Paddling the Willamette River
Historically, the Willamette River was a wild river. Rising with massive floods in winter and spring, and expanding across a wide valley that bears its name, the river ran with power and a dynamic nature that is too seldom seen today. As the centerpiece of the Willamette Valley, the Willamette River pushed its way some 187-miles on its main stem, from Eugene to Portland, with cold runoff from the mountains and splashing valley torrents creating a vibrant flow. Throughout the long history of this river, it was common for great floods to result in the river changing its course significantly.
The valley was typified by open prairies and oak and conifer woodlands that covered the land, then tracing into the foothills of the Cascade and Coast Ranges. Native peoples, mainly the Calapooia, populated the valley and utilized the river until the arrival of Euro American settlers from the East Coast. Abundant fish and other wildlife called the river and its valley home. Over the past 150 years much has changed in the Willamette Valley and the river reflects this change.
Today the river is surrounded by agricultural land with little in the way of riverside forests that once flourished. Cities now hug its banks and alter the River’s character. Industrial facilities nestle against the river to utilize it as a water source and dumping ground. Its flows have been harnessed and modified by hydropower dams on the tributaries. Simply put, pollution and habitat destruction have altered the function and very health of the Willamette River. Though the nature of the Willamette Valley has been modified greatly, there are still opportunities to regain some semblance of the river’s former health and vitality. The Willamette River can indeed be a place that is clean and healthy for the species that inhabit its waters and for the people that turn to this resource for recreation and solitude.
Over the past 80 years the River has been polluted to various degrees and affected by destruction of habitat from the main stem of the River to headwater areas in the mountains. Historically some pollution has come from industry, some from agriculture, some from cities, and some from other sources as well. In the 1960s there was some very good progress made in reducing industrial wastes discharged into the River.
At the time Oregon Governor Tom McCall was helping to lead the charge in eliminating the kind of raw industrial pollution blatantly discharged from pipes hanging over river banks. While much progress was made, in the intervening 30 plus years, we have learned a great deal about river ecology and water quality. In this same period, some have also learned to get around protective features of environmental law. Today there are still significant pollution and habitat issues that affect the river. To some degree pollution and habitat alteration continues to come from industry, cities, agriculture, and other sources.
One of the main partners in river cleanup on the Willamette is the nonprofit group Willamette Riverkeepers. The Riverkeepers put on an annual paddling event called Paddle Oregon which is designed to bring awareness to the Willamette River and introduce new paddlers to this storied river in the heart of the Pacific Northwest.
When I participated in Paddle Oregon, it was nearing the end of summer. The river was oddly deserted in the middle of August. Every mile has pristine beaches, gravel bars and sandy flats for free camping, but the only tents seen were under bridges in the towns of Albany and Corvallis, a testament to just how hard the current recession has hit some folks.
So why would anyone spend $620 to float a section of the Willamette that’s otherwise free for anyone with an canoe or kayak? Paddle Oregon is an excellent and relatively economical eco-tourism vacation: It’s close, physically challenging and sometimes exciting; the paddle skills training is extensive; the scenery and wildlife are marvelous; the food, beer and wine are top notch; and the trip supports a good cause. Paddle Oregon provides gear shuttles, campsites, entertainment, showers and other amenities. Camaraderie is another strong attraction. As kayakers and canoeists, we delight in eyeballing each other’s boats and gear, sharing skills and tips, and telling tall tales of our whitewater and ocean exploits around the world.
For Willamette Riverkeeper’s Executive Director, Travis Williams, Paddle Oregon is all that plus a recruiting and fund-raising tool. “Paddle Oregon has brought new people into the fold and we get a lot of folks who maybe haven’t done a lot of river travel and are not well acquainted with the Willamette,” he says. “I think we have built some awareness and connections with the community.”
Williams says more than 1,400 people have participated in Paddle Oregon over the past 10 years, and “over time these people have gotten involved in different ways in support of us.” In 2010 nearly half of the 120-plus participants were new to the event.
