My neighborhood in southeast Portland provides all the essentials within easy walking distance. It’s easy to exist in a little bubble over here, rolling back and forth over the same 10 square blocks. Ever since I stopped commuting to the west side for work, I sometimes forget that there’s a great big river that flows through the middle of this city. It’s never been a river that invited you to linger along its banks and dip your toes in the water. For ages it’s been a polluted mess. Used to be that every time it rained hard (what? Here in Portland?) the crappy ol’ sewage system would overflow into the river. Gross and gross. But the city finally completed a major update and our river is actually swimmable again.
I met the head of the Human Access Project a month or so ago and he was wildly enthusiastic about making the Willamette a vital part of our lives again, not just an excuse for our pretty bridges. This group recently created a new beach along the west bank of the river by clearing away big rocks and making a ramp from the sidewalk down to the water. More access points are also being developed. One of the big projects for this organization is The Big Float, which gets thousands of people out on the water in inner tubes. You know, because this is Portland and we’re silly like that.
So I signed up, got a new tube, and marched myself down to the river’s edge along with everyone else. And for the first time ever, I touched the Willamette. It was fairly warm and very murky and perfectly perfect. My friend and I floated out with the rest of the revelers and got to see our city from a whole new perspective while cooling off on a hot summer day. What I would have given for this opportunity all those years I was carless and stuck in the city for the vast majority of the summer. To be able to hop on the bus with just a towel and a book and go take a dip from downtown? Hell, yeah.
I know it’s just a float in the river, but somehow it feels big. Because the river is big. It’s this amazing, beautiful resource flowing through us. I hope it continues to get healthier and become more and more a part of who we are.