Clad in an ensemble of silicone, neoprene and plastic, Jill and I plod toward the Willamette River at Poet's Beach, underneath the Marquam Bridge, inflatable safety buoys tethered to our waists. It's a gray November morning. At the water's edge, we squeeze our hands into tight gloves, bump fists, then wade in.

Even through two layers of swim socks, the feeling of 48-degree water grabs my attention. As the water reaches her thighs, Jill commits, her body going horizontal. And then I do. The shock of frigid water slaps me hard in the face.

Blame COVID-19 for this madness. The pandemic closed pools across the city, driving us outdoors. We've been donning wetsuits and exploring the Willamette about twice a week since September.

This kind of thing does not come naturally to me. I'm not a strong swimmer, I'm cautious when it comes to physical adventure, and I hate being cold. But having a fearless friend like Jill, who lives to swim, can motivate one to get over old apprehensions.

Venturing into the Willamette is a negotiation with the water: I will respect you, please do not kill me. The feeling of vulnerability grows when we get near enormous objects: concrete bridge footings, the USS Blueback submarine docked outside OMSI.

The river is virtually silent, despite the urban environment. Ducks, gulls and geese go about their business. Rowing sculls and kayaks glide by. We see few fish, though the other day we were treated to the sight of a river otter. The water smells and tastes clean, an impression confirmed by monthly test results published by the city—a counterpoint to the reaction one often gets when you tell people you swim in the Willamette.

Even the wetsuits can't keep us warm for long. After about 40 minutes, it's time to get out. We strip off our gear and hobble to our cars, shivering but exhilarated, like we just got away with something.

This virus has taken a lot of things. But it has also given me a new world to explore, and a new way of seeing the city I've known all my life. For this, at least, I'm grateful.