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Guiding the Willamette

AIR DATE: Wednesday, April 1st 2009
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The view from Eugene's Owosso Bridge
Photo credit: Kitby / Flickr / Creative Commons
The view from Eugene's Owosso Bridge

When Paddle Oregon was featured on OPB TV's Oregon Field Guide seven years ago, Willamette Riverkeeper executive director Travis Williams explained where the river sits in Oregonians' imaginations:

If you ask most people today what is the defining feature of the Willamette Valley, what is that physical feature which most people will identify immediately, it's Interstate 5. And I think if you go back 100 years, the answer would have been entirely different. It would have been the Willamette River. I think that a lot of folks don't think much about it at all. They cross over the river on a bridge, they look down at it, they know it's there. They don't really establish a connection to it.

With his new book, The Willamette River Field Guide, Williams is trying to change that.

This book is a hybrid. It's part history ("In Portland in the 1920s, local officials closed the river to swimming on numerous occasions"). It's part nature guide ("When a threat arrives nearby, beavers will often slap their large flat tails loudly, marking their presence and territory"). It's part trail guide ("While some of these gravel islands look slightly bleak, they often hold wonderful scenery and hidden wonders and are worth a stop and some exploration"). And it's part polemic ("As you gain experience with the river and begin to internalize some of what you've seen in a large greenway park or while fishing the riffles near Junction City, you may know that it is indeed time to give back to the Willamette in a meaningful way"). What ties it all together is the authorial presence of a man who has spent years paddling on and lobbying for the 13th largest river in the U.S.

Do you paddle, swim, fish or commute on the Willamette? What have you learned about the river from your experiences? What have you learned about Oregon?

If you were writing your own guide to the river, what would your favorite chapter be?


Tagged as: canoeing · water · willamette river

Photo credit: Kitby / Flickr / Creative Commons

My favorite chapter would be fishing with my grand dad on the waterways and lakes of Sauvies Island when I was a boy. I still imagine what the area of Multnomah Channel, Sauvies Island and and Kelly Point Park were like before the arrival of Clark and Lewis.

My least favorite chapter is how poorly we've treated the Willamette. Too much sewage and pollution making it unsafe to eat the local fish. Treating the WIllamette like a sewer instead of a cherished resource. Like so many things, the Willamette reminds me of short-sighted greed outweighing more important considerations.

I look forward to the time when we're enlightened enough to keep the Willamette clean enough so that we and the fish can swim in it safely.

The Willamette river, most of it anyway, is like complete wilderness on the stretches I like to paddle, from say Eugene to Salem.  On all but the hottest summer days, the river is nearly empty.  Even then only occassional users appear. If people only knew what a great resource this is.  Willamette Riverkeepers did a wonderful thing helping create the the Willamette River Water Trail.  And the maps they created provide critical information needed to safely navigate the river.

Many people think it is too polluted to use.  That's a shame.  Look at all the birds of prey on the river and you know most of it is healthy.  They are there in huge numbers, and they mostly eat fish.  Some, like the bald eagles, live for 50 years.  Plenty of time for toxins to accumulate in their bodies.  But they look healthy and their numbers are increasing.  Thanks to banning of DDT, dioxins, PCB's, etc, the river is full of life, and a wonderful place to visit. 

Jim Sackinger, Corvallis

I was interested that jobs being the priority to add to the river district,and being governed,now that we are in an resession not prire to thus. There were no litigation when the grouth of the Pearl exploded,while Old town China town was left behind when trying to get unemployed and unhoused people housed and empoyed so they to could add a stimulating way to create not only existing housing,but allso Jobs for thoughs that are needed..

  P.S. Add a casual labor office to the Building on Block U to add in Job Diversity,so the urban boundry need no litigation to resove this issue.

I bought a sea kayak in the late 90's and moored it in downtown Portland. I enjoyed paddling around Ross (Pamplin Gift Horse) Island when the weather was nice. As the winter settled in and the Combined Sewage Overflow's started entering the waterway, I followed the warnings to make sure to wash my hands after being out on the river.

The occasional splash that landed in the vicinity of my mouth always left me with a paranoid distaste. However, dodging the debris in the river sure made it like Frogger. Urban Waterways . . . Wheeeee.

Do you still support banning motorized boats from the holgate channel and in ross island lagoon?   I think it's pretty short sighted, Paddlers only seem to come out in nice weather, and the area would be un-utilized a lion share of the time.

My favorite experiences on the river where taking a boat ride with my grandfather around Swan Island and the big dry docks. The willamette is what made portland a city, a port and a hub for commerce.

The dragon boats and outriggers are out all in all kinds of weather and for most of the year.  Many teams go out at least twice a week from February through November and add a third practice from March through mid-September.

The ban would not prohibit motorized boats from entering Holgate Channel, just their wake.  Motorized boats could still come through the channel at slower speeds, although they would not be allowed to enter the lagoon.

