I named my son after a Superfund site.

Of course Willam, two years later, doesn't fully appreciate the ramifications of this. He's still struggling with the pronunciation. Calls himself "Mommo."

I deal with more pressing concerns.

Like the fact that when Willam is finally christened in his namesake river this summer, at a church picnic at Cathedral Park, he won't be dunked in the tradition of John the Baptist. Because just upstream, the Department of Environmental Quality has posted an ominous sign, warning swimmers about the possibility of contamination from a Combined Sewer Overflow pipe. So before the reverend dumps any blessed river water over Willam's curly locks, I must first pump it through a portable filter capable of screening out a host of nightmarish critters and contaminants, including Cryptosporidium, Compylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli, herbicides, diesel fuel, even polio and Hepatitis A.

Which is a shame.

Because the Willamette truly is a beautiful river. It's not ruined, nor is it dead. Far from it. I know this because I'm on it every other morning, in a rowing shell. Charging upstream between the Sellwood Bridge and the railroad trestle in Lake Oswego, I often can't escape the sweet stench of raw sewage. Sometimes it's so strong I have to hold my breath for a few strokes.

But then the river will suddenly and unexpectedly reveal a bit of its true self, and I'll be reminded of what it really is: wild with life.

Once, after rowing all the way to Oregon City, I was resting beneath the I-205 bridge with my back to Willamette Falls when a sturgeon as large as my father burst from the water and hung there for a moment, staring at me with unblinking eyes before disappearing like a prehistoric apparition.

If you're like most Portlanders, you've never seen such things. In fact, you've probably never seen much more of the Willamette than what flows between the Hawthorne and Fremont bridges, the pathetic part that's been confined to a straitjacket of concrete and subjected to indignity after indignity. And you've probably dismissed it as unworthy of either admiration or recreation.

That's like writing off a potential knockout date on the basis of a disfigured toe.

Come September, if you have access to a kayak or a canoe, you'll get a second chance when Willamette Riverkeeper hosts a five-day, 100-mile tour of the river from Albany to Willamette Park.

They won't be the first, though.

This weekend, a few intrepid crews in racing shells will cover the 115 miles between Corvallis and Sellwood in something like 16 hours. To put this feat in perspective, the typical three-mile rowing regatta is over in less than 15 minutes.

When I rowed from Corvallis to Portland two summers ago, the river changed my life. So much so, I named my first-born after it. E. coli or no E. coli, I have no regrets. Give it a chance.

To register for Paddle Oregon, the Willamette Riverkeeper's 100-mile tour of the Willamette in September, call 223-6418 or visit www.PaddleOregon.org.


For more information about the Corvallis-to-Portland Row, a 115-mile rowing regatta on the Willamette River this weekend, go to www.newworldrowing.com.