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Willamette River Renaissance

September 21, 2017

It has been an amazing Cinderella summer for Human Access Project (HAP) and our mission of Transforming Portland’s Relationship with the Willamette River. We are now approaching our eighth year of advocacy.

The first six years were marked by slow, but steady, incremental success. Politically speaking, HAP spent our first three years fighting for a seat at the table and the next three developing relationships with the people at the table. The first six years were fulfilling and frequently fun but also hard and sometimes heartbreaking. It was a lesson in patience and positive thinking.

This year, in our seventh year of work, HAP found its Prince Charming in Mayor Wheeler.  Working with he and his staff has been very intense, but also exhilarating and rewarding. Compared to our first six years, big things are now happening fast. It has been thrilling to witness the fruits of hard work put in to cultivate relationships that foster cooperation, civility, and fun.

To me, the highlight of the summer was not the eclipse, it was the official opening of Poet’s Beach in July. This is a project HAP has worked on since the fall of 2013. The Big Float (HAP annual fundraiser) uses this same beach every year for its launch point – since 2011.

In those days, access to this sandy beach area under the Marquam Bridge (Westside) was limited and dangerous. Volunteers had to help floaters cross a 5-foot section of rip-wrap rock to reach the water. It occurred to HAP that if we were to create safer access it would facilitate greater use of this sandy strip and make logistics for The Big Float easier.

In 2014, HAP sought and received permission from Portland Parks & Recreation, Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of State Lands to create a safer path to the beach.  The work consisted of cutting two large five-foot chunks of basalt rock to create an entrance to a new trail and clearing a four-foot wide path through the angular rip-wrap rocks.

HAP hired rock cutter/stone artisan, Pete Andrusko, who has done many public art projects including the Japanese American Historical Plaza in Waterfront Park. As his work progressed, HAP suggested to Pete that it would be cool to etch children’s poetry and Native American Chinook Wawa words on rocks that line the path to the beach. Pete was so inspired by the idea that he offered to do the work for next to nothing to help HAP realize this vision.

In total, HAP fundraised $12,000 to pay for all this work. Ultimately, Parks and Rec approved adding the etchings and Poet’s Beach was “unofficially” born. Two signs were also created (finally installed this summer). When the work was completed, people slowly and steadily started discovering Poet’s Beach and using it. But it was still far off the public radar. Not anymore.

This summer, Mayor Wheeler facilitated $150,000 of funding to make Poet’s Beach an officially recognized City beach, complete with a swim line, lifeguard, and wayfinding signage. Portland Parks and Recreation did an amazing job working through the permitting process, adding a swim line and coordinating to have lifeguards at the site seven days a week for eight hours a day.

The opening of Poet’s Beach is a huge deal. It is the City of Portland’s FIRST OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZED BEACH on the Willamette River! In conjunction with Poet’s Beach opening, Parks and Recreation also added basic safety guidelines for swimming in the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, which HAP helped develop.

Other accomplishments this summer include:

- City of Portland approval for HAP adding 25 life rings to the esplanade downtown (a cost of $11,000 paid for by HAP). This is a basic lifesaving device that virtually every major city with a natural body of water has.

-Over 2,500 people participated in The Big Float 7, our annual fundraiser that earned $40,000 for HAP.

-Over 150 people participated in the 2nd annual HAP Mayoral Swim where over 150 people swam across the river with Mayor Ted, our river champion.

-HAP was featured in a national AP news story which was picked up by everyone from New York Times, to Christian Science Monitor to local papers all over the country. HAP was also featured in the online site Upworthy which has over 11,000,000 followers. HAP’s work is now being recognized around the country and the world!

All living creatures are drawn to water. We cannot stop humans from swimming in rivers (and why would we!). The best we can hope to do, and our moral responsibly, is to direct people to the least risky places to get into the river and engineer these spaces to be as safe as possible. Poet’s Beach is Portland’s first daring dip into the river and it has been an unheralded success. Look for more new access points to surface next summer!

The time of making jokes about our river is over. It’s time to start loving it and taking better care of it – and helping others get into it!