When you ask outdoorsy Portland locals where they’re headed on a summer day, chances are good they’ll answer, “The Willamette.” The river, which bisects the city into east and west sides, is a virtual aquatic playground: Kayakers glide toward pockets of wildlife, fishers cast for migrating Chinook salmon and swimmers splash near the banks.
It wasn’t always so. “We had some pretty low points near the end of the 20th century,” says Suzi Cloutier, the water quality program coordinator at Willamette Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to safeguarding the river’s health.
But cleanup efforts and the city’s “Big Pipe,” a $1.4 billion project completed in 2011 that diverts runoff, have paid big dividends. “I see beaver, otter, even deer swimming across,” says Cloutier. “It’s cleaner than people can imagine.”
To experience the Willamette’s resurgent vitality close-up, head to Alder Creek, under the Hawthorne Bridge, which offers stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), kayaking and canoeing lessons. Guided tours also visit waters near Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, a haven for more than 100 species of birds.
You can practice your backstroke, too, thanks in part to the Human Access Project, a nonprofit that creates beaches, cleans up shorelines and paves pathways to the river, like the sandy strip at Poet’s Beach, found underneath the Marquam Bridge.
For an abridged tour, travel the river at breakneck speeds with Willamette Jetboat Excursions, whose 1,000-horsepower vessels perform figure eights from OMSI to Willamette Falls, soaking passengers along the way.
But no river outing celebrates the Willamette like The Big Float. Each July, the splash part attracts upward of 2,000 inner-tubers for a lazy day on the river, complete with a music barge, food carts and a beer garden. The event is a floating billboard declaring it’s not only safe to go in the water — it’s also a blast.