Eugene Weekly : Cover Story : 9.30.2010


Bob Gundelach and his new friend

Loving the Willamette
Paddle Oregon is an immersion school
Story & Photos by Ted Taylor

Day four of Paddle Oregon: One of the group’s naturalists, Bob Gundelach of Walterville, found a dead sucker floating along the bank of the Willamette River. I made the mistake of grabbing my camera and yelling something like, “Hey Bob, resuscitate that fish!” I am left with an image in my brain that is not easy to expunge. And now you have it, too. Some people love the Willamette and its wildlife a little too much.

Wildlife, mostly very alive, was abundant this year when Paddle Oregon maneuvered down the relatively calm Willamette between Eugene and Willamette Mission State Park north of Salem. The 100-mile trip took five days between Aug. 16 and Aug. 20. 

Only a few of the 100 or so boats capsized in rapids along the way, but mine of was one of them on day five. I was pulled to shallower water by rescue-trained pod leaders, and like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, I arose from the depths and slogged to the beach, dripping and shivering. My dozen pod-mates gathered around to help me out of my layers of wet clothes and into dry gear. I enjoy public nudity as much as any Kansas native, but I left my pants on, remembering that extended immersion in cold water has an unflattering effect on the male anatomy.

Pod leader Sam Hass demonstrates a turning maneuver
Daniel Partner in his kevlar adirondack guideboat.
Steel-reinforced riprap.
Getting up close to a patch of wapato.

The river was oddly deserted in the middle of August. Every mile has pristine beaches, gravel bars and sandy flats for free camping, but the only tents we saw were occupied by homeless people near Corvallis and Albany bridges. 

So why would anyone spend $595 to float a section of the Willamette that’s otherwise free for anyone with an inner tube or boat? Paddle Oregon is an excellent and relatively economical eco-tourism vacation: It’s close, physically challenging and sometimes exciting; the paddle skills training is extensive; the scenery and wildlife are marvelous; the food, beer and wine are top notch; and the trip supports a good cause. Much like Cycle Oregon, Paddle Oregon provides gear shuttles, campsites, entertainment, showers and other amenities. Camaraderie is another strong attraction. Kayakers and canoeists delight in eyeballing each other’s boats and gear, sharing skills and tips, and telling tall tales of their whitewater and ocean exploits around the world. 

For Willamette Riverkeeper’s Executive Director, Travis Williams, Paddle Oregon is all that plus a recruiting and fundraising tool. “Paddle Oregon has brought new people into the fold and we get a lot of folks who maybe haven’t done a lot of river travel and are not well acquainted with the Willamette,” he says. “I think we have built some awareness and connections with the community.”

Williams says more than 1,400 people have participated in Paddle Oregon over the past 10 years, and “over time these people have gotten involved in different ways in support of us.” This year nearly half of the 120-plus participants were new to the event.

Volunteers help out with fundraising, letter writing, tree planting and other riparian restoration, riverbank cleanup, water quality monitoring, fish surveys, outreach and education. Volunteers also help with river trips and other events.

Paddle Oregon is also an opportunity for the Riverkeeper staff and other environmental advocates to get out from behind their desks and recharge their batteries before winter. 

“The river is a place where you can get away and experience sights and sounds and wildlife that you might not have assumed existed along the Willamette,” says Williams. “Today we saw a great egret. It flew right over our boats, made a big circle and landed in a tree and took off again. Combine that with the great blue heron, bald eagles, occasional northern harrier, kingfishers, water fowl and mink.”

My boat partner from Coos Bay was the aptly named Daniel Partner, and we shared his sleek Adinrondack guideboat, the only rowboat on the trip. He mostly rowed while I paddled and steered. We faced each other, so together we observed wildlife all around us: dozens of osprey and ducks, green and blue herons, killdeer, sandpipers, mussels and other invertebrates of every sort, a lamprey, a sturgeon and other fish, otters, mink, deer and distinctive aquatic plant life such as wapato.

Some odd wildlife could also be observed in the campgrounds after everyone had come ashore, pulled their gear from the trucks, set up tents and hung out wet gear to dry. Paddlers young and old tend to be high-energy party animals. The last night of the trip turned into a talent show, silly skits and a bizarre queen contest complete with women and men in prom dresses and costumes, singing, dancing and telling bad jokes. 

Along with all the river fun, camp follies, yoga, massage, live music and wine tasting (and maybe a little romance in the moonlight) came some serious talk about the health of the Willamette — the river system that has shaped and formed our valley over millennia, and a river we rely on today for drinking water, irrigation, fish and myriad other wildlife. 

The Riverkeeper folks talked about the negative impact that various riverbank modifications have had on water quality, temperature and wildlife. Over the years all kinds of riprap, posts, netting and even junked cars and appliances have been dumped along the banks in an attempt to control the natural meandering of the river channel. Side channels and backwaters have been bulldozed, drained, cut off and diverted, and their shade trees cut. Many of these projects, both legal and illegal, have taken their toll on the health of the river. In his 2009 book, The Willamette River Field Guide, Williams writes about alternative methods for riverbank stabilization that help protect riparian habitat.

Dams on the upper river and its tributaries such as the McKenzie and Coast Fork have interfered with fish passage and raised the temperature of the water. Should they be removed? Not necessarily.

Williams says the dams that are being removed today, such as on the Rogue River system, are “primarily private dams where you have an investor and it no longer makes sense, and it costs too much money to retrofit it and make it right, or ones that are decrepit, or ones that are borderline and with public pressure you get over that line.”

But, he says, “Try to imagine doing that with the EWEB projects on the McKenzie. It’s a different ballgame, and then extrapolate that to the federal projects. But I think it’s something for people to think about: If there are ways of dealing with flooding in certain areas that are not always hydropower or flood control dams, there are certain projects that maybe can be drawn down.” He says lower water levels in dams would benefit the river, and the dams would still be there for emergencies, such as flooding from rapid snow melt.

Gravel mining is also a big issue for the health of the Willamette. ODOT bridge and interchange projects along I-5 demand huge amounts of gravel, rock and sand, and the river system has not recovered from the scars of past mining operations along the river, and sometimes actually in the river. Heavy gravel mining continues today.

Pollution in the river has many sources: city sewage, failed septic systems, agricultural runoff, industrial waste, erosion and untreated stormwater. It’s a constant concern for Willamette Riverkeeper, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, watershed councils and dozens of environmental and recreational organizations. 

What Williams and others want to see is large-scale public and private investment in protecting and restoring the river system from its sources high in the Cascades to its confluