Tilikum Crossing: Notes from a Kayak Guide

A kayak guide reflects on the opening of Portland's newest bridge.

The old man flipped his spelunking light off, and promptly disappeared. He had blended into the darkness of Ross Island. A candle-shaped light, suction-cupped to the back of my kayak, was guide enough were he to need it, though he was an experienced boater. He had been salmon fishing on the Columbia for eight hours the day before, had brought his own spelunking light. 

About a mile ahead of us was Tilikum Crossing. From here its suspension cables looked like color-changing harp strings, light green and yellow tonight. Researching tour jargon, I discovered how the colors were orchestrated by a monitor on the Morrison Bridge, the work of artists and architects: the faster the river runs, the quicker the colors pulsate. The higher the river, the taller the colors climb the cables and pylons. The base colors are related to the temperature of the Willamette.

As a river guide for the last two years, I have watched the final pieces of the bridge get set. I have made room for moving barges with cranes on them. I've heard other guides tell guests to beware of falling tools, which seemed a bit overdone, but perhaps necessary. The empty train cars on test runs, the electrical work under the decking–though I've had a passing appreciation, I would not understand the breadth and beauty of this project until opening weekend.

After rounding the island we crossed the river towards the western shore. In daytime you can see the osprey nest on a platform attached to a pole, the live cam set above it. Into the evening speedboats run this section hard, their speakers blasting bar rock to juice up the skiers and wakeboarders behind. But by now the birds and motorboats were quiet. Our group was able to cross comfortably. The little lights attached to our personal floatation devices twinkled in the dark water. 

We slid under the rattling iron of the Ross Island Bridge, and soon our lights were meshing with the Tilikum colors, the general glow of the skyline ahead. A steady breeze out of the north cooled us. The MAX was still doing test runs. Behind us Ross Island itself was a large blank space.

Slowing under Tilikum, we all stared upwards. An architect's wife pointed out something I would never have noticed–the way the pedestrian path jutted out around the pylon. From down here the logic of the diamond shape was clear: walkers were able to step around the column, out over the water. My affection for the bridge deepened.

Throughout opening day and the next, as I ran trips downriver and back, I felt echoes of the civic joys I imagined the big early twentieth century projects inspired. Except this ambitious piece was made not to transport cars or dam water.

The weekend coincided with dragon boat competitions. The coach of each boat sits by the dragon head and beats a bongo to help rowers with rhythm. This added to the festive vibe on the river, as did the firefighter boat blasting huge arcs of water. People on the bridge looked down to wave. A lady on a pirate boat yodeled for a full minute and a half.

People I talked to were stoked about the bridge. The spelunker said it was quite an achievement. Another likened nighttime Tilikum to a mood ring. Someone said that it made us less of Seattle's little brother. The one complaint I heard sits better as a joke–she said she didn't like the name, that it sounded like "till-I-come." But she admitted it was cool looking. 

A PSU grad said if she had to be on a bridge when the big one hit, Tilikum would be it. She liked its clean lines. A graphic designer explained how the architect built in triangles to resemble Mount Hood. A Johnson Creek resident said she would now not have to drive to work. Said she convinced her friend to train-it with her. That one made me smile, knowing people were changing their commuting patterns.

By Sunday evening the strong winds out of the north picked up. An overcast was sliding in, as if shutting down the whole show. To celebrate, my wife and I took our first ride across. We couldn't believe how low Hawthorne Bridge looked from the top. We were almost parallel with the lower deck of the Marquam Bridge. So much of Mount Hood was visible.

Still on Sunday night people were crossing in droves–families stepping out around the pylon, cyclists walking bikes, a barefoot couple. We will have this weekend to tell people about down the road. We can tell them we were part of a bold mix of public art and transportation, that we went out to celebrate a new way of traversing our city.

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