Wildlife uses the island at all times.  Erosion from wakes is a problem addressed by the no-wake zone.

Bank erosion from wakes? I am not a scientist, but I have fished off of the banks of the willamette for years, tide changes cause more erosion than the wake from the biggest boat I have ever seen........

Wind, tide changes, and siesmic activity cause waves and wakes, I would think the effects of a Ranger Bass boat would be minimal if not immeasurable compared to a 6 foot tide change.

As a rower with one of the local clubs, Station L Rowing, I can attest that in addition to paddlers, there are rowers out just about every morning throughout the entire year. From March to November we have 20+ rowers out three days a week, not counting the high school rowers from Rose City Rowing club, the women at Portland Women's rowing, and the other rowers who come downstream from Oaks Park (Willamette Rowing, for example). 

Even our largest boats (8 w/cox) are about a foot and a half wide and ride about six inches above the waterline. For us, a ban on motorized boats on the 'back channel' would be a great. So often during the warm months our rows are complicated if not endangered by wakes from wake-boarders or, in the case of last Saturday, competition fishing boats cruising at high speeds to their next hole. 

I think we all agree that the river needs to be a place for all types of users, recreational and commerce, but it also needs to remain a safe place for all those users. Perhaps instead of a full-time ban, certain times could be prohibited from motors - something that we could all benefit from.

As a paddler I don't want to ban all motorized traffic on the Willamette, just in the Holgate Channel.  Why?  I love to observe the wildlife undisturbed by the blaring noise of a speeding boat with it's stereo on full blast.  I love to paddle the calm water, not have to redirect my course every fiew minutes into the huge wake these boats make.  And there are many all-weather paddlers.  I am also a member of a dragon boat team which paddles 3 times a week in the Holgate Channel.  You might be surprised by the number of inconsiderate boaters who think nothing of making huge wakes very near paddled boats.  It is not only dangerous but extremely rude.  I welcome all courteous boaters but having almost been hit by a speed boat last summer when I was very near the bank and no place where he should have been I find I would like some calm water to know that I may be safe.

After your listeners finish reading Travis Williams' great new book, they should check out Willamette Landings: Ghost Towns of the River by Howard Corning, published in 1947 (I think) at a time when I-5 had not yet defined the valley but the old river economy was already fading into the past. I can't think of a better way to connect with the river -- except of course to paddle it. I spent last Labor Day weekend paddling from Salem to Newberg and enjoyed 80 degree weather and miles-long stretches of total isolation. It was incredible. Thank you Travis, and OPB, for calling attention to this treasure.

I live in Sellwood and work downtown.  I always watch the river on my ride to work.

You know, there is no reason why I couldn't be using the river as a highway to work.  All I need is a place to keep my kayak at Sellwood Waterfront Park at night and a place to secure it downtown during the day.

Hey!  Why not?!

I've always dreamed of having an outrigger or kayak to commute with!  As a dragonboater on the Willamette in the spring and summer, I love being connected to the water life.  However, I do notice that any time i have a scratch that gets in the water repeatedly, it takes months to heal!  There's something fishy about that water...

I am only 42 but I hop some day it is safe for my grandchildren to harvest trout and bass from the wilamette river.  I swam in this river as a child but I do not let my kids do more than wade in it.  The toxic mixing zones allowed by state leaders and the raw sewage dumped frequently by Salem and other municipalites make me feel shame for my generation and others.  We are leaving a mess our children will have to clean up.

    I want to thank Travis Williams, OSPIRG and others who have worked so hard to address these issues.

Victor Reppeto

Dallas, Or

As lead educator for Educational Recreational Adventures, I help lead 6-7 canoe trips a year for the Oregon Youth Conservation Corps.  During Sept-early Nov, we paddle from Salem to St Paul with two overnights where we help to remove invasive plants.

Along the way, we have observed river otters, deer, coyotes, eagles, owls, falcons, ospreys, salmon and many hatches of aquatic insects, all of which point to great potential.

Sadly, we also see huge growths of invasive species, bass, crappie, carp and other exotic fish, introduced species of clams and snails.  The water temperature of the river is often very warm in Sept but is well within good temperatures for trout by october.

Paddling the Willamette is a wonderful educational/spiritual experience for kids and staff alike.  We should do everything that we can to improve the quality of the Willamette.  I look forward to the day when we can catch trout on our trip.

Jeff Gottfried

Educational Recreational Adventures



I was fortunate to grow up looking at the Willamette from over Swan Island.  I also fished for catfish with my grandparents in the Willamette Slough.  I watched the river deteriorate in the Portland area and be unfit to fish in.  As I grew up, and I-5 was built, the Willamette disappeared from my life and I was delighted to rediscover it via the Canby and Wheatland ferries, but I was well into adulthood before I began to wonder what its source was, even though I went to college in Eugene.  There were many times in my adult life that I was "surprised" to find it on my travels, and I once drove to Eugene via Harrisburg specifically to see it there.  A few months ago, I chased a bird in Peoria and met the river again.  It is definitely a river that deserves exploring by watercraft.  Thanks for this topic.

