Ask most longtime Portland residents about the Willamette River and most will say it’s a decent river with some picturesque bridges, but in their heads they will be picturing something akin to a toxic waste dump that is about ready to gurgle out the Swamp Creature. That’s because if you’ve lived in Portland for any great length of time (as in long before the first line of the first script of “Portlandia” was ever written or the first food cart was ever parked) the Willamette River was pretty much a cesspool.

The Willamette I Grew Up with…

For example, whenever it rained (which it does now and then here), warnings were blasted all over the papers and the news about not touching the water because even a trace of rain would cause the sewers to spill over and dump their yummy contents into the river. Add this to the the paper plants upstream, the industrial ick that made some portions of the river a Superfund site, and the occasional dead body that would turn up, and you can see why many “native” Portlanders wouldn’t touch the Willamette with a ten-foot kayak paddle.

But things have changed. Sort of.

Okay, there’s still the occasional dead body, there’s still agricultural run off from farms upstream, and there’s still a stretch of industrial area downstream that is terribly contaminated with stuff that will probably turn some river creature into a hulking beast that will kill us all. But many areas of the river have been cleaned up.

After a huge project to revamp a very ancient sewer system, Portland’s pipes no longer dump turds and tampons into the river except during  the nastiest of rainstorms, paper mills are either shut down or striving to be a bit more careful with their chemicals, and the river is slowly cleaning itself up. It’s no pristine body of water, but it has improved.

Surprises in the City

As you know, my husband and I recently took up paddle boarding, and yes, we paddle in the Willamette because it’s the closest bit of water to us . This year a new waterfront has been built only a mile from our home. Not only is this super convenient, but it’s located in a sort of inlet from the river that is protected on the south end by a small island and the north end by a small jut of land making the currents very minimal (good for wimps like me who are convinced they will be swept out to sea in even the lightest of current).

Because I don’t like frying my skin and because it’s nice to get your exercise off your to-do list, we’ve been getting up super early to get down to the river before the sun gets too far above the trees that line the banks. Last year we’d always gone paddling at a busier park and during busier times of the day so the only creatures to observe were dogs and their humans. But early in the morning at a less busy stretch of the river surprises await.

It’s Alive!!
Ahhh, this would explain my fascination with otters.
Ahhh, this would explain my fascination with otters.


Being a lifelong Portland resident I never thought of the Willamette as a living river., it was just something you crossed to get downtown. I thought wrong; the river is alive! On our early morning excursions, I’ve seen herons perching , kingfishers swooping, fish (big ass fish – possibly from the contaminants) leaping, vultures scavenging, eagles soaring, and river otters playing. Yes, river otters! I’m completely fascinated with them because never in my life would I have expected to see an otter in the wild, let alone in the city.

So, yes, the river is full of surprises and these day some of them are even good surprises – good enough and delightful enough to get my lazy butt out of bed before the sun is up.

For more about the efforts to protect the Willamette, please visit Willamette Riverkeepers’ website.

What (good) surprises did you discover this week? I’d love to read about them so please leave a comment!

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2 thoughts on “When Your City Surprises You

  1. I heard Benedict Cumberbatch swims for exercise. He must be part otter! It’s nice to be on the river early in the morning paddling, seeing all the critters, crew teams, a few outriggers, the occasional ski boat to make a few fun waves to practice my balance. I’ve even seen a few people swimming long distance in the Willamette. Not sure if I trust the cleanliness for that yet.


    1. The swimming isn’t too terrible, just don’t get any of the water on your face and be sure to race home to shower ASAP. Oh, and watch out for otters!


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