By Will Levenson
For the Hollywood Star News
In my ongoing role as Willamette River evangelist and ringleader of the non-profit Human Access Project, I sometimes feel like the Kevin Bacon character in “Footloose.” But instead of trying to take the shame out of dancing and turning it into a love of artistic expression as he did, I am trying to coax Portlanders to drop what is frequently a feeling of shame about the Willamette River and turn it into love.
With all the habitat restoration and pollution source control work that has been done, it is now safe to swim and recreate in the river that flows right through the middle of our city. It is time to forgo the negativity many people feel from the past abuses humans have afflicted on the Willamette River – and embrace, cherish and celebrate the therapeutic values our river can uniquely provide. The times and tide have turned. One of my favorite things is prodding Portland residents to do a cursory amount of internet research and discover how science now acknowledges the Willamette River is safe for human recreation in downtown Portland (according to the EPA, DEQ, City of Portland and Oregon Health Authority). No, the Willamette River downtown will not kill you or harm you in any way. It’s a fact.
I have no shame for my love of the Willamette River – or for my starry-eyed optimism about what I consider to be the inevitable transformation of our community as it slowly but surely embraces the Willamette. Witnessing this transformation will be magical. I want to see it in my lifetime. Helping people “get into” the Willamette River will do more than provide therapeutic value and enjoyment for our community. It will create river stewards who are unwavering in their resolve to protect the Willamette River and improve its health. As far as we have come, there is still a lot more work ahead.
To engage individuals and extend our reach in the community, last summer the Human Access Project launched the River Hugger Swim Team. The goal is to embrace the river as we swim across it, east side to west side and back. It’s about a 20-minute, ¼-mile swim across (about 45 minutes round trip) – a piece of cake for intermediate swimmers and above. River Huggers is an advocacy swim group that meets three days a week, all summer long, during morning rush hour (7 a.m.) to demonstrate that the Willamette River is safe and fun to swim in. We say, why not make a statement and get some exercise before work? What’s not to like about that? Plus: no flip turns.
Our River Hugger group started in Spring 2014 with 12 people and one safety kayaker. By our last swim of the summer, our group had grown to 38 people with three safety kayakers. Overall, 80 individuals took part. We designed and produced our own River Hugger swim caps and gained a lot of media attention while building a new community of river activists.
Every swim starts with a brief safety talk. We ask that everyone swim closely together in a pod so it is easier for the safety kayakers to keep an eye on each swimmer. It is also more impactful and dramatic visually for the group to swim together when seen by commuters crossing over the Hawthorne Bridge. Sometimes, swimmers swim only one length across and walk back. If people are having trouble keeping up with the pod and are intermediate-level swimmers, we suggest they wear fins (There is no shame in fins and it is fun to have the extra propulsion).
We are hopeful that the River Hugger Swim Team will be another tool to help the Portland community to overcome their fear and negative feelings about the Willamette River. Human Access Project has a slate of other mischief up our sleeves this summer — stay tuned. Also don’t forget to mark your calendars for The Big Float V set for July 26. It’s our fifth anniversary and we are shooting for 3,000-4,000 floaters to join the flotilla. The floodgates to the future are open. Get on board and get into your river!
River Hugger Swim Team
What: Fun, advocacy swim
Dates: June 15 through September 15 from 7:00 a.m.- 7:45 a.m.
Cost: $3.00 per swim
Meet: Fire Station 21, 05 S.E. Madison St.
The Big Float V
What: Group innertube float on ther Willamette
Date: July 26, 2015
Cost: Adult $5 before July 19, $8 after July 19, $10 on day of event Children $3 before July 19, $4 after July 19, $5 on day of event