Activists seek more swimming holes


By Virginia Werner for the Portland Tribune.

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: VIRGINIA WERNER - Human Access Project ringleader Willie Levenson peers over The Ledge, one of the next beach areas he hopes to promote for more public recreational access.

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: VIRGINIA WERNER – Human Access Project ringleader Willie Levenson peers over The Ledge, one of the next beach areas he hopes to promote for more public recreational access.


When people look at the Willamette River, they might see a murky abyss, banked by large uninviting chunks of concrete. Willie Levenson sees a beach.

Levenson is the man behind the nonprofit Human Access Project, the leading advocacy group for increased waterfront access in Portland. After promoting swimming opportunities at three inner-city beaches on the Willamette, the Human Access Project is turning its attention to three new beaches.

It’s not a crime to have fun in the water,” Levenson says. “Sometimes I feel like Kevin Bacon in ‘Footloose.’ I just want people to know they can dance!”

Levenson and Human Access Project volunteers have worked the past few years to promote swimmable beaches at the bowl north of RiverPlace Hotel, an eastside site south of the Hawthorne Bridge and a third locale under the Marquam Bridge.

Last month, Human Access Project hosted 130 people on the Willamette River Swimming Hole Discovery Tour, a river excursion to explore and identify potential new beaches and swimming areas. While the free pint of beer was a draw, the real attraction was the chance to influence the river’s course.

Next swimming areas

As Levenson sees it, the next big opportunities for river access are found in the areas known as the Firehouse Dock and Beach, The Ledge, and the Kevin Duckworth Swim Dock.

“To me, the fact that we packed a boat full of people interested in commenting on the future of the Willamette sends a really strong message that this is an important issue to the people of Portland,” Levenson says.

He believes important issues gain momentum by word of mouth. Last summer Levenson started the River Huggers Swim Team to encourage swimming in the Willamette. He figured that if people saw others having fun in the river, they would follow suit.

Hilary Evarp, an original member of the swim team, says that using the river as a recreational option appeals to her, but she realizes there are factors that prevent more people from joining in the fun.

“People are afraid to get in. Either they think it’s dirty, or don’t like the fact that they are unable to see the bottom, or have concerns about boat traffic,” Evarp says. “I love it when I see a fish jump next to me. A lot of people don’t.”

But the river is cleaner than bystanders might think. In 1991, the city signed an agreement with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to reduce the amount of untreated sewage overflows into the Willamette. Referred to as the Big Pipe Project, the sewer system improvements that were completed by late 2011 eliminated most of the sewage overflows, except during unseasonably heavy rain.

Even with improved river water quality, access still remained an issue.

So Levenson and company cleared concrete and other materials from the ragged beach at Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park near RiverPlace, and convinced the city to install signs notifying people that swimming is permitted there. Over the past few years, they’ve been clearing an east-side site across the river, which Levenson dubbed Audrey McCall Beach in honor of the former governor’s wife. The beach has areas cleared for entrance by foot, and Levenson has seen several people sunbathing and entering the water near its edge.

Then, after obtaining the necessary permits, last July Levenson and his group of volunteers cleared away debris and opened up what they’re calling Poet’s Beach. Located near the Marquam Bridge in downtown Portland, the beach has been thoughtfully designed and includes a pathway lined with rocks inscribed with the poetry of local schoolchildren. To honor the original residents along the river, there also are Chinook words and their English translations.

Getting the city’s attention

Levenson’s movement hasn’t gone unnoticed by the city. Swimming Hole Discovery Tour participants were encouraged to share ideas with planners working on Portland’s next comprehensive land-use plan, designed to guide growth for the next two decades. Surveys were collected by Debbie Bischoff, the senior river planner for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

Bischoff will integrate the feedback into an updated Central City Plan for 2035. One of the aims of the project is to address challenges and opportunities for the Willamette waterfront. This plan ultimately will replace the 1987 Willamette Greenway Plan, intended to enhance the recreational properties of land along the Willamette River.

“Now we’re looking at what we’ve heard from the public at a variety of events, looking at public policy and code and figuring out how to best implement our vision for the future,” Bischoff says.

As Levenson sees it, if people start swimming in the river, they will care more about its well-being and become advocates for keeping it clean.

The Human Access Project will raise funds to add ladders and “Swim at your own risk” signs to the river’s edge. Other short-term goals include a plan to humanely control the geese population, attract more members to the swim team, and create a map that will help people discover the Willamette.

Changing hearts and minds, however, remains the largest obstacle in determining the destiny of the river.

“The biggest challenge is public perception and getting people to reconsider their relationship with the Willamette,” Levenson says. The Human Access Project, he says, is challenging people to answer the questions: “What does it mean to you to live in a green city? Should you be able to swim in a river that runs right through the middle of your town?”


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