“I-5 is a jealous magician. It doesn’t want you to remember what’s there just to the West”, says Williams.
Volunteers help out with fund-raising, letter writing, tree planting and other riparian restoration, riverbank cleanup, water quality monitoring, fish surveys, outreach and education. Volunteers also help with river trips and other events.
Paddle Oregon is also an opportunity for the Riverkeeper staff and other environmental advocates to get out from behind their desks and recharge their batteries before winter.
“The river is a place where you can get away and experience sights and sounds and wildlife that you might not have assumed existed along the Willamette,” says Williams. “Today we saw a great egret. It flew right over our boats, made a big circle and landed in a tree and took off again. Combine that with the great blue heron, bald eagles, occasional northern harrier, kingfishers, water fowl and mink.”
Wildlife was abundant this year when Paddle Oregon maneuvered down the relatively calm Willamette between Eugene and Willamette Mission State Park north of Salem. The 100-mile kayak expedition allowed us to observe wildlife all around us: dozens of osprey and ducks, green and blue herons, killdeer, sandpipers, mussels and other invertebrates of every sort, a lamprey, a sturgeon and smallmouth bass, otters, mink, deer and distinctive aquatic plant life such as Wapato.
What To Expect
Education is a big part of the event. Paddlers travel in pods — assigned groups of about a dozen canoers and kayakers who are matched according to pace of travel and interest area so that they can bird watch or learn about geology or focus on some other specific area of interest during the trip.
After a day of paddling, participants come onshore, settle into their designated campsites, set up their tents, eat dinner, and listen to an array of experts, including naturalists, ecologists, farmers and others discuss environmental and watershed-related topics.
For Lake Oswego resident Mike Beard, 55, those discussions and the friendships that form between the paddlers are among reasons he plans to participate in the event for a third time.
“The camaraderie is nice. Everybody out there has similar interests,” Beard said. “We’re all paddling, we all have an interest in enjoying ourselves and the river and each other.”
The scenery is beautiful, Beard said, and it’s satisfying to accomplish a long paddling trip. The amenities are also “fantastic,” he said.
Participants sleep in tents and pack their own gear, which includes, at a minimum, the canoe or kayak, tent, sleeping bags and clothing for the trip. But paddlers are well taken care of, said Kelly Otto, a kayaker who’s participated in the event six times and now volunteers with Willamette Riverkeeper.
“While it’s camping in that you have to set up your own tent and take it down, you’re not really roughing it,” said Otto, a chiropractor from Gresham.
Each day, organizers haul the paddlers’ gear to the next campsite, meals are catered, and boaters can even settle in with a cool glass of wine or a bottle of beer after a day on the river, Beard said.
“To me the point is just to be out there to talk and see what you can see and watch the eagles and the osprey and fish jump and maybe you’ll even see an otter on the bank,” Beard said.
“Then you have a good meal, sit around the campfire with a beer in your hand and it’s all pretty good and very enjoyable. I recommend it to anyone.”
The Riverkeeper folks talked about the negative impact that various riverbank modifications have had on water quality, temperature and wildlife. Over the years all kinds of riprap, posts, netting and even junked cars and appliances have been dumped along the banks in an attempt to control the natural meandering of the river channel. Side channels and backwaters have been bulldozed, drained, cut off and diverted, and their shade trees cut. Many of these projects, both legal and illegal, have taken their toll on the health of the river. In his 2009 book, The Willamette River Field Guide, Williams writes about alternative methods for riverbank stabilization that help protect riparian habitat.
Dams on the upper river and its tributaries such as the McKenzie and Coast Fork have interfered with fish passage and raised the temperature of the water. Should they be removed? Not necessarily.
Williams says the dams that are being removed today, such as on the Rogue River system, are “primarily private dams where you have an investor and it no longer makes sense, and it costs too much money to retrofit it and make it right, or ones that are decrepit, or ones that are borderline and with public pressure you get over that line.”
But, he says, “Try to imagine doing that with the EWEB projects on the McKenzie. It’s a different ballgame, and then extrapolate that to the federal projects. But I think it’s something for people to think about: If there are ways of dealing with flooding in certain areas that are not always hydropower or flood control dams, there are certain projects that maybe can be drawn down.” He says lower water levels in dams would benefit the river, and the dams would still be there for emergencies, such as flooding from rapid snow melt.
Gravel mining is also a big issue for the health of the Willamette. ODOT bridge and interchange projects along I-5 demand huge amounts of gravel, rock and sand, and the river system has not recovered from the scars of past mining operations along the river, and sometimes actually in the river. Heavy gravel mining continues today.
What Williams and others want to see is large-scale public and private investment in protecting and restoring the river system from its sources high in the Cascades to its confluence with the Columbia River 187 miles below. Without that investment and commitment, future population growth and climate change will exacerbate the already serious challenges facing the river and the diversity of life that its clean, cold water sustains.
• The Willamette is one of the largest rivers in the lower 48 states that runs north. It is also the only major river system that begins and ends in the same state. River mile 0 is where the Willamette flows into the Columbia north of Portland. RM 187 is at Waldo Lake, one of the river’s sources. The spring at Clear Lake feeding the McKenzie is another source. The Coast Fork starts above Cottage Grove Reservoir.
• About 2.4 million people live in the Willamette Valley, about 70 percent of Oregon’s population. Population growth has been projected to four million by 2050, and that number could grow even larger if Oregon sees an influx of “climate refugees” from dryer states.
• Water quality in the Willamette is fairly good in the Eugene-Springfield area, but worsens as the river flows toward Portland, picking up agricultural and industrial pollution, treated municipal sewage, runoff from roads and parking lots, and dirty stormwater from residential and commercial properties. The river does get an infusion of cold, clean water from the Santiam confluence north of Albany.
• Eugene gets its drinking water from the McKenzie and dumps its treated wastewater into the Willamette. Corvallis uses the Willamette for its drinking water, then returns its treated wastewater to the Willamette a few miles downstream.
• Water quality samples are taken at tributary confluences. If pollution is detected, more samples are taken upstream along the tributaries until the source is located. Willamette Riverkeeper collaborates with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in water quality testing.
• Large gravel bars are important to the health of the Willamette. Gravel filters the water and cools it. Abandoned gravel pits can provide opportunities for habitat restoration, particularly if they are opened up for inflow and outflow. The Delta Ponds in Eugene are one such project.
• Small side channels, alcoves and backwaters provide valuable habitat for a variety of wildlife. Vegetation along the banks is much healthier for the river than riprap. Vegetation provides wildlife habitat, erosion control and cooling shade.
• Floodplains along the river are also important to the health of the river and flooding replenishes the land; but most floodplains are now disconnected from the river’s main channel and in use for agriculture. Some private lands along the river and even islands are now protected through conservation easements.
• Eagles and ospreys flying with fish in their talons will turn the fish so that it offers less wind resistance.
• Nutria can be mistaken for beavers, but the non-native nutria are smaller and have rat-like tails. Beavers have large, flat tails. Early explorers, trappers and settlers ate a lot of fatty, chewy beaver tails. Lewis & Clark were fond of beaver; Lewis called beaver tail, “a most delicious morsel.”
• Most common trees along the banks of the Willamette are black cottonwoods, Pacific willows, red osier dogwoods, Oregon ash and Douglas firs. Himalayan blackberries and scotch broom are non-native, invasive and often the first plants targeted for removal in restoring riparian habitat.
• Wapato is a large and lush native plant that can be found in quiet backwater areas. Its roots were once used as a staple by Native Americans. Women would wade into the water and pull up wapato roots with their toes and load them into special canoes.
• Western pearlshell mussels live in muddy bottoms of backwaters and side channels. They look like black razor clams and can live more than 100 years. Little is known about them and their role in the ecosystem, but they are currently being studied.