In my role as Willamette River evangelist and Ringleader of the not-for-profit organization Human Access Project, I sometimes feel like the Kevin Bacon character in the movie Footloose. But instead of trying to take the shame out of dancing and turning it into a love of artistic expression, I am coaxing Portland at large to drop what is frequently a feeling of shame about the Willamette River, and to dive right in.
There is a lot of work ahead to restore the full ecological health of the Willamette River. But today we can celebrate how far we have come by swimming and recreating in the river that flows right through the middle of our city. It is time to forgo the negativity many people feel from past abuses humans have afflicted on the Willamette River – and to embrace, cherish and celebrate the therapeutic values our river can uniquely provide. The times and tide have turned!
One of my favorite things is prodding Portland residents to do even cursory internet research on this topic. They soon discover that science now acknowledges the Willamette River as safe for human recreation in downtown Portland. (This according to the EPA, DEQ, City of Portland and Oregon Health Authority. See Human Access Project's round-up on the topic.) NO, the Willamette River downtown will not kill you or harm you in any way! It’s a fact.
While much remains to be done to protect the fish and wildlife that share the river with us, including salmon that pass through during their migration, we humans at least are safe to recreate in the river. Issues like cleaning up the city’s Superfund site should be a huge priority, to offer the same protection for the critters that rely on the river. My hat’s off to groups dedicated to this objective, including Willamette Riverkeeper, the Audubon Society of Portland and many others.
That said, I have no shame for my love of the Willamette River, or for my starry-eyed optimism about what I consider the inevitable transformation of our community as it slowly but surely embraces it. Witnessing this transformation will be magical. I want to see it in my lifetime. Helping people “get into” the Willamette River will do more than provide therapeutic value and enjoyment for our community. It will create river stewards who are willing to get actively involved in other efforts to protect and restore the Willamette River and improve its ecological health.
To engage individuals and extend our reach in the community, last summer the Human Access Project launched the River Hugger Swim Team. The goal is to embrace the river as we swim across it, east side to west side, and back. It’s about a 20-minute, ¼-mile swim across each way – a piece of cake for intermediate and better swimmers. We’re an advocacy swim group that meets three days a week, all summer long, during morning rush hour (at 7 a.m.) to demonstrate that the Willamette River is safe and fun to swim in, at least for we humans.
Please consider joining us this summer! Our first swim is next Monday, June 15. We say, why not make a statement and get some exercise before work? What’s not to like about that? Plus, no flip turns!
Our River Hugger group started in spring 2014 with 12 people and one safety kayaker. By the last swim of the summer, our group had grown to 38 people with three safety kayakers. Overall, 80 individuals took part at some point during the season. We designed and produced our own River Hugger swim caps, and gained attention while building a new community of river activists.
Each swim starts with a brief safety talk. We ask that everyone swim closely together in a pod so it is easier for the safety kayakers to keep an eye on each swimmer. It is also more impactful and visually dramatic when seen by commuters crossing over the Hawthorne Bridge. Sometimes team members swim only one length across, and walk back. If people are having trouble keeping up with the pod, and are intermediate level swimmers, we suggest they wear fins. (There is no shame in fins, and the extra propulsion is fun.)
We are hopeful that the River Hugger Swim Team will become another tool to help the Portland community overcome its fear and negative feelings about the Willamette River and to make a commitment to addressing much needed additional protections and ecological restoration. Human Access Project has a slate of other mischief up our sleeves this summer, so stay tuned. Also, don’t forget to mark your calendars for The Big Float V set for July 26. It’s our fifth anniversary, and we are shooting for 3,000 to 4,000 floaters to join the flotilla.
The floodgates to the future are open. Get on board, and get into your river!
River Hugger Swim Team
Runs: 6/15 to 9/15, every Mon, Wed, Fri, from 7 to 7:45 a.m.
Cost: $3 per swim, or $50 for the season. Fees pay for the safety boats.
Location: Meet at Fire Station 21, at 05 SE Madison, Portland.
What: Fun, advocacy swim
The Big Float V
Date: Sunday, July 26, 2015
Cost: Adults $5 until 7/19, $8 after, $10 day of. Children $3 until 7/19, $4 after, $5 day of.
What: Group innertube float on the Willamette River
First Annual Portland Beach Bash and Clean Up
Date: Saturday, June 27, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: Meet at Tom McCall Bowl, on the west bank just south of the Hawthorne Bridge.
What: Beach clean-up, music, food, drink, swag. Presented by Human Access Project and SOLVE.