This story is featured in the December 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak, available on newsstands now.

Photo by Adam Elliott

Arriving to a sunset feast amidst riverside hop fields, I feel right at home. Some 130 paddlers are celebrating at the Chatoe Rogue Micro Hopyard, this night’s camp for Paddle Oregon, a five-day, 100-mile floating festival on the Willamette River. Effusive laughter spills from the tasting room into the August night. Dirty Chacos lay abandoned as their barefoot owners twirl to a bluegrass string band. As the moon rises over the trellised hop fields, lanterns become magnets for thoughtful conversation.

It feels just like every multi-day paddling trip I’ve done—an intoxicating immersion into the journey that deepens each day and forges stronger friendships—only on a grander scale, with that hard-to-define river-bliss magnified by the sheer number of people sharing the experience.

If the goal of the non-profit Willamette Riverkeeper is to build a more engaged paddling community around a river that few think to explore, then they’ve found an effective way to do it. For 11 years, this event has turned on people who never would have dreamed of paddling, let alone for five days straight.

As an avid whitewater boater, I had never dreamed of paddling the Willamette either. Walking the bluff near my Portland home a few days earlier, gazing out at the sweeping industrial zone near the Willamette’s confluence with the Columbia, I couldn’t help thinking it’s a river for ships, not kayaks. As river guide Jack Hart tells me at the event, the Willamette is the “workhorse of Oregon’s rivers.” Dammed, channelized, dredged, and controlled, the Willamette supported commercial river traffic—and not much else—from the mid-1800s on. Hart recalls a time not long ago when he called a particular eddy the “Polio Hole” due to sewage discharge. When he paddles that stretch now, Hart says, he’s rarely out of sight of an Osprey.

On the morning of our 28-mile river day, I awkwardly step into a Wenonah Advantage for my personal first descent of this wild river. Thick cottonwoods shade a lush riparian backdrop that gives the meandering flow a surprisingly remote feel. I ask Barb, our pod leader, for pointers. “Don’t tip over,” she says as she gracefully slips away to the front of the group. The day is filled with wildlife presentations, a visit from the Grand Ronde Tribe, and some gentle advice on canoe technique for this transplanted whitewater kayaker. That evening, Riverkeeper’s Executive Director Travis Williams details the organization’s successful habitat restoration efforts, monitoring programs, and clean water enforcement.

After just one day canoeing, I feel more like an Oregonian. I can hear Kate Ross, Riverkeeper’s Outreach and Education Coordinator, saying, “The Willamette is Oregon,” and the same words of the group echoing their attraction to the event—that it’s all about, “the community.” Sure, it is the community of young kids and grandparents, friends and strangers, recreation kayaks and four-person canoes. But it’s the group, tied to the place, that defines this odd pilgrimage and unveils Oregon’s original landscape, and its quirky and passionate paddlesports culture.

That afternoon, I meet Tami on the river. We glide separately, paddling our own crafts, and connect sporadically through the day. The river gives us time to get to know one another, to distance ourselves from worries and troubles. Seeing the older paddlers, some in their 70s, Tami shares a small epiphany. “I can keep doing this for a long time,” she says.
Me too.

— Susan Hollingsworth

Check out the full photo gallery HERE.