How does the health of the Willamette relate to the land that drains into it?  What development practices should we do on the land and around the small tributary streams to improve the health of the mainstem Willamette?

Good question. I think he just answered it, on his own.

He only spoke of the river's edge and floodplain.  There are several thousand square miles. that drain into the Willamette.  Land use on all the Willamette basin affects the river.  It is not just what happens in the river and on its edges.

We live just a short walk to the Willamette in Corvallis.  We canoe and explore the side channels and delight in the river otters, osprey, and other wildlife we see.  One of my big concerns is the jet boat races that have taken place in the past between Albany and Corvallis - a beautiful and wild section of the river.  How do we prevent these races from happening in the future?

" Travis Williams: Executive Director of Willamette Riverkeeper "

Has brought a newly forming  idea into my mind, something having to do with "taking a vacation to your own home".

That is, instead of escaping the area you live and are tired of, for a vacation to some distant destination resort, take a new look at the area you live in and why you moved there in the first place.

Sort of like falling in love all over again with the one you love.

Wilsonville now takes its drinking water from the Willamette.  CocaCola and Dasani Water use this water in their bottled products.  What are the safety issues here?

Can you address the Proposed Upper willamette dredging and how this project will impact the future look of the willamette river.  Does your guest support the dredging? Can dredging stir up the settled toxins from superfund sites with potentially devestating effects?

What will the economic effects of the dredging be to the greater metro region as well?

I am a tour guide with Portland Walking Tours and I bring guests to the waterfront downtown. I tell them about the influence Governor Tom McCall had on tearing out Harbor Drive and allowing the city to reclaim its connection to the river. At one time, you couldn't reach the river from downtown streets! Historically, the river was the lifeblood of the city and was the reason Portland and Oregon City were able to grow as communities. I'm so glad that McCall had the vision to restore our ability to enjoy the Willamette.

Nan Devlin

A great show today, because you've talking about something we love.  Thanks!

I have the privilege to work with a wide variety of people in and around Eugene who work on preserving and enhancing the natural ecosystems infrastructure of the urban watershed, from conserving Amazon Creek Headwaters to creating the West Eugene Wetlands Education Center, from seeking a design for the new I-5 bridge that celebrates the river crossing, to master-planning the Willamette riverfront downtown.

Everyone in the valley is directly connected to the river in some way, and the choices in our way of life impact it daily, for better and for worse. Our urban watersheds seem to represent a big chunk of the river health puzzle.

We hope and believe that, among other things, by maintaining compact growth in the Willamette Valley, while still enhancing the urban watershed, we can help the river, and help people connect with it, too.

Thank You for this show. My Family of 5 lives in Sellwood, about 3 blocks from the River and we consider it one of the most important assets of our neighborhood. We keep our ski boat at the Portland Rowing Club and my parents keep a larger boat at the adjacent Waverly Marina. We love the Willamette and spend a lot of time on the water or shoreline during the Spring, Summer and fall. We swim, wakeboard and play in the sand. I am very glad to hear that it is pretty safe to swim in as I am constantly trying to reassure my wife of the same.

We take friends out on the river who have no experience with it and they end up thinking that it is as great as we do.

Thanks again for your show...

Gray Whelan

(As always) We are at a critical time for human health/ecosystem health - this Willamette River represents us, and lives within us!

Having lived, and raised family in the Willamette Valley since 1975 I love and appreciate this Watershed. It is time for us to know and declare a public commitment to restoring this River to its natural clarity and

health - free of pollution, the necessary lifeblood for all living beings (life).

Thank you Emily and OPB for airing this vital conversation.

I am an active person on the Willamette River.  I have been a member of a dragon boat team (most recently the Golden Dragons) for over 12 years.  I have participated in Paddle Oregon three times and frequently take my kayak from Clackamette Park as far as downtown Portland on day trips.  During the Paddle Oregon trips I have kayaked from the McKenzie River all the way to West Linn, just above the falls, and from Clackamette Park to downtown Portland.  It is amazing to see all the wildlife and bird life along this river and the efforts that are being made to restore the river's natural habitat.  I applaud Willamette Riverkeepers for all their efforts and fully support their mission to keep the river livable.

My family and I enjoy the Willamette River usually by walking along the Esplanade, over the Steel and the Hawthorn bridges, we have picnicked at various parks along the shore in the Portland area, we have been in a boat on the river from Willamette Park to under the University of Portland, we enjoy Minto Bean Park in Salem mostly because it is next to the river and we love crossing the bridges to gaze over the water of the Willamette in Salem and Eugene but I am glad that there is now a book to help us further explore this great natural resource right at our front door.

I also am pleased to hear that the river is reasonably safe to swim in, thank you. 

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