Paddling a National Water Trail

Celebrating Oregon's Willamette River with an annual paddle

Canoe jousting on the Willamette. Photo: Melissa Rierson

Canoe jousting on the Willamette. Photo: Melissa Rierson

By Travis Williams

Last week, more than 150 canoeists and kayakers traveled down 106 miles of Oregon’s Willamette River for the 13th annual Paddle Oregon, presented by the Willamette Riverkeeper. The event traditionally celebrates the Willamette River and its influence on the culture and economy of Oregon's Willamette Valley. This year folks got to party for another reason: the designation of the Willamette River as a National Water Trail last July.

"It's great that the Willamette is now nationally recognized as a river to come to," says Kate Ross of Willamette Riverkeeper. "This trip is about connecting people to the Willamette, informing them of the issues it faces and sharing the joy of paddling its shores.” Everyone from the youngest child up to those nearly hitting 80 paddled, seeing the river’s woodland scenery and lots of wildlife. According to Ross, the river flows through national forests, rich farmlands, quiet towns and the state's largest cities including Portland, Salem, and Eugene.

Most people get their glimpse of the Willamette from these cities. "There's this idea that it's dirty, and for sure it does have its share of challenges, just like many other rivers that pass through urban areas," said Ross. It became a goal for Willamette Riverkeeper to change that notion, and the new national recognition as a location for restoration and conservation helps.

Each night featured the agricultural product of the Willamette Valley, including a campsite at the 100-year-old hop farm for Rogue Ales (known as “Chatoe Rogue”) and at Arcane Cellars’ Wheatland Winery and Vineyard, the only valley vineyard with padder access along the Willamette. The paddlers walked through the hop farm and vineyard, enjoying beer and wine tastings. "Wineries are thriving in general here, and that's because of the Willamette River," said Ross. "It's a highly impacted river, but also the life thread of the state."

In perhaps a first, Paddle Oregon hosted a canoe jousting competition. In good fun, canoeists faced off, with two paddlers and one jouster in each canoe. The crowd looked on as the paddlers squared off--typically resulting in some creative experiments with gravity as the participants fell into the river.

Willamette Riverkeeper works in close partnership with Oregon State Parks and Recreation, local cities and counties, Wenonah Canoe and Current Designs Kayaks.

"We want people to fall in love with the river. They get on it, develop a relationship with the river and become a steward to protect it. It's endearing; we want people coming back and doing it over and over again."

In 2014 Paddle Oregon will make additional offerings. Learn more at

Courtesy Willamette Riverkeeper

Courtesy Willamette Riverkeeper