Behold, the mighty Willamette! It flows mere minutes from our front yards, yet few of us pay it much notice when it's not hosting dragon boat races or Christmas ship parades. Not me, though. I remember clearly the day I stood beside the river's fetid waters at Tom McCall Waterfront Park and vowed to paddle it. And camp. And maybe swim. Everyone laughed at me.
Fortunately, there are resources for people who want to navigate the river flowing right under our pinched noses. In truth, the Willamette's reputation as a slow-moving cesspool is largely undeserved. While it needs a cleanup within Portland city limits, many of its upper stretches are beautiful and easily explored by paddle craft.
For background information, I stopped by Willamette Riverkeeper (1515 SE Water Ave., 223-6418), a local nonprofit dedicated to preserving and restoring the Willamette. I also picked up a copy of The Willamette River Field Guide (Timber Press, 218 pages, $24.95) and printed a copy of The Willamette River Recreation Guide (willamettewatertrail.org; the PDF is free). The Field Guide covers the river's history and wildlife, and the Recreation Guide has an indispensable resource for a river rookie: maps. Lovely, detailed maps with designations of possible hazards.
As any responsible boater should, I also called the Benton County Sheriff's Marine Patrol (co.benton.or.us). The marine patrol is on the water every day, so it has the latest information on river conditions—whether, for example, there's an abundance of wood debris that could snag a canoe. Just keep in mind it's the deputies' job to prevent people from dying, so glean whatever useful advice you can and ignore the part where they beg you, for the love of God, to stay off the river.
As with any outdoor sport, it's best to wear safety gear and trust in your own ability when canoeing. The Willamette is wide and flat, so you should be able to read the water for possible hazards and steer around them. And you should probably know how to swim.
We packed our gear—tents, change of clothes, plenty of water and Rice Krispies treats—Friday night and set out early Saturday morning. Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe (250 NE Tomahawk Island Drive, 285-0464) rents whitewater and flatwater canoes, along with life jackets and paddles, for around $100 a day; the price may be negotiable depending on the length of time you plan to be on the water and whether you're a Red Sox fan.
We shuttled one car to San Salvador County Park, 11 miles south of Newberg off Oregon Highway 219, and put in 16 miles south of the park at Wheatland Bar for a short downstream paddle. So short, in fact, most boaters were astounded we intended to stay on the river for a full two days. But that's OK, because they've probably never paddled with a nervous Lab huddled in the bow, whimpering whenever we got too far from shore. This particular stretch of river is littered with islands and sandbars to explore—and by explore, I mean "let the dog stop trembling."
Directly across from Wheatland Bar is the opening to Lambert Slough, a scenic, slow-moving stretch of water that weaves its way through many small islands as it loops back toward the main river. Despite the marine patrol's fears, the weather was warm and sunny and the water calm. We bungee-tied the canoes together and cracked open the cooler, steering every now and again, and ignoring the occasional doggy panic whenever a motorboat's wake rocked the boats.
While we took the liberty of wandering any lonely sandbars and shoals, most of the land along the Willamette is privately owned and off limits to campers. Property lines are enforced with fences and riprap—rock walls that are intended to prevent erosion, although all they really prevent is native plant growth that itself would deter erosion.
Most campsites are distinguished by the occasional picnic table, although many state lands, like Grand Island and Five Island, are just bare sandy spits. We pitched our tent on a bar just after Coffee Island. As night fell, the Willamette was deserted. Safe on land at last, the dog calmly chewed a tennis ball. We built a fire and cooked dinner in our own private wilderness, just an hour away from Portland's noise and bustle.
"Why isn't anyone here?" a friend wondered out loud the next morning, as we packed up our tents and prepared for an equally slow, leisurely paddle to San Salvador County Park. Curious deer footprints dotted the sand, and a lone baby duck peeped forlornly from an eddy. We could've been marooned on the Amazon, were it not for the sheriff's patrol.
When we crossed the Steel Bridge later that day, after dropping off our canoes, we could barely believe that it was the same river. No wonder they laughed when I talked about camping—the Willamette's beauty is hiding almost in plain sight, just an hour or two upstream.
June 13-Aug. 22: Oregon Wild Outings
The wildness protection nonprofit leads hikes to Wahclella Falls, Memaloose Lake, Crabtree Valley and other destinations with funny names. Various locations, see oregonwild.org/about/hikes_events for details and to register. Most Saturdays and Sundays. Most hikes are free, some charge a small fee.
June 28: Reach the Bridge
Portland's only reverse-timed race. Start the 8k route whenever you want, but you have to cross the Burnside Bridge by 9 am, when it goes up. World Forestry Center, 4033 SW Canyon Road, reachthebridgerun.org. 6:30 am Sunday. $10-$15, plus each participant must raise $50 for the American Lung Association.
July 4: Foot Traffic Flat
A marathon and half-marathon on exceptionally flat Sauvie Island with a five-hour time limit. The Pumpkin Patch, 16511 NW Gillihan Road, foottraffic.us. 6:45 am Saturday. $45-$90.
July 12: Go Girl Trail Run
A 10k women-only race, previously known as the Run Like a Girl Trail Run. Lower Macleay Park, 1905 NW 29th Ave., runwithpaula.com/go-girl-trail-run. 9 am Sunday. $35.
July 10-11: The Oregon Prelay
A 177-mile race from Tualatin to Eugene. Various locations, epicrelays.com. Friday-Saturday. $300-$1,000 per team.
July 10-12: Portland Historic Races
Some 250 restored historic racecars are divided into groups by make and model year and raced at high speed. Portland International Raceway, 1940 N Victory Blvd., portlandhistorics.com. 8:30 am-6 pm Friday-Sunday, July 10-12. $10-$40, children 12 and under free.
July 31-Aug. 2: Trail Blazers Street Jam
A massive three-on-three basketball tournament for kids and adults, plus shooting contests and a dunk competition, takes over the Rose Garden for the first weekend of August to benefit Special Olympics Oregon. The Rose Garden, 1 N Center Court, trailblazersstreetjam.com. Various times Friday-Sunday. $125 per team. All ages.
Aug. 22: Aqua Zone Portland Mile
An open-water swim around the Hawthorne Bridge with a total of $25,000 in prizes. Tom McCall Waterfront Park between Southwest Madison and Clay streets, portlandmile.com. 5:15 pm Saturday. $25-$50.
Aug. 23: Freshwater Trust Portland Triathlon
Eight-hundred racers bike through the West Hills, run along the waterfront and swim under the Hawthorne Bridge. Sign up to do it yourself if you're a superhuman athlete, or just watch the fun with the rest of us schlubs. Tom McCall Waterfront Park between Southwest Madison and Clay streets, portlandtri.com. 7:30 am Sunday. $65-$195. 13+.
Aug. 28-29: Nike Hood to Coast Relay
Billed as "the mother of all relays," this massive race covers 197 miles of incredible scenery, boasts 1,000 8- to 12-member teams and more than 3,500 volunteers. In 2008 it raised $290,000 for the American Cancer Society. This year's race is full (slots always sell out on the first day registration opens, in October), but you can always watch or volunteer. Race begins at Timberline Lodge, Timberline Road, Government Camp, and finishes on the beach at Seaside, hoodtocoast.com. Friday-Saturday.
Aug. 28-30: NHRA Northwest National Open Series
Some 350 drag racers compete at Portland International Raceway. 1940 N Victory Blvd., portlandraceway.com. 9 am-5 pm Friday-Sunday. $10, children 12 and under free.