As of July 12, Portlanders can follow a newly-cut path right down to the city's first designated swimming area along the Willamette River. Poet’s Beach, so named for the stones that border the path—engraved with Chinook words as well as area schoolchildren’s poetic tributes to the river—sits on a divot of formerly inaccessible waterfront right beneath I-5's western bridgehead.
To get people in the water, long a goal of river advocates like Willie Levenson of the Human Access Project, the city launched a pilot program to transform this 7,000-square-foot swath into a sandy shore suitable for swimming—one that the public is now welcome to enjoy from July 12 through Labor Day. On the site, you will find amenities such as picnic tables, trash cans, bike racks, portable toilets, a life jacket borrowing station, and lifeguards on duty seven days a week, 11 a.m.–7 p.m.
And before you ask—yes, the water's safe. "The river's clean enough to enjoy," says Diane Dulken, a spokesperson for the city's Bureau of Environmental Services. "It's clean enough because of the Big Pipe, and we know this because we test every week."
No need to take these words at face value. The agency posts the results of its weekly tests for bacteria like E. coli at five different sites along the Willamette River—ongoing since May—right here, for you to check.
Mayor Ted Wheeler is scheduled to be among the project's early adopters. On July 13, you can catch Wheeler (in between City Council meetings) making a Big Splash as he and representatives of the Human Access Project take a scheduled midmorning river plunge.
Levenson says he first came across Poet’s Beach in 2011; back then, it looked nothing like a beach, covered in rocks and completely off-putting. “When I walked over the field of riprap rock, I was wondering if it was legal for me to be there,” says Levenson. “It communicated so much ‘do not go here,’ that I literally wasn’t sure.”
According to Levenson, a proper human access point to the river starts with three key elements: a sign to call out the access point, a safe trail that coaxes someone to the water, and an inviting human habitat. A cleanup project followed the city's formal commitment to the beach concept, with $158,040 dedicated by the mayor for a pilot. These three boxes checked, Poet's Beach now prepares for a wave of summer activity. Just days after its official July 12 opening, the Human Access Project's annual Big Float will begin from here, and on July 29, the Portlandia Mermaid Parade ends here (read more Portland's most magical sea nymph).
“It’s not enough just to have a trail or signage,” explains Levenson. “If you want people to show up on the Willamette River, you need to have beachy areas, trees, trails, and things that are inviting and encourage people to hang out there.”
Ready to go all in for the Willamette River? The city, for one, really hopes so. And hey—there's no harm in at least dipping in your toes.