When he moved to Portland 25 years ago, Willie Levenson was looking forward to living near a river again. He had long lived in communities built around their rivers, and, with the Willamette snaking right through the city center, he assumed Portland would be no different.
“Even back then, Portland had this larger-than-life reputation as a green city,” he says. “And I just assumed that the Willamette was where everybody swam. But when I got here, I was indoctrinated with the oral history that it rains a lot and you never put your toe into the Willamette, or it'll kill you, or your skin will flake off, or you'll grow horns... It just didn’t make sense to me that people would beat their chests about being green citizens and then also make jokes about the river.”
Once the city got a handle on the river’s raw sewage levels—you can thank the completion of the Big Pipe project in 2011 for that—Levenson found himself swimming with regularity. But he noticed that his fellow Portlanders were reticent to join him, the long-standing stigma against the river still looming large, even though it was safe to swim. That’s when he launched the Human Access Project, in the hopes of bettering our city’s relationship with its river.
The nonprofit has since been hard at work on an assortment of river-related projects, some small—like advocating for the placement of ladders on various docks—and others larger, like the annual Big Float celebration at Tom McCall Bowl, which earlier this month had its ninth outing. Three years ago, HAP celebrated a major milestone with the opening of Poet’s Beach downtown, the city’s first official swimming beach. And now, after years of work, it marks another milestone with the city’s second official swimming beach, the newly opened Audrey McCall Beach, located on the east side of the river near the Hawthorne Bridge.
Named for Audrey McCall, former First Lady of Oregon and apparently an avid swimmer, the beach has been a work-in-progress for HAP since 2012. For Levenson and crew, the beach’s opening is the product of a considerable amount of labor, including the removal of 20 tons of debris—all done by hand, with the help of volunteers and Multnomah County inmates—and a lengthy process of maneuvering through various bureaucratic hoops.
“I feel like (the project) died 1000 times,” Levenson says. “But we just kept hanging in there.”
So what made this location so appealing? In addition to its natural sandiness and accessibility, Levenson says Audrey McCall Beach is a particularly safe area for swimming: reasonable depth levels, no significant drop-offs, and, in the case of major emergency, it’s located directly next to a fire station. And thanks to HAP's fundraising efforts, it is now the only spot on the city’s portion of the river that stations lifeguards—Friday through Sunday from 2–6 p.m. for the rest of the summer. The organization has also funded a group of trash collectors, working seven days a week to keep the beach clean for swimmers throughout the summer.
With temps expected in the 80s all week, now is the perfect time to dive in.