Reclaiming the Willamette River

By Nancy Tannler

This year’s Big Float happens Saturday July 15. (See details on page 13) Hopefully this year’s event won’t take place on one of those cool, cloudy summer days here in the northwest. Nonetheless, advocates for swimming in the river won’t have their spirits dampened by the weather.

There’s no better spokesman for this than the events founder Willie Levenson.

Levenson held the first Big Float eight years ago and swimmers and floaters actually crossed the Willamette River. This inaugural crossing did not happen without years of preparation and a backstory that begins with his  passion for water.

Willie Levenson said he took to water right away. He swam for the neighborhood subdivision swim team, the Fallsmead Sharks, in his hometown of Rockville, Maryland.

It was when he went to Radford, University in Radford Virginia and started swimming in the New River (Kanawha River) that the combination of swimming and nature first got a hold on him. “I fell in love with the river and when the other kids went home for the summer, I stayed so I could swim,“ Levenson said.

The river is part of the Ohio river watershed and flows for 360 miles through  a portion of western Virginia in the Appalachian Mountains. It is one of the five oldest rivers in the world despite its name.

After college, the calling to go west landed him in Boise, Idaho. Here he resumed his love affair with the Boise River that runs through the heart of the city. People have direct access to the river for swimming, fishing, inner tubing and other water sports, thanks to the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt and the clean water.

Then Willie decided to go even further west to Portland twenty years ago and was taken aback by the warnings to stay out of the Willamette River. How could a city that was touted as being green have a polluted river running through it with very little public access?

At this time the Big Pipe was being installed so the overflow sewage no longer spilled into the Willamette and the declaration of the Portland Harbor as a Superfund site in 2000 got industrial polluters to start to clean up their act.

Hearing people make jokes about never touching the polluted river for fear of death made Levenson want to do something about it.

He became inspired by Jay Boss Rubin and his Portland Challenge. The challenge was to bring a bunch of people together starting at The Slammer Tavern in SE and then en masse walk to the Willamette River and swim across. It was a fundraiser for different local causes and, over the four years the event happened, raised $20k.

The book From the Bottom Up by Chet Pregracke, was another affirmation for the cause of the river. As a high school student Pregracke first saw all the trash that littered the Mississippi River, and this launched him on his quest to clean it up.  He started by picking up garbage himself and eventually, with no help from the government, he started his own fundraising. Today his one man operation has grown into a huge operation with more than 60 sponsors (including National Geographic).

Lacking experience, financing and connections but with a lot of determination, Willie forged ahead with his idea to invite people to get into the Willamette River and float across. The process meant meeting with eight different bureaus and getting their approval before he launched his first Big Float in 2011.

One of the sponsors of the Big Float encouraged Levenson to make the Human Access Project (HAP) into a non-profit.

“The idea of doing this and going bigger terrified me but for that very reason I decided to go ahead and make the Human Access Project idea into a non-profit business.”

Before any of this was ever possible, Levenson attributes his ability to do something for the greater good to his wife Pamela. The success of her swimsuit business Popina allowed him to leave corporate America and focus on rebuilding access to our river. He is essentially a full-time volunteer.

One of HAPs recent projects was to clear away the riprap rock on the eastside of the river under the Hawthorne Bridge. “I began one day by building a pile of  broken cement. When I asked how we could remove the concrete, I learned that the only restrictions were no heavy equipment.”

Ringleader Willie Levenson encourages enjoyment and safety in the Willamette River

They hosted a kickoff event called UnRock the Bowl and sixty volunteers showed up. Inmates from Iverness Jail did a couple of work sessions too. They hauled 19 tons of concrete out of the river.

“We call it Audrey McCall Beach since it was directly across from Tom McCall Park on the other side of the river”. A lot of people wanted him to name it after himself but he thought this would be best.

“Tom McCall and his wife had a great relationship. She was a political force in her own way.” He said that honoring her was a way of acknowledging the influence of his wife too.

In 2000 the Poet’s Beach under the Marquam Bridge on the west side was converted into a sandy beach and a boardwalk was built down to the water. A few years ago it was made even more accessible when Peter Andrusko cut through a basalt barrier and created a pathway down to the beach.

Andrusko engraved elementary school kids’ poems on the rocks lining the pathway. Levenson wanted to include the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, tribes who for thousands of years lived along the banks of the Willamette.

The word “niswa chaku” or welcome is engraved on the rock at the head of the beach.

More good news is that the Big Pipe did its job this year and there was no trace of CSO’s in the river after this year’s record rain fall.

Testifying before City Council last month on June 6, Levenson continues to build his case for Portlanders to own their waterfront with the proposal of freeing up docks for swimming, providing ladders for exiting the water, making life rings available at swimming locations and making more beaches.

As the eternal optimist Willie believes that Portland is becoming “a city that loves its river.”

Reclaiming the Willamette River

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top