Take Me to The River

Portraits of the Willamette.

The Willamette River divides Portland.

Not just physically, east from west, or in the inconvenient gulf that opens whenever a bridge is up. The Willamette shows us the ways we embrace, and betray, our best ideals.

This river defines us. Sure, the Columbia is bigger and more renowned. We don't know of any songs Woody Guthrie wrote about the Willamette.

But this river is ours: The Willamette created this town, from the days when Capt. John Couch proclaimed the city the perfect place to load tanned goods.

The wharves are gone, and so too are the timber rafts that fringed the shorelines, headed for export or mills, now closed.

The river that pumps 20 million gallons of water a minute through Portland's heart now floats ships as big as two football fields hauling wheat to Japan, and ships just as large coming from Japan to deliver cars.

We are a major metropolitan area with salmon and steelhead runs, tailed by hungry sea lions, through city limits. But for decades we used the river as a ditch for our refuse, gagging it with sewage and offal.

We brought the Willamette back from the dead in the 1960s and have given it a new chance with a recently finished, $1.4 billion sewer project intended to keep its waters safe.

But a century of industry and pollution in Portland Harbor has resulted in an 11-mile Superfund site chiefly distinguished by carcinogenic carp and a $1 billion cleanup bill no one wants to pay. 

We seek to span the river with a new crossing (who else in the country is building a car-less bridge?) while the east bank is a tangle of freeway concrete—eased slightly, but hardly ameliorated, by the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade.  

On a sunny afternoon, the Willamette waters are choked with sailboats, powerboats, Jet Skis, crew teams and even the brave swimmer. But access is often limited to those with enough wealth for a watercraft: The river has several launching places within five miles of the city center, but few public beaches. 

The one thing we can all do equally is the thing we don't do enough: look at it.

This weekend, hundreds of people are coming from all over the world to pay close attention. Two environmental nonprofits are holding the international River Rally conference in Portland to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

So we are pausing as well to consider this wide ribbon that divides us, and yet holds the city together. 

Consider this Willamette Week's Willamette week. We bring you images of this city, often from the water-level perspective, and explore what they tell us about how the river defines us, and unites us.

In the Willamette, we find our reflection. AARON MESH.

The Pacific Lamprey

The Pacific lamprey could be charitably described as a homely creature. One of the Willamette's primitive species at 450 million years old (salmon only go back 10 million), these gray bloodsuckers are anadromous: born in fresh water, they travel to the ocean and return to spawn. Feeding by latching on to larger ocean fish, such as sharks, the lamprey has no jaw, just a round, toothed mouth that resembles a suction cup with yellow fangs and a scarlet throat. It's a traditional ceremonial meal for the tribes—Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama—that make up the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Tribal members serve the oily meat smoked, dried or roasted on sticks next to a fire. A half century ago, more than 350,000 lampreys migrated past Bonneville Dam during daylight hours each year. Now the count is 18,315. Stuart Ellis, a Fish Commission harvest management biologist, says the Columbia dams might be to blame. The last place the tribes catch lamprey is Willamette Falls, at Oregon City and West Linn. At low water, tribal members net lampreys on the river rocks. They say the decline of lamprey is a warning. "The Creator told the people that the eels would always return as long as the people took care of them," says Ron Suppah, vice chair of the Warm Springs tribe, "but if the people failed to take care of them, they would disappear." AARON MESH.

The Swimmers

Emily Melina didn't think she'd win the 2011 Portland Bridge Swim when she entered the 11-mile race in the Willamette last July. But she did anticipate one outcome. "To be honest," she says, "I expected intestinal problems." Given the image of the Willamette, that's not surprising. The city's principal waterway had long been known for the contamination that spurts from sewer pipes after a heavy rainfall. For decades, stormwater flooded the city's sewer pipes, and the waters often overflowed and poured into the river through large outfalls (such as the decommissioned pipe, above right, located in Holgate Channel on the east side of Ross Island). But the city recently completed the $1.4 billion Big Pipe project, which collects virtually all of the combined sewage and stormwater and diverts it to the city's Columbia Boulevard treatment plant. Portland undertook the massive project only after Northwest Environmental Advocates, a local environmental group, took the city to court under the Clean Water Act. Linc Mann, spokesman for Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services, said before the Big Pipe was finished in December 2011, it took no more than one-tenth of an inch of rain in a 24-hour period to send the city's wastewater cascading into the river. Now, Mann says, it takes 12 times as much. The city once issued 50 warnings a year because of combined sewer overflows. Mann says such alerts will be rare in the future. As the river gets cleaner, more people are beginning to use it. (The unidentified swimmer, above left, is midriver near Sellwood Riverfront Park.) A few swimming events now take place on the river, such as the Portland Triathlon. Melina, who won the Bridge Swim in slightly over four hours and 19 minutes, didn't suffer any intestinal distress. "It tastes a little bit earthy, a little bit like gasoline," she says of the Willamette's water. "But that's no different tasting than any other river." ALEX TOMCHAK SCOTT.

The New Bridges

For the first time in nearly 90 years, the Willamette has two new bridges going in: a replacement for the crumbling Sellwood, and downriver a $134 million span for the new Portland-Milwaukie MAX light-rail line. No cars can use this one—TriMet officials say they believe it's the first such bridge in the nation built only for rail and pedestrians. The light-rail bridge is the city's first cable-stayed bridge—a design that suggests a spider's web and was chosen for its high, long center span, which is needed to accommodate shipping traffic from either side of Ross Island. Crews recently poured 3,400 tons of concrete to cap the in-water footings, sunk deep beneath the river bed. Once the 180-foot towers are done, the bridge span will be built simultaneously in both directions from each tower, balanced like seesaws by temporary cables, until they reach the shore and meet in the center of the river. "It's like building an IKEA bookshelf," says project director Robert Barnard. "It isn't real stable until you put the last piece in." BEN WATERHOUSE.

The Superfund Site

The rotting docks along the Willamette west-shore site called Arkema look like the haunted setting conjured in a campfire ghost story. At this Portland Harbor site, a chemical plant ran for 60 years—making DDT in the 1950s and, after that, ammonium perchlorate, a solid rocket fuel. Wastes dumped onto the ground back then still seep into the river. Arkema is among dozens of sites (including the Gunderson barge-making site, above, lower photo) experts suspect have contributed to the contamination at the mucky bottom of the harbor. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the Portland Harbor a Superfund site 12 years ago. Officials have tried to attack the polluted shores—or uplands—before the contaminated sediments. Legal challenges from the Arkema property owners delayed the cleanup. "It's the last of the really highly polluted sites with a traditional chemical that we all know is really bad," says Travis Williams of Willamette Riverkeeper. This week, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality begins an initial cleanup at Arkema, expected to last through March 2013. As WW recently reported (see "What the Muck?," WW, March 28, 2012), deciding on the final cleanup costs of the entire harbor, and who must pay, will take many more years. AARON MESH.

Ross Island

The promise that Ross Island would tranform from a gritty mining operation into its extraordinary promise as a city park keeps slipping into the future. The company had been carving away at the island's core since the 1920s. In the late 1990s, controversy over Ross Island's mishandling of contaminated wastes brought uncomfortable publicity down on owner Robert Pamplin Jr., accustomed to buying goodwill and good press with millions in charitable donations. Pamplin first promised a halt to the mining and, in 2001, pledged to give most the 390-acre island complex to the City of Portland within three years. The company would continue to process rock and sand in the Ross Island complex from materials dredged elsewhere. Pamplin's gesture helped get his company out of an extensive restoration plan dating from the 1970s, in exchange for a more modest one. But in late 2004, Pamplin and city officials postponed the transfer because they couldn't agree on environmental liability—and then in 2007 he deeded a 45-acre parcel on the northwest end of Ross Island to the city. Access to that site is limited, accessible only with city parks staff or designated visitors. Emily Roth, a natural-resource planner with Portland Parks & Recreation, says city workers and volunteers have eradicated invasive plants from the land and replanted native cottonwood and alder trees. The donated land hosts a blue heron rookery, and bald eagles have nested there. The island's future remains in Pamplin's hands. His company has told state regulators the island's restoration work, originally scheduled to be completed by next year, will take another decade. Company officials didn't respond to WW's calls. NIGEL JAQUISS.

The Kayakers

For kayakers, Portland's stretch of the Willamette River is one stream with a split character: an urban waterway with an active port and views of the state's tallest buildings, but also shockingly natural. "You get an incredible view of the skyline," says Mike McKoane, owner of Portland Kayak Company. "But at the same time you can go up around Ross Island and see bald eagles nesting and beavers slapping their tails and salmon rising." McKoane's shop on Southwest Macadam Avenue sits only a few feet from the river and offers tours. Tourists and locals like the trips, he says, because the view of Portland from a boat is like no other. In the winter, when currents are fast, debris is afloat and the water is cold, McKoane says the river should be attempted only by experienced paddlers. However, as summer arrives, the waters calm and almost anyone can feel comfortable. After dipping their paddles around Portland, kayakers might want to try the Willamette River Trail, which runs for more than 200 miles between Portland and Eugene. The trail is fully mapped with restrooms, picnic spots and public land open for camping. Find the map at willamette-riverkeeper.org/WTrail. MARTIN CIZMAR.

The Houseboats

Pauline and Lloyd Anderson's was the first two-story houseboat at the Oregon Yacht Club, adjacent to Oaks Park in Sellwood, when the couple moved in 35 years ago. "Back then, it was low-cost housing," Pauline Anderson says. The other moored homes— "little flatties," she calls them—went for around $25,000. Today, their houseboat is one of the least ostentatious in the club, which experts say is the most expensive place to buy a houseboat in Portland. Graham Marden, a real-estate agent who specializes in houseboats, says this location and two other Willamette River moorages are highly sought after because of their closeness to downtown. Of the estimated 1,100 houseboats in the city, Marden says, only 87 are on the Willamette (including at Macadam Bay Club Marina, above). Houseboats can go for $400,000 and up. That doesn't include membership fees and leasing rights. The Andersons, who are in their late 80s, have both held office in local government. Pauline was a Multnomah County commissioner. Lloyd served on the City Council and as Port of Portland executive director. All these years later, Pauline Anderson says, whenever they return to their houseboat, "It's like going on vacation every time." ALEX TOMCHAK SCOTT.

The Sea Lions

California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) have long dogged the salmon runs at Columbia River dams. Biologists say since 2002, sea lions have become far more common in the Willamette. Look down from a Portland bridge during the spring salmon run—from April to May—and you might spot a 1,000-pound aquatic mammal chugging upstream. "These dudes are migratory animals," says Garth Griffin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "They're all males. Their job in life is to eat and get big and strong so that when it's summertime in the Channel Islands, they're in position to get the girls." At Willamette Falls in Oregon City, 128 miles from the Pacific, sea lions (such as the one whose head is visible at bottom right in the photo) gorge on pricey salmon. The state and feds spend millions annually to re-establish salmon runs that sea lions lazily pluck at the falls. To bust up the buffet, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has tried hazing sea lions with fireworks and rubber bullets. State officials say they lack the staff this year. Says Rick Hargrave of the ODFW, "These California sea lions have found a source of food they're comfortable with, and they're coming back." MARTIN CIZMAR.

The Dragonboat Racers

I should be able to do this. I'm a fit 24-year-old. I'm getting in a dragon boat to paddle with 21 other people, a team called the Castaways, who are nearly twice my age. It's 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and we're going a few miles—easy. But I'm wrong. I pile into the 70-foot boat near Darrell Hames, a member of the Castaways race team and president of Portland-based Dragonsports USA, which boasts 1,600 members. Dragon boats, a 2,000-year-old Chinese tradition, came to the Willamette in 1988; the sport is now nationwide. At Rose Festival time, 80 teams (like the team at left) compete on the Willamette. As the Castaways climb onboard, the boat's edges sink to within inches of the water. We paddle, slowly at first. Keep your back straight, someone tells me. But lean forward. Try to keep your elbow up and in…. I can do this. Then—Power now! The pace quickens and I try to keep up. My shoulders burn, arms ache, and I'm soaked from the spray. I think I'm doing fine, but I hear this: Watch the people near the front of the boat to keep time. After several minutes, the team eases back and the boat slides through the smooth water next to Ross Island, and I know we've just started, and I wonder how long I can do this, but then I look around I see how beautiful the city really is. Hames leans toward me. "I wonder," he says, "what people are doing who don't live in Portland." CODY NEWTON.

The River Patrol

Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Travis Gullberg used to cruise the roads of the county in a patrol car. But for the past two years, he's plied the Willamette River as part of the county's 12-member River Patrol—a job that is not as relaxing as it might seem. People joke that Gullberg gets to put a fishing pole out off the stern. "I wish," he says. Old-timers have told Gullberg (on the left, above, aiding an injured boater) action on the river used to be seedier, edgier, more unpredictable—much like the city itself. (The county also patrols the Columbia and Sandy rivers.) The River Patrol doesn't see a lot of crime on the water. What they do see are plenty of recreational boaters without life jackets, unregistered boats and bridgeside graffiti. Much of Gullberg's work entails what he calls "body recoveries." During the last boating season—May through October—he says the patrol helped recover 13 corpses, including seven accidental drownings. "The thing that affects us the most are the people who commit suicides by jumping off bridges," he says. "Sometimes we just don't know how they ended up in the water. Did they walk in? Fall in? Did they purposefully jump?" A father of two teenagers, Gullberg grows irritated when he sees parents who allow children near the water without life vests. Days surrounded by the river, he says, turn out not to be calming. "Water scares me," Gullberg says. "It will take your life, and it will take it quickly." COREY PEIN. 

The Baptisms

Three years ago, Josh White decided he longed for a missing part of his faith in Jesus: a church he could call his own. White and his wife, Darcy, gathered about two dozen friends and formed what became Door of Hope, a Southeast Portland church that now has 800 followers. White says in forming the church, he was influenced by the Jesus movement of the 1970s that focused on public demonstration of faith, including public baptisms in rivers and the Pacific Ocean. "Belief in Jesus is often treated as private," says White, Door of Hope's lead pastor. "We have sought to bring it into the open." The church transforms the Willamette into a local Jordan during the spring and summer on the last Sunday of the month at Sellwood Riverfront Park. White (shown baptizing Door of Hope follower Alice Hoverkamp in July 2011) says about 75 people have been baptized—and that Door of Hope welcomes the hundreds of onlookers who gather to watch.

“I was at first shocked at how much attention it got,” he says. “But it is very moving and powerful. People come forward and stand in the water and say why they want to be baptized. It takes a great deal of courage to make such a public declaration of faith.” BRENT WALTH.

The Bridge Tender

"This," says Gary Rivera, "is a corner office." Rivera's station sits 25 feet above the Hawthorne Bridge deck, where he's among seven full-time bridge operators employed by Multnomah County. "I was a senior systems analyst for 12 years," Rivera says. "People in my other life would kill for this view." The county maintains five Willamette bridges in the city: the Broadway, Sellwood, Burnside, Morrison and Hawthorne, which is 102 years old. To open the Hawthorne, Rivera starts the vertical lift with a tap on a computer touch screen that slowly releases two counterweights, 450 tons each. He likes the Hawthorne best because it has the finest view and is the central command for all the county's bridges. "The Burnside and the Broadway are not staffed," he says, "so if we need to lift those two bridges, the Hawthorne operator calls that out." Bridge operators conduct daily inspections and perform maintenance. But the view isn't all scenic vistas and sunsets. "I saw what was left of a truck that ran off the Marquam Bridge," he says. "I've seen a couple fistfights and crashes." One night while on duty at the Morrison, Rivera saw a man dressed like Ronald McDonald dancing in traffic in the middle of the span. "I called 911," he says. "He kept going back and forth across all four lanes at night. Oh boy. I can't believe he didn't get hit." RUTH BROWN.

The Willamette By The Numbers

The river supports more jobs than city government or local elementary schools, yet the maritime economy happens largely out of view to land-dwellers.

3,500: People employed by the Port of Portland's maritime operation, according to a March 15 economic analysis for the Port.

7,300: People employed by private businesses around the harbor, including longshoremen, terminal operators, stevedores, trucking firms, railroads, steamship agents, freight forwarders and customhouse brokers, warehousemen, federal employees, towing companies, pilot organizations and marine construction companies.

10,800: Additional metro-area workers whose jobs depend on individual and business spending by Portland Harbor-related businesses and organizations, according to the Port's study.

2,100: Approximate number of port and harbor workers who live in the city of Portland.

554: Oceangoing vessels calling at the Port of Portland last year.

766: Number of calls in 2008.

60,000: Approximate cargo capacity, in tons, of the Hanjin Washington, an average-sized, Panamanian-flagged, Korean-owned dry-cargo container ship that has made two visits to the Port of Portland so far this year.

13.4 million: Total tons of cargo that came and went through Port of Portland terminals last year.

$12 billion: Value of that cargo, as estimated by Port officials.

4.7 million: Tons of grain that were loaded and unloaded.

5.2 million: Tons of minerals.

2.2 million: Tons of soda ash, a chemical used in the making of glass and for cleaning and washing, that Kinder Morgan loads onto oceangoing ships annually at Terminal 4.

234,000: Number of automobiles loaded and unloaded.

7.5: Percent decrease in total cargo tonnage handled so far this year compared to the same period in 2011. COMPILED BY COREY PEIN.

For more images of the Willamette, see our photo gallery here.