Beyond Portland Harbor, the Willamette River feels remote and refreshing

It's hard to believe that nearly three of four Oregonianslive within 20 miles of the Willamette River's banks ― hereon the water, we feel as if we're miles from civilization. We're onday four of a five-day guided trip with Paddle Oregon. The journeycovers 26 miles on the largest river that's entirely within Oregon,and other than one small town and the 4 or 5 miles it has taken toapproach and paddle past Salem, we've seen only farms, water, andwoods, smelled only the perfume of cottonwoods, heard only our ownvoices and the calls of birds.

At daybreak we carry the canoe down a short dirt road at WigrichFarm, just downstream from the Buena Vista Ferry, and put in amongthe Willamette River's reeds, rocks, and cottonwood trees, theirgreen scent like the river's breath. We drift past tangles of treesand shrubs that obscure the farms beyond, spotting a kingfisherfrom its rattling call. The century-old stone storefronts ofIndependence, Oregon, come into view and just as quickly fall away.A long sandbar appears; a creek tumbles in. Soon we're parallelinga noisy highway, heading straight toward the center of Oregon'ssecond-largest city, Salem. Scattered homes appear on the rightbank. Then they recede, and we're back to wild river.

"If you're a person who likes solitude, don't go to theDeschutes River in the summer, don't go to the Rogue," says RickBastasch, director of the Willamette Restoration Initiative, agroup seeking to help coordinate efforts to protect and restore thehealth of the Willamette watershed. "Go to the Willamette." Withwarm air and refreshing water beckoning, there's no time likeAugust to do just that.

Riverfront fun

Now that cities from Eugene to Portland are enhancing access tothe river, the Willamette is becoming more of a destination thanever before. Eugene recently completed most of its 12-mileriverbank trail system. Corvallis's Riverfront Commemorative Park(on S.W. First St. south of N.W. Tyler Ave.), completed in 2002,engages visitors with its paths, interactive fountain, and thegrowing restaurant row across the street. Improvements on Salem'sFront Street are helping connect downtown visitors to the stellarRiverfront Park (on Front St. south of Center St. Bridge); by nextsummer, the park will have a new, 226-foot dock serving craftranging from the Willamette Queen excursion stern-wheeler and skiboats to canoes and kayaks. A 360-foot public dock near ClackamettePark in Oregon City is scheduled to open in summer 2005 aswell.

It all makes a very rosy picture. But it's only half the story.The Willamette's many problems range from an old mercury mine atits headwaters to toxic contaminants in the sediment at PortlandHarbor. But it has come a long way since the early 20th century,when the river was so polluted that fish couldn't survive init.

"For years we've heard, boo hoo, there are all these problemswith the river," says Travis Williams, who is canoeing beside us.Williams is the organizer of Paddle Oregon and a member of thewatchdog group Willamette Riverkeeper. "But once you get on theriver you realize the river moves, it's very scenic, it's dynamic,it has lots of wildlife...I think when people have an opportunityto travel the river and establish that connection, it's generallyvery surprising."

A shining resource

The surprises began in the 1960s, when construction ofsewage-treatment plants and cleanup of industrial discharge beganto bring fish ― and people ― back to the WillametteRiver. Projects like Portland's Westside Big Pipe are helpingfinish the job of keeping sewage out of the river.

The main challenges today are riparian habitat restoration,cleaning up river sediments such as those in Portland Harbor, andtackling runoff from streets and other sources of nonpointpollution.

"It's not that we don't have challenges," Bastasch told mebefore the trip. "We do, and we need to be hard at them. But theWillamette River is first and foremost a treasure, not a problem.There's just so much happening along the river."

Back in our canoes, there's plenty happening: a quick drawstroketo the left as we negotiate the musical riffles at the head ofDarrow Bar; the splash of an osprey diving for a fish at the end ofWindsor Island. A makeshift sign planted in the marshy right banksignals the takeout. Sweeping right with our paddles, we headtoward a pocket beach, where a narrow path leads off the water andinto the trees. The late-day sun is casting diamonds on the river,bringing to mind a comment Bastasch made earlier.

"You can get pretty glum about a lot of environmental things,"he said, "but the Willamette isn't one of them."

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