Content warning: This story contains discussions of suicide and violent death.
There was something in the water.
Mike Johnson was with a friend in his 19-foot aluminum sled boat on the afternoon of June 12. They were on the Columbia River, just east of Government Island, fishing for pikeminnow. Johnson had just reeled in an empty line when he saw what looked like a bent buoy bobbing in the water.
Johnson, 49, motored closer. As he neared the strange lump, his heart sank.
It was a bloated corpse.
"It looked like the Creature from the Black Lagoon," Johnson says. "My mind was reeling."
The dead man wore only cut-off jean shorts and a wedding ring. His fingers were splayed out stiffly. On his back was a cluster of barnacles.
Johnson called 911. "It upset me more than I thought it would," he recalls. "It took a couple days to shake."
The creepy discovery wasn't unusual. It was the kickoff to one of Portland's most grotesque traditions: the summer of floaters.
During the next 10 weeks, at least seven more bodies would be found bobbing and drifting in Multnomah County waterways. On Aug. 21, two dead men surfaced within an hour of each other, one beneath the Broadway Bridge, the other in the Columbia River near Chinook Landing Marine Park.
That's just the beginning. A total of 45 human corpses—many of them "floaters" that rise up from the depths—were pulled from Portland's two major rivers between July 2016 and July 2017, according to the Multnomah County River Patrol.
That's nearly one body a week found in the water. It's more people than die in car crashes on Portland streets annually and more than twice the number of Portlanders murdered last year.
And it's not an anomaly. In the past three years, river cops say, the Willamette and Columbia rivers have coughed up an average of 36 bodies a year.
The Willamette and Columbia are among Portland's most cherished features, drawing citizens to stroll their banks, boat on their waters and, increasingly, jump in for a swim.
In the summer, as sun-starved Portlanders flock to docks and beaches, more bodies bubble up than at any other time of year, according to river police. Warmer water causes decomposing corpses to fill with gas, bloat and become buoyant—sometimes surfacing within yards of blissed-out swimmers and boaters.
No national statistics for bodies pulled from water exist, but other cities Portland's size find far fewer bodies in their rivers.
Pittsburgh—at the famed confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers—recorded nine drownings in its rivers last year. Austin, Texas, one-third larger than Portland and located on Lady Bird Lake and the Colorado River, recorded 11. Columbus, Ohio, home to the Scioto River, recorded just two.
Observers are mystified by Rip City's aquatic body count.
"That's an enormously high number compared to other places," says Dr. Alison Osinski, owner of Avalon, Calif.-based Aquatic Consulting Services, which offers expert testimony in drowning accident investigations.
The mystery points to this city's love of the outdoors and its entrenched social ills—especially homelessness and untreated mental distress. Portland's easy river access, abundance of bridges, and weather-related highs and lows are a perfect storm for claiming lives, say police, marine experts and county mental health workers.
Most of this year's dead have been ruled suicide or drowning victims, according to police and county medical examiners. They include a 20-year-old who vanished, a Wilsonville mom who was killed in a boating crash and a desperate man who threw himself from the Burnside Bridge.
Their tragic tales touch the lives of the strangers who find them, the police who investigate, and the heartbroken family members they leave behind.
And for one man—a Multnomah County River Patrol officer who hauls many of these soaked and broken bodies from the water—the deaths have become a haunting ritual.
"It's sad," says River Patrol Sgt. Stephen Dangler. "And it's an incredible toll on taxpayer resources."
Dangler points to the surface of his silver police boat. "I can't tell you," he says, "how many dead bodies have been on this floor."
He and two other cops are zipping south on the Willamette River near the Broadway Bridge on a muggy Thursday in August. It's 102 degrees outside. Dangler, a trim, barrel-chested man with smile lines around his eyes, has just pushed the boat off a dock near a River Patrol boathouse near the Pearl District.
The police radio is silent, so Dangler takes his 31-foot vessel on a tour of bad memories.
Nearly every bridge Dangler passes under—the Burnside, the Morrison, the Hawthorne—has been the site of a recent suicide jump.
