If you had been biking or driving over Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge around 6pm on August 17, you would have noticed a number of drummers lined up along the railing. You would have heard the beat of the drums, and cheers from the river below. And maybe you would have seen the 200 swimmers – including Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler – jumping into the water, flanked by colorful safety kayakers.
It was the first annual Mayoral River Swim, organized by Willie Levenson and the Human Access Project. The goal: swim across the river together to raise awareness about the need for clean water and celebrate the Willamette River, the lifeblood of our city.
We gathered at the fire station dock on the east side of the river near the Hawthorne Bridge – mostly swimmers, and some with rafts and pool noodles and SUPs. The guest of honor was Ted, an avid swimmer who embraces the river as key to Portland’s identity and quality of life. I overheard somebody affectionately call him “Ted the Trout.” Even better, he brought his young daughter with him. I think she was the youngest swimmer there. I got a minute of Ted’s time as we walked down the ramp to the dock and thanked him for his attention to the river. I told him we’d love to see all the mayors of river cities around the country leading swims across their rivers.
After some brief remarks on the dock, we all jumped in. And if we all weren’t excited and inspired enough, the big bass drums up on the bridge fired everyone up. It wasn’t just a swim, it was an event – something symbolic. People claiming ownership of their river and insisting that it must be clean and accessible for all. The Willamette has come a long way. It used to be so polluted nobody would dream of dipping their toe in. But thanks to major clean-up efforts, the river’s quality is better than it has been in a long time.
We were also here to just have fun. There was a big sense of joy – it’s summer, it’s beautiful and we’re swimming across the river in downtown Portland! I wanted to take it all in – I swam breast stroke for much of the way so I could watch the drummers up above, chat with fellow swimmers and kayakers, enjoy the sunny view of my city from the middle of the river. The water felt great, a perfect cool temperature on a hot August day. We swam diagonally under the Hawthorne Bridge to the beach on the west side. It wasn’t a race – we took our time, stopped to float, just enjoyed ourselves.
The Willamette and other urban rivers face big challenges and the work to ensure clean water and improved access is never really finished. There are always new threats, whether it’s pollution or harmful development or something else. It is hard work, and it takes constant effort on the part of local advocates and conservation organizations. That’s why it is so important to build community and grow the “armies” of people – the “riverlutionaries,” in the words of Willie Levenson – who love the river. And that’s why it’s important to take time to celebrate and have fun (in the words of Edward Abbey, “…you will outlive the bastards.”) Lying on my back in the middle of the river in the bright sun, I felt hopeful despite the challenges.
We’re all swimmers, we’re all in this together, and a river runs through us.