Making Peace with the Willamette River

By: Tierra Curry

This is the summer I fell in love with the Willamette.

Admittedly, like many relationships, my love is based on the potential for good that I see in Portland’s troubled, yet improving, water vein. I’ve been in Portland for more than a decade without so much as sticking a toe into our river. I suspect this may be true of most Portlanders. We drive over it, bike across it, walk beside it, and wish there were more places to dine on the banks and take it in. Some hardy folks row on it. Even braver ones fish from it. But ask people if they swim in the Willamette and they’re likely to say something like, “Eew. Gross.”

That’s exactly what my companion said, standing on the banks one fine day this July, when I declared that I was going to jump into the river, for the very first time.  We were standing on the river bank in Sellwood. It was hot out, really hot. My labrador retriever was out enjoying the water. Little kids were out enjoying the water.

“Do their parents know about the persistent organic pollutants?” I wondered. “Where exactly are these alleged PCBs? Are they here in the mud at Sellwood?” If the little kids were splashing around in them, they didn’t seem to mind. Blue, my lab, didn’t seem to mind either. He swims in the river most days. He took is first Willamette plunge in January, downtown by the park strip where the geese are plentiful and the mud is green. He came out smelling horrendous and was so happy that he tore around in high speed circles in the one small patch of grass downtown between the Hawthorne and Marquam bridges where the river is accessible for swimming.

Standing on the bank in July, sweating, weighing pollutants and the ghost of combined sewage overflows against the pure joy of a good swim, and against my companion’s advice, I dove into the Willamette. And it was wonderful.

As far as swimming goes, our troubled Willamette is actually a lovely river. I can tell you this with certainty because I swam in 31 rivers this summer and consider myself to be somewhat of an expert at river bagging. Jump in the LewisRiver in July and your only coherent thought will be, “I gotta get out of this water, or I’m gonna die of hypothermia.” Jump in the White Salmon and you’ll come out covered in silt. But swim out to the middle of the Willamette, and you’ll realize what a great view of the skyline there is, how pleasant it is to laze in the water, how fun the waves from the boats are.

Lots of wildlife live in and feed from our river– otters, beavers, bald eagles, osprey, cormorants, herons, mussels, sturgeon, dragonflies, red-legged frogs, long-toed salamanders. Having lived in Arizona for the past few years, I realized that we really are spoiled in Portland. Some of the Southwest’s most treasured rivers are way more contaminated, and have way less water, than the Willamette. Swimming in the uranium-contaminated Little Colorado, the cow-pie infested Gila, and the thicker than soup muddy waters of the San Juan made me less squeamish about our own Willamette.

And so, after twelve years of hesitancy, the Willamette and I spent a wonderful summer together. I rented a kayak and paddled around RossIsland and saw a beaver with a mouthful of branches, more great blue herons than I could count, and an osprey with a fish in its talons. I had a blast failing miserably at wakeboarding on Multnomah Channel. I rented a stand up paddle board and putzed around the river at WillamettePark. The jet boat tour came tearing by and added some excitement to my first try at paddle boarding, and I put it on my to do list to get out on the jet boat myself someday soon. Most fun of all, I starting racing Blue to the stick from the dock at Sellwood Riverfront Park. I invited a group of six friends to join Blue and I in our stick racing competition. Three plunged merrily in; three stood on the banks saying, “I can’t believe you’re getting in that water.”

I completely understood their refusal to be immersed in the Willamette. On a glorious summer day a few years ago, a friend and I jumped in the Molalla, Clackamas, Sandy, Columbia, and Washougal rivers in a single day, and then drove out to Elk Rock Island, stood on a pretty beach on the Willamette, and just could not make ourselves jump in, even if it would mean bragging rights for swimming in six rivers in a single day instead of five.

I had a similar moment years ago on the beach at the Columbia at SauvieIsland. I was sitting in the shade, frowning at the stinky dioxin-laden pulp smell coming from St. Helens, frowning at uv-b radiation from stratospheric ozone depletion, frowning at the contaminants and radioactive particles that lurk in the Columbia. Meanwhile, my friends were in the river, playing beach ball, drinking PBR, having a wonderful day. In my defense, I’m particularly sensitive about contaminants because I spent a year in Anchorage doing research on persistent organic pollutants and their terrible effects in the Arctic ecosystem. Sometimes having so much information in our brains about all of the world’s environmental problems can just take all the fun out of life.

The day I chose to swim in the Columbia was a turning point for me. I realized that I have to keep my mind, and heart, open to the world’s woes without becoming so weighed down that I become paralyzed. I think we all must work to remain intentionally aware and compassionate without becoming so overwhelmed that we shut the door to joy; or worse, become so weary that we become apathetic. The author Wendell Berry advised, “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” We have to stay informed, do all we can to make the world a better place, and avoid getting caught up in sadness and indifference. Ed Abbey offered similar advice, “It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it.”

“Why haven’t I been enjoying the Willamette for the last decade?” I’ve been asking myself. Oh yeah, the pollutants, the sewage overflows, the toxic algae. Here’s the good news. Lots of folks have been very busy working hard to make the Willamette a cleaner river. And they are succeeding. Portland completed the Big Pipe project in 2011, which will keep sewage from entering the river as it did in times past during heavy rainfall. Those menacing PCBs are mostly trapped in the sediment and generally not lurking in the water and waiting to cling to us when we’re swimming. There’s now a “Big Float” event put on by Willamette Riverkeeper, a day in summer where people make their across the Willamette by inner tube, pool float, rubber ducky, or whatever means a creative Portlander can come up with to stay afloat. There’s also now a Portland Bridge Swim, for those adventurous enough to give it a go swimming from the Sellwood to the St. John’s bridge. We have a long ways to go, and we should all pitch in, but meanwhile, let’s enjoy our waterway. Everyone should fall in love with the Willamette and join the effort to make it a cleaner river.

Tierra Curry is a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity and can be reached at

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