My wife Judy Irving recently received permission to film on East Sand Island, a mile long spit of old dredge spoils near the mouth of the Columbia River. There’s a large Caspian Tern breeding colony on the island, and in recent years it’s become a giant summertime roost for Brown Pelicans. Judy is working on a new documentary about the Brown Pelican, called Pelican Dreams. She needed my help—driving, hauling gear, and so on—and I was happy to have the opportunity to go. I grew up about 100 miles upstream from the island in the town of Vancouver, Washington, and while I’d seen many different sections of the river, I’d never been to the mouth. It’s enormous—nearly five miles across at one spot.
We were taken out on a flat-bottomed whaler, and to get to shore we had to wade in wearing hip boots. All her film gear had to be carried on our heads, and it was a major task. Because of her dissatisfaction with the quality of video cameras and images, she still hasn’t made the move to the world of lighter, less cumbersome digital equipment. When we arrived on the island there were around 14,000 pelicans lined up along the beach. It was a thrill to see such a massive grouping of that strange-looking bird. We camped on the island one night, and I spent a lot of the time just sitting and gazing at the river.
My family’s camping trips were the only part of my childhood that I enjoyed much. I remember most of the rest of it as being dreary and tedious. [When you leave the Astoria Bridge heading into Washington State, you're given the choice of going left to Cape Disappointment or right to Dismal Nitch (sic), which is how I still tend to remember my old home.] I always appreciate having the opportunity to reconnect with the natural world. Living in a city it’s all too easy to forget that our technological creations are pitiful compared to Nature’s. I mean, who can get genuinely excited about 64 bit computer processing?