Portland’s Human Access Project Brings Hope to a River

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Once considered unswimmable, the Willamette has found new life as a popular swimming and kayaking destination.

On a summer morning in Portland, Oregon, people in swimsuits or wetsuits, all with brightly colored swim caps and flotation buoys, jump off a dock and prepare to swim across the Willamette River. But it wasn’t always this way. Portland has a contentious history with its main river, long notorious for being more cesspool than swimming hole. 

Willie Levenson, ringleader of the Human Access Project (HAP), is the major force behind Portland’s changing relationship with the Willamette River. When Levenson moved to Portland—a city with a super green rep—he was shocked by people’s attitude toward the Willamette. “I was indoctrinated the way a lot of people in Portland are, to never put your toe in the Willamette because it will kill you or you’ll grow horns or a third eye or your skin will fall off,” he said. First he was disappointed. Then he got pissed off at people slagging the Willamette.  “Ultimately, making a joke about a river is an expression of hopelessness.”

With a little research, Levenson learned that Portland had spent 1.44 billion dollars on the Big Pipe, a sewage infrastructure project that took care of the Willamette’s embarrassing problem. The result of that investment? A swimmable Willamette, at least in summertime.

Levenson created Human Access Project to promote recreational use of the river. He believed that he could make an impact, helping reconnect people to the river and fighting for the Willamette’s water quality. “Ultimately, the vision of Human Access Project is simply a city in love with its river,” he said.

Willie Levenson created Human Access Project to promote recreational use of the river. He believed that he could make an impact, helping reconnect people to the river, and fighting for the Willamette’s water quality. “Ultimately, the vision of Human Access Project is simply a city in love with its river,” he said.

In the past twelve years, HAP has opened Poet’s Beach, Portland’s first recognized swimming beach on the Willamette. It removed 200 tons of concrete from another river beach and converted the Kevin Duckworth dock from motorized boats to swim dock. HAP created the River Hugger Swim Team ten years ago, where intermediate level swimmers get together on summer mornings to swim in a safe, organized fashion, supported by safety kayakers. But HAP is best known for The Big Float, an annual party in the river where up to five thousand people bust out their unicorn-, parrot-, and donut-shaped floaties and lounge in the river, listening to live bands. “The Big Float has always been a movement disguised as a party,” Levenson said. HAP surveys reveal that for 70% of participants, it’s the first time they’ve ventured into the Willamette.

Next on the HAP agenda is addressing harmful algae bloom proliferating in one part of the river.  Between that area’s past industrial use and climate change, the river isn’t getting cold enough in wintertime to kill the bloom. HAP is working with Oregon State University and other partners to come up with a pump system to fix the problem.

Levenson believes in the Jacques Cousteau quote, “People protect what they love.” He’s excited and optimistic about the future of the Willamette. “A lot of different things that people are activists or advocates for are very serious in nature, so it’s harder to thread the needle between being able to have fun and make a difference at the same time,” he said. “We are lucky to have such a joyful thing to be activists around.”

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Teresa Bergen
Teresa Bergen is a Portland, Oregon-based author who specializes in the outdoors, vegan and sustainable travel. Her articles appear in many publications and she’s author of Easy Portland Outdoors and co-author of Historic Cemeteries of Portland, Oregon.

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