"It happens more than you'd ever imagine," Dangler says. "So much they all bleed together."
Between July 2016 and July 2017, police and fire officials responded to a total of 1,376 cases on the water, ranging from boating accidents to bridge jumpers, according to a report by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.
Many of those calls were benign—boaters needing help freeing their vessels or revelers cited for public intoxication. But jumpers and attempted leaps into the Willamette and Columbia rivers made up at least 117 of those cases, according to county data.
The dramatic events cause first responders—including Portland police and fire officials—to rush to the scene, Dangler says.
When a call comes in reporting a bridge jumper, Dangler and his team speed to the location by boat. If the person has already leaped, they get off the boat and search the bridge for a "point of entry"—the exact spot from which he or she jumped—and mark it with spray paint.
"If you see an orange X on a bridge, that's not graffiti; it's a point of entry," Dangler explains. "It helps puts us right at the spot where the jumper splashed in."
Jumpers commonly remove their shoes right before taking the final plunge. So cops often drop a rope down from the shoes on the bridge into the water, and begin a search for the body in a radius around that point.
If conditions are safe enough—the water isn't too high or the currents too swift—a dive team suits up. Sonar technology helps them locate objects below the surface, but in the Willamette River, the chances of recovering a corpse underwater are slim.
Divers must squint through "black water," which renders it impossible to see more than a foot or two, and cope with powerful 55-foot-deep channels and debris. They're sometimes forced to grasp blindly at what might be a chunk of trash, part of a boat or a human body.
"It's like this," Dangler says, closing his eyes and pawing at the air to demonstrate. "Sometimes you bump into something and it feels like a foot and that's how you know you got it."
On the off chance a jumper survives the impact, he or she is usually sucked under the river and swept away by powerful currents, only to surface days, weeks or months later as a floater. It's Dangler's job to collect those bodies.
"If people saw what their bodies turned into after decomposing in the river for weeks, they would probably never jump," he says.
There are some things he wishes he could unsee: a woman's skull splattered against the Willamette River seawall. Maggots. Gaping head wounds.
And the smell. "It can be brutal," he says. "It gets in your nostrils and on your clothes."
Dangler's team fishes a body from the waterway with a long yellow pole and a coffin-shaped cage. One side of the sheriff's boat folds down, making it easier to hoist a corpse onto the vessel floor, which is later scrubbed with chemical cleaners.
Medical examiners also rush to the scene to gather details about the cause and manner of death.
River debris sometimes cuts up floaters, but if there's no sign of bleeding, it's clear the injuries happened postmortem. If a death is ruled a homicide—as in a handful of cases in recent years—medical examiners pass the case off to sheriff's detectives.
"We look at what witnesses, police and family members say. We never operate in a vacuum," says Dr. Karen Gunson, a pathologist at the Multnomah County Medical Examiner's Office.
If nobody witnessed the death on the water, Gunson and other pathologists perform tests on bodies, some of which are in bad shape. She recently performed an autopsy on a fisherman whose body spent 18 months bobbing in a river.
"We get decomposed bodies frequently," Gunson says, "but we are sort of lucky here because the water is cold." The low temperature preserves the corpses, allowing examiners to perform accurate autopsies more than a year after death.
River accidents and suicides are almost always ruled drownings. "Lethal water trumps just about everything," Gunson says, "because had it been on dry land, the person may have survived."
Passing under the Fremont Bridge, a small crease forms on Dangler's brow.
A couple years ago, a friend of his killed herself by jumping from the 381-foot-tall span, Dangler says. She left her car behind before leaping; he picked it up at a towing yard soon after.
Dangler pauses and looks out toward the water. He recalls how, in the months before her death, he begged his friend to reconsider. "I told her, 'Please, please don't jump—we might never recover you.'"
It was just after lunchtime on May 17, when a young man walked to the center of the Burnside Bridge. He peered out toward the gray water below, which reflected the drizzly clouds above, as cars sped by.
He paused for a moment. Then he took a few steps back and made a running leap. His body smashed into a concrete platform below, killing him instantly.
River cops were at the scene along with Portland police. "It was gruesome," Dangler says.
In Portland, it makes sense why the hopeless flock to bridges. There are more than a dozen of the spans, many of which are pedestrian-friendly and have low guardrails.
The more mystique a place has—like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco—the more likely it is to become a hub for suicide, suicide prevention workers say.
This year, more jumpers and attempts were reported on the Fremont Bridge—16 cases—than on any other bridge in the county. The Burnside Bridge ranked second-most popular, with 15 cases, according to county figures, followed by the Hawthorne Bridge.
"There's a common myth that suicide happens here because it's Oregon and it's rainy, but that's just not the case," says Leticia Sainz, a crisis program manager for the Multnomah County health department. "It's pretty well documented that it's actually more tied to changes in weather."
Sainz adds, "If you're depressed and the sun comes out, everyone else might be feeling better—but that may make you feel worse."
Bridge barriers, such as fences, may be one way to stop jumpers.
"We know that the more you can separate the impulse to jump from the ability to do it, the more time there is for someone to intervene and prevent a suicide," Sainz says, adding that barriers should be paired with outreach and treatment.
More suicide prevention signs and call boxes could also help, says Meghan Crane, suicide prevention coordinator for the Oregon Health Authority.
"What we are really talking about here is promoting places where people can talk about it—then connecting them with health care in the community," she says.
The Vista Bridge—the former Goose Hollow suicide magnet—is proof that such an approach works, says former City Commissioner Steve Novick, who pushed to install fences on the historic arch in 2013.
The number of suicides on the Vista Bridge peaked in 2013, when five people leaped to their deaths that year. After Novick pushed to install the fences, the number dropped to zero.
"People have not jumped to their deaths since we put up the barrier on Vista Bridge," he says. "Suicide is largely a matter of convenience, so the more accessible, the more people are going to do it."
He adds, "I think barriers on other bridges would work, if it's financially and structurally feasible."
But suicides are only part of the problem.
Heidi Knight, 46-year-old Wilsonville mom with a bright smile, was cruising on the Columbia River in a friend's boat on May 22 when he lost control. The boat's pilot, Steven Schalk, 55, slammed into a tower supporting the Glenn L. Jackson Memorial Bridge.
The boat sank. Knight, a dental assistant, was rushed to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, where she died.
"It's been three months and I cry every day," says her husband, Mitch McBane. "I see a whole counter full of her perfume and she's not here. I'm mad at myself that I wasn't there to protect her."
Schalk was charged with manslaughter for allegedly speeding. "He a reckless guy," her husband says. "I think that's what he deserves."
Boating and drowning accidents account for less than half of the total bodies fished from Portland's rivers—but that number tends to spike in the summer, river cops say.
Water temperature, strong currents and widespread recreational river use play a role.
"Portland rivers are beautiful, but they are cold and wild. People don't understand the currents or how river waves work," says Aquatic Consulting Services' Osinski. "The high-risk spots are the cold-water rivers because people are also dying of hypothermia."
Dangler adds: "When people hit the cold water, it's a shock to their system. People are overconfident in their swimming abilities."
Alcohol, along with other forms of river rule-breaking, is also to blame.
Marlon Bump, harbormaster at Riverplace Marina, is one of the people who have reported finding a dead body in the past year. The man he found under a dock in late December was one of the many who drowned after drinking alcohol on the water, he says.
"The experience was surreal," Bump recalls. "It was not a great day."
Too many people drink while boating, says Bump.
Portland's "hobo pirates"—homeless people who live on boats in the Willamette River—tend to party even harder and pay the price, says Bump.
In cases in which suicide or an accident does not seem to be the cause, the deaths remain a mystery.
Anil Nath felt the first flicker of dread in late May, when he realized his son hadn't come home.
Days passed with no word from Rakesh, a 20-year-old Wendy's manager and Roosevelt High alum. On weekends, he would stay out late with pals, listening to hip-hop or watching sports—but he had never been gone so long without a call or a text.
Days turned into weeks. "When he was missing, I'd walk over to his closet and look at his shoes," Nath says, gesturing toward a pair of his son's white Nike sneakers. "I'd think, if he ran away, wouldn't he at least come back, climb in a window and get them?"
Nath took time off from his job with United Parcel Service to conduct his own search—questioning Rakesh's former girlfriend, visiting his local haunts and plastering missing-person posters around town, he says.
On June 17, nearly a month after Rakesh disappeared, a boater spotted his body floating in the Columbia River Slough. His face was unrecognizable, but officials used an image of a cobra tattoo on his arm to identify him.
His death was ruled accidental by county coroners. (They declined comment.)
Anil Nath says medical examiners said there were no signs of foul play. But as with many unwitnessed deaths on the water, the tragedy leaves his family grasping for closure.
"It hits you right here," Nath says, grabbing his chest. "He was such a good person. How can you take someone away like that—at such a young age? I didn't even get to see him married," he says.
Nath says there were no outward signs his son was mentally ill or even unhappy. "If he was depressed, he never told me," he says. The family is now awaiting the results of a toxicology report, which may reveal whether the death was linked to drugs. "We want it investigated, Nath says. "We have no idea what happened."
Rakesh's tearful mom, Sandhya, adds simply, "I miss my baby."
A few days after Mike Johnson spotted a corpse bobbing near Government Island, he learned who the dead man was: John David Martin, a 50-year-old family man from Portland.
The day he found Martin, Johnson followed alongside the body in his boat to make sure it didn't drift away. "I felt an obligation to his family to help them get some closure," he says.
As a boater, Johnson says, it's easy to misjudge the power and intensity of Portland's rivers. The gut-wrenching discovery now serves as a personal reminder to Johnson: Wear a life jacket and skip the beer.
"It really drove it home: You have to respect the river," he says.
Dangler, who spends his days ferrying the dead to a coroner, says many of the deaths he sees could be prevented—especially if people feeling distress knew they could talk to someone.
"Don't be afraid to talk about your feelings," Dangler says. "Nobody is perfect."
He says anybody spending time near the Willamette and Columbia should know the rivers' deadly strength. "Know your limitations and be self-aware," he urges. "This is powerful water."
If you're struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, Multnomah County has counselors who can talk with you at any hour. Call 503-988-4888.
Five people who died in Portland waters this summer.
Jonathan J. Walker
On Aug. 2, the Multnomah County River Patrol pulled the 18-year-old Jesuit High School graduate's body from the Columbia River near Sauvie Island's Walton Beach. Walker was a popular student who played baseball and was active in the Catholic school's ministry program. On the day he died, Walker and some friends had jumped off a boat anchored 30 feet from shore. He was swept away within minutes. None of the teens was wearing a life jacket. "John was a seasoned traveler, including stops in the Cayman Islands and Australia," his family later wrote in an online tribute. "His last stop will be his final resting place in West Africa."
On July 31, the 20-year-old was paddling a rented boat with a woman on Blue Lake, when it began taking on water. Tajik, who hadn't learned to swim, struggled and went under. A good Samaritan managed to save Tajik's passenger but not him. The Multnomah County sheriff's dive team recovered his body after a 40-minute search. Tajik had been on a family vacation.
After the 20-year-old's body was found in the Columbia River Slough, his death was ruled accidental, according to his family. They are awaiting the results of a toxicology report.
John David Martin
On June 12, the body of John David Martin, a 50-year-old family man from Portland, was found near Ackerman Island in the Columbia. Martin had been swept away while trying to retrieve his boat after it became unanchored and drifted away on July 28, 2016. Search efforts were suspended the next day. "Our family is devastated by the loss of John. He was everyone's very best friend," his loved ones said soon afterward. "His loss will ripple through this and future family generations." His death was ruled accidental.
On June 4, a boater at Captains Moorage on North Bridgeton Road near Williams Avenue spotted the body of a man floating near one of the boat slips. Little is known about Rua. His death was ruled accidental. NATALIE O'NEILL.
Correction: This story incorrectly identified a body of water in Austin, Tex. It is Lady Bird Lake, not Lake Charles. WW regrets the error.