For the past decade, thousands of water-loving tubers would grab the most bizarre floatie they could find and shove off into to the Willamette River for The Big Float (TBF), pretty much a massive swim party that also serves as a fundraiser for the Human Access Project (HAP), a nonprofit that’s helped transform some of the beaches along the Willamette—like Poet’s Beach and Audrey McCall Beach—into the local hangout hubs we know and love.
TBF has taken place every July since 2011 (with the exception of 2020 and 2021 due to COVID). This year’s event, on July 10, will be the 10th and final iteration of the giant flotilla.
An excuse for people to gather along the river aboard anything from basic inner tubes to flamingo and unicorn floaties, the Big Float helps raise money for some of the work HAP does to make beaches along the Willamette River safer and more accessible for swimmers. Before the actual float down the river, onlookers are treated to a flashy pre-float parade with a marching band and a line of tubers with floaties in tow as participants walk south to Poet’s Beach, under the Marquam Bridge, and then get in the water to to paddle or float half mile downriver back to Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park. The whole thing culminates with a huge party at Waterfront Park that easily rivals any ’60s beach party film, with live music, food, and booze.
"The 10th anniversary of TBF feels like a party that is 10 years in the making. TBF truly became the movement disguised as a party we hoped it would be,” HAP cofounder and “ringleader” Willie Levenson said in a news release. "I love the event, and HAP is proud of the impact TBF has had on Portland's river culture,” he continued. “But it's a lot of work for our volunteer group.”
Organizers are expecting 5,000 to 7,000 participants this year. The event, which runs from 10 a.m. (when the gates open for check-in) to 6:30 p.m., includes an opening ceremony at 11:45 a.m. at Waterfront Park. Life jackets are required, and if you don’t have your own you can buy one when you register online or purchase one at check-in. If your floaties aren’t blown up, there’s also an Inflation Station at Waterfront Park. The float itself takes anywhere between one to two hours, and passes a River Stage blasting tunes from funk band PERK Portland Grooves. Don’t want to take the entire trip down? There are exit points along the way if the whole route is too much.
The final blowout at Waterfront Park will feature 10 food carts, beer from Ecliptic and Widmer as well as 2 Towns Cider, a slip and slide to keep the kids busy, and free chair massages for adults. There will also be live music from Jujuba, a 10-piece Afro-Cuban band, and Seattle-based rock band the Dusty 45s. Participants who come in costume also have a chance to win prizes for their creative apparel, and there’s also an Outlandish Watercraft award. A few words of advice: wear a hat, sunscreen, and water shoes and bring a paddle for navigating river currents.
“We never expected TBF to go on forever.... We wanted to start a conversation about what our city would feel like if we were truly a city in love with its river,” Levenson tells Portland Monthly. “Today, 11 years after our first event, the impact is clear … more and more people are swimming at Portland's beaches and docks and bringing their friends.”