its 221 acres to Multnomah County for a park. The next year, Oxbow Park opened its gates. From its earliest days, the park grew in acreage. In 1965, the county closed a gravel quarry it had operated on Buck Creek, a Sandy River tributary, and added those lands to the park. More lands were purchased and added in the 1960s and early 1970s, including the Hossner property. The park’s Alder Ridge, a high bluff between the river’s bends, was logged in the early 1950s. It was sold to ODFW and later became part of the park.
In the mid 1960s, Neighborhood Youth Task Force Conservation Corps members, assisted by the BLM, built shelters and trails at Oxbow. Through the 1960s, park roads, trails, and picnic shelters were built, along with a campground.
Even then, however, it was becoming clear that Oxbow was not an ordinary recreation park, but one with rare natural assets in its gorge location on a wild river. Management priorities began to shift from developing park attractions like play areas and picnic shelters toward resource protection and conservation education.
The public was ready to learn about nature in such a beautiful setting. In 1979, 320,000 people visited the park. Buses full of field-tripping school children were common.
While not in robust numbers, salmon continued to swim up the Sandy each year on their annual migration. Conditions were starting to improve for them. In 1971, Oregon passed its first laws to lessen logging’s impacts on rivers and streams. Portland General Electric, which had built dams along the Sandy and the Little Sandy in 1912 and 1913, began to release more water below its Marmot Dam to help salmon survive summertime warming of the river. In 1973, the lower river was given its first broad protections when it was designated an Oregon Scenic River.
Despite these conservation measures, runs continued to decline. By the 1980s the Sandy River run of Fall Chinook had dwindled to zero.
The tide began to turn, slowly, when in 1987 the largest run of wild Fall Chinook returned to the Sandy since counting began. Over 2,200 fish were counted at Oxbow. National Wild and Scenic River status was given to 15 miles of the river in 1988, offering more protection.
Salmon restoration efforts accelerated. In the Sandy River watershed, from 1995 to 2007, communities, nonprofits, businesses and governments, including Metro, acquired and protected 7,000 acres. Nature did her part too: in 1996, epic floods wiped out salmon spawning grounds at Oxbow and elsewhere on the river, but built new ones as well. During that year’s floods, the river deposited enough sand to create a new 3-acre beach within the park.
In 1994, Multnomah County transferred management of Oxbow Park to Metro. It was renamed Oxbow Regional Park to better reflect its role in an emerging system of regional parks and natural areas.
In that first year, Metro naturalists began teaming up with the salmon. The goal: to introduce new generations of Oregonians to the rewards of good land and river stewardship. Since then, Salmon Appreciation Day has evolved into October’s popular Salmon Homecoming, celebrated over two weekends.
As a premier, pristine environment close to the 2.2 million people of the Portland metropolitan area, Oxbow continues to be an outdoor learning hub. Since the 1990s Metro naturalists have used Oxbow as a living laboratory to teach classes on a range of natural history topics including animal tracking, wildflower identification, geology, survival techniques and mushroom identification. Students range from preschoolers to retirees. Oxbow also serves as home for Metro's Nature University, a 12-week training course that starts people along the path of becoming naturalists and teachers.
After PGE’s demolition of Marmot Dam in 2007, the Sandy River became the only undammed river in the West close to a major metropolitan area. As one of the river’s stewards, Metro’s goals for the Sandy River Gorge are to protect fish and wildlife habitat and water quality. To reach these goals, Metro leverages funds from bond measures in 1995 and 2006 with funds from partners to acquire and restore properties along the Sandy and its tributaries.
In addition to Oxbow’s 1,000 acres, Metro has helped acquire approximately 1,100 acres with partners that include the City of Portland Water Bureau, the Nature Conservancy, Western Rivers Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management and Portland General Electric.
In 2013, Metro teamed with the Sandy River Basin Watershed Council on the Happy Creek Reconnection project. Happy Creek, a tributary of the Sandy, was diverted when a road was built in the 1940s in what is now the park. The project restored the creek’s natural connections with the Sandy, and restored .3 mile of a Sandy River side channel — areas of quiet water where juvenile salmon can rest on their migration to the sea.
With removal of dams and projects like Happy Creek that restore habitat once destroyed by logging and road-building, the Sandy River at Oxbow and beyond again becoming the sanctuary for wild fish that it has been for millions of years.