The Mighty Willamette

By Tanya

Growing up in Portland Oregon, I have always had a fondness for our beautiful bridges that span across the Willamette River connecting the east side of town to the west. As a child I lived closest to and would often cross the Ross Island Bridge.  Named for it's proximity to Ross Island, the largest of four small islands in the Willamette River just south of downtown Portland, it holds a special place in my heart.
A view of downtown Portland and Willamette from the east side
As we drove across the bridge I would often dream about what it would be like on the island, never really giving thought about how I would get out there. When I was a child the Willamette River had a bad reputation for being polluted.  The majority of Ross Island was owned by the Ross Island Sand and Gravel Company who used it as a quarry, so people were seldom in the water nearby.

Fast forward to 2014.  I still love Portland.  I still have a fondness for the bridges around the city and for Ross Island.  However, now I get to spend my summers training for a triathlons by swimming in the Willamette River and taking my kids in our kayak out to search for magic pebbles on the beaches of Ross Island!

Yes, a lot has changed in the last 25 years.

My son and I on Ross Island with the Ross Island Bridge in the background
In 1996 an organization called the Willamette River Keeper sprang up and began cleaning and caring for our beloved river. In 2007 Ross Island Sand and Gravel Company cleaned up a huge portion of the island and donated the land to the city of Portland.  The city, in turn, began using it as a natural area refuge.  
Picking out magic pebbles on Ross Island 
In 2009 Willamette River Keeper teamed up with We Love Clean Rivers to organize the Great Willamette Clean Up, a once yearly event where volunteers team up to clean out trash on 187 miles of the river. Because of all of the cleaning and restoration that occurred the Willamette was finally deemed safe for swimming. To get the word out The Big Float was created. The Big Float is a yearly event where people don any flotation device they desire and float in a parade across the river and into the downtown waterfront park to have "the biggest beach party in Portland!"

The Big Float
In 2009 for my husband's birthday I purchased a us guided kayak tour on the Willamette River around Ross Island through Alder Creek tours.  My love for the river was ignited! In 2010 I caught word of The Great Willamette Clean Up,  My husband and I borrowed a friend's kayak and took our six-year-old son out to help clean the river. That same year we participated in the Big Float and purchased our own kayak. Since then we have made a yearly tradition of participating in both events as well as kayaking with our two sons out to Ross Island and exploring other rivers in the summer.
The Big Float
My family participating in The Great Willamette Clean Up
A couple of years ago we took our boys on a guided jet boat ride through Willamette Jet Boat Excursions.  The tour took us out to see Willamette Falls and the locks, a place on the river I had never been. It was an amazing tour where we leaned about the history of the Willamette River and got an up close look at the falls and locks.  We also had a blast as the jet boat took us on a wild ride, spinning us through the river and getting us soaked from head to toe!
On the Jet Boat tour pre-soaking!
The Willamette still needs more love and care, but these days you see many people out enjoying our river. It brings me such joy to be able to share these experiences with my boys and know that they will have great memories of being on the river.  I hope they take pride and ownership of keeping the Willamette River clean and cared for.

The Willamette River is truly a treasure. It runs like an artery through Portland bringing beauty and nature into the heart of our city. It also is what brought industry to our town making the amazing city of Portland what it is today.

Whether you choose to kayak, stand up paddle, water ski, or even swim, being on the river is a wonderful way to add to your fitness, enjoy nature, and spend quality time with family and friends.

If you live in Portland or get a chance to visit, I hope you take the time to enjoy this wonderful resource. May our mighty Willamette continue to be well loved and cared for so it can be enjoyed for many generations to come.

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