How to Swim Safely in the Willamette River


No one ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he and she are not the same people--Heraclitus


Rivers are active, living bodies of water, and despite what looks like a calm, peaceful scene, our Willamette is in a constant state of change:

  • Water levels go up and down
  • Currents change depending on the tide (really!), river level and wind
  • Branches, debris, rocks move around under the surface
  • Boats and jet skis move around over the surface


 How to Swim Safely in the Willamette River 

  •  Know your limits: it is possible to jump off a dock, paddle around and get out without being a strong swimmer.  But don’t find yourself halfway across the river in trouble because you’ve run out of energy. Swimming in the Willamette River requires an intermediate level of skill at a minimum. Can you swim ½ mile in a pool without stopping?  You will need that level of strength and ability to be safe.  If you are not that strong a swimmer, wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Fins help too.
  • Know the water: 

Current of the Willamette River varies based on rainfall and the tide.  Wind may cause choppiness making swimming challenging even for the strongest of swimmers. Know the weather forecast and avoid swimming in strong winds and thunderstorms.


River temperature varies.  Be particularly careful May through June when air temperatures are in the 80's but water temperature may be in the 50's.  From Late June through August, the water is typically perfect (68-72 degrees). Temps start to drop fast come September.  Limit your time in cold water.  


HAP strongly advises against swimming once the water temperature drops below 65 degrees. You can check the Willamette River’s current temperature, velocity, and more at the U.S. Geological Survey site

  • Don’t swim alone: have a safety paddler whenever possible--for visibility and safety there is no substitute for a SUP or kayak paddler. At the very least, swim with a buddy.
  • Be visible and audible: carry a safety whistle and wear a brightly-colored swim cap. Use a brightly colored Safety Buoy.  This brightly colored, Orange floating, dry bag is helpful for visibility and in case you need to rest for a few minutes and float.  You can also carry personal items inside!  Don't swim in the dark.  You can purchase an Orange Safety Buoy at River Hugger swims for $45.  All proceeds of sales benefit Human Access Project. 
  • Swim close to shore. Channel crossing is much more dangerous that you might think. Tug boats, barges, and motor boats are not looking for swimmers and will may not see you. Even jet skis often don’t see swimmers. Stay close to shore where it’s safer.
  • If you want to cross the channel, do so with the HAP River Huggers! We have swims from the Fire Station 21 dock on the east side of the river, M/W/F mornings and T/Th evenings. Intermediate and advanced swimmers are warmly welcomed. Feel free to bring your swim fins.
  • Don’t swallow the water and try to avoid getting it in your mouth. Shower thoroughly with soap and warm water after swimming.  Don’t swim in the rare instances when an algae bloom is present.
  • Learn CPR: In the time it might take for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could make a difference in someone's life.
  • No swimming under the influence:  Alcohol and drugs can impair your judgement and put you at risk for getting in over your head.  Swimming altered is a major contributing factor in many drowning deaths.
  • Practice ‘leave no trace’ swimming: pack out what you packed in, and consider bringing a plastic bag along when you come put to play in the river.  That way, you can pick up a little extra trash on your way out and contribute tothe health and beauty of the city's largest public space.
  • Be respectful of our dedicated public safety officials.  The Fire Station 21 generously makes their dock available to HAP but they always have first priority on the access ramp and on the dock.  Do not ring the bell of the station or interfere with the work at fire station in any way.  


We at the Human Access Project take the above rules as law. We hope all swimmers will as well, but remember: there’s no guarantee that following them will keep you 100% safe. Swimming is risky, like any other outdoor sport: biking, skiing, hiking, you name it. By swimming in the Willamette, you assume the responsibility for that risk, and the Human Access Project cannot be held liable for situations that arise. Having said that, we hope you’ll join us in loving up our wonderful Willamette, either with the River Huggers swims or in events like The Big Float –-- or both!


How to Enjoy the Willamette Beaches Safely


Swimming and wading are allowed on the Willamette.  However, there are no lifeguards on duty. Beach users swim at their own risk. Parents are urged to be vigilant watching children near the water. The river can have swift currents and water depths can vary.  Some safety suggestions:

  • Never swim alone. Always practice the buddy system while in the water.
  • Always enter water feet first.  There are sharp rocks and possibly glass present--always wear water shoes.
  • Know the terrain. Be aware that the river bed can drop off rapidly and can have a strong current.  There may be hidden obstacles in natural water sites including floating debris, logs or underwater boulders.
  • Learn to swim. Formal swimming lessons can protect young children from drowning. However, even when children have had formal swimming lessons, constant, careful supervision is necessary when children are in or around the water.
  • Watch waders or swimmers in or around the water. Designate a responsible adult who can swim and knows CPR to watch swimmers in or around water, especially children. The supervisor should not be involved in any other distracting activity (such as reading, or talking on the phone) while watching children.
  • Use life jackets (or other PFDs). Do not use air-filled or foam toys, such as "water wings", "noodles", or inner-tubes, in place of life jackets. These toys are not designed to keep swimmers safe.
  • Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation and basic first aid. These skills could save someone’s life.
  • Never dive or jump off bridges. Winter storms can shift underwater boulders, creating summer diving hazards where none existed the year before.

                                                                                               Be Safe, and Let’s Enjoy Our River!