Wednesday, February 11, 2015

WHY IS PADDLING IN PORTLAND SO PROBLEMATIC?


View downstream, north, from the tip of Ross Island.
Portland, Oregon is a river city, or so it is said by some. Yes, the Willamette River runs through the middle of Portland on its way to the Columbia River. The meeting of these two rivers is also in Portland. One would think that Portlanders are river people, by which I mean they use their river for many different activities and consider it one of the most important parts of the Portland identity. Well, that is not the case.

Like so many other American cities, Portland was developed along the river, but the river was considered only a place of business between land and water, and a place to dump things people wanted to get rid of. In the past few decades, however, Portland has changed its mind about the river in many ways, and the land along the river is now seen as an amenity and a public and natural resource.

But there are still problems in regards to Portland truly becoming River City. One of those problems is access to the river, not visual access, but physical access. This is especially true for people who want to put a small, human-powered water craft in the river in the downtown area (I'll call these people paddlers). I am a paddler, and the portion of the river that flows through downtown Portland offers a variety of interesting experiences, if I can get to it.
The new Tilikum Crossing transit bridge behind the Ross Island Bridge,
viewed from Ross Island.

This morning Dry Bag Dave and Paddlin' Paul (that's me) loaded our kayaks and gear and headed off to do an easy and relatively short paddling trip. Our goal was to paddle under the new transit bridge, a cable-stayed beauty named Tilikum Crossing, Bridge of the People. The new bridge, that will open in September, will only have light rail trains, buses, cycles and pedestrians; no automobiles or trucks.

So we decided to launch on the east side of the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland and paddle a short distance upstream and under the Tilikum Crossing. There is a low floating public dock just upstream of the Hawthorne Bridge designed for use by rowing and paddle craft where we have launched before. When we arrived there, we found that there are some visitor spots in the parking lot, but parking is limited to 2 hours; not enough for a paddling trip. Parking there used to be for as long as desired. So we got back in the car and drove to the downstream side of the Hawthorne Bridge because it seemed to me we could launch from the dirt beach under the bridge. I know that the Human Access Project has cleared a lot of rocks from that beach so people can get into the river. There were some parking spots in the lot near the Eastbank Esplanade (pay parking, of course), so we figured we could carry the boats to the beach under the bridge. Well, the river was high, and that spot did not have a safe or easy place to launch kayaks.

We had spent a lot of time trying to find a place to put into the river. Our fallback was Willamette Park on the other side of the river and a few miles south of the Tilikum Crossing bridge. We arrived at Willamette Park and found an almost empty large parking lot. I went to buy the parking tag, and it was $1 per hour, or $6 for all day; pretty reasonable. I figured I would put in $4 for 4 hours - plenty of time for our paddling. But as I pushed the time button on the meter, the dollars kept going up, but the hours stayed at 3. Hmmm; well I read the fine print, which informed me that after 3 hours, a full-day fee would be charged. Really? OK, well the Park Bureau needs the money to maintain the park, so I was kind of OK with this scheme.

I went over to the restroom building at the park to get rid of some excess liquid - and the restrooms were "closed for the season." What? No bushes nearby, either. Luckily for us, there were 2 porta-potties on the other side of the parking lot, probably related to work going on in the park. OK, problem solved, but still, I paid my $6, what did I get for it?

We had a terrific paddle of about 7 miles round trip and spent about 3 hours total. But I was disgruntled about the experience of paddling in Portland.

Why isn't there access for paddlers to the Willamette River in the downtown area of Portland? The public dock on the east side and just upstream of the Hawthorne Bridge is a convenient location, but parking is limited to 2 hours. (I later found out that after 3PM parking time is unlimited, but that really only works in the summer when days are longer.) The only places to launch from close to and south of downtown are Willamette Park and Sellwood Park. Going north from downtown, I can only think of Swan Island Lagoon and Cathedral Park, both very far from the downtown area. These four launching opportunities are shown on the map below.
The only four formal and convenient launching spots for paddlers in Portland are shown as red stars.
And by the way, Willamette Park, operated by the Portland Bureau of Parks and Recreation, is set up for power boats. The parking lot is mostly long spaces for trucks and trailers, with a much smaller number of spots for cars (and you get ticketed if you park a car in a truck-trailer spot, even if there are very few truck-trailers in the lot). The ramp into the river is concrete that is deeply ribbed for tire traction - real hell for the hull of my wood kayak. There should be a gravel ramp into the river for canoes, kayaks and other paddle craft to make this facility truly convenient for paddlers.

There is a new ramp that is being described as a kayak launch in the South Waterfront Central District immediately south of downtown; it will be open later this year. It is a narrow concrete sidewalk that I consider to be a tricky launch spot at best, and a dangerous spot especially when the river is low in the summer. Because there is no way to drive a car close to the ramp, and public parking is not located nearby, it will likely be used mostly by people who live in the condos in the South Waterfront who can cart their boat to the ramp without a motor vehicle. This does not solve the problem for the rest of us.

City planners know that river access is a problem, and they are working on ideas to create more and better access. They will need to change some city codes, figure out access and parking for motor vehicles, and also deal with federal agencies that discourage river access because of alleged issues with fish habitat. In the meantime, I'll paddle the downtown stretch of the Willamette once in a great while, and drive to other places on the edges of or away from Portland that are more welcoming to paddlers.

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