Urban Swimming: Portland’s Willamette River


swim group
Willamette River swimmers, August 2014. Photo courtesy Human Access Project.

Through my goggles, I watch the sun lighting up the surface of the water, gold-green. My air bubbles are silver against the dark below. Each time I take a breath I look for the bright caps of my fellow swimmers, keeping track of where I am in the group, and the Hawthorne Bridge, just downstream. 

swim capIt’s 7am on Portland’s Willamette River, and this is my first swim with the River Huggers Swim Team.

Fifty-two years ago Tom McCall, a journalist who would become Oregon’s thirtieth governor, sounded the alarm about Portland’s polluted Willamette River.

This morning, thirteen of us are swimming from the east side dock to the west side beach at downtown’s Tom McCall waterfront park, and back. It’s about a half mile round trip.

It feels wonderful. The water is clean. It smells good. And the little bit that inevitably gets in my mouth tastes fine, just like a river should. The water is a great temperature, refreshing on a summer morning.

We are accompanied by two volunteer safety kayakers with orange flags. This early in the morning there’s hardly any boat traffic – we see just one motor boat during the 45 minutes or so we are in the water, and it gives us plenty of room.

It’s great to have a new perspective on my city. Usually I’m driving over the bridges, or running alongside the river. But here I am, in the water, watching the rising sun glinting on the buildings downtown. It’s peaceful, being in the river as the city wakes up.

At Tom McCall beach, we pause in the shallows, our feet sinking into the soft muddy bottom.  There are three ducks on the beach. Usually it’s the people who are on land, watching ducks in the water. Now the wildlife is watching us.

We take off our goggles and catch our breath. Willie Levenson, the swim team’s ringleader and the founder of the Human Access Project – dedicated to transforming Portland’s relationship with its river – talks about efforts to restore this beach (or, as he puts it, “un-f*ck up the river”). I appreciate his humor, candor, and personal passion for connecting people to the Willamette. Every urban river needs a Willie Levenson.

American Rivers named the Willamette one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers in 2006 because of industrial and municipal pollution.  The effort to clean up the river has taken years, and is ongoing, thanks to the work of Willamette Riverkeeper and others. A big infrastructure project helped stem sewage overflows, and projects across the city such as rain gardens and green roofs are helping to absorb and filter polluted runoff.

Contrast this video from the Willamette River’s past with this video shot today (that’s my son greeting me on the dock). These two videos are proof of the resilience of rivers and the power of public advocacy.

The Willamette’s story is the story of so many other urban rivers in our country. Once polluted, fenced off and forgotten, cities have rediscovered their rivers, celebrating them as community assets. When it comes to the local economy and quality of life, it’s a great benefit when you can fish, kayak, and stand up paddleboard 10 minutes from your home or office. The Willamette and associated outdoor activities no doubt helped land Portland the recent distinction of most livable city in the U.S.

This is an “advocacy swim.” Sure, it’s fun and good exercise, but the main point is to show the community that the river is open for all kinds of recreation.  It’s simple: the more people who enjoy the river and have a stake in protecting it, the better off the river will be. A large constituency of swimmers, anglers, and boaters who love and look out for the river is one of the best defenses against pollution and other threats to clean water and river health.

We’ve come a long way, but we’re not done yet.

So we swim. And we tell our friends about it. “Did you get sick?” a neighbor asks. “Did a fish grab your foot?” my four-year old asks. No and no. It’s safe. It’s fun.

Jump in.





Human Journey


Meet the Author
Amy Kober is the senior communications director for American Rivers, a national non-profit river conservation organization. She lives in Portland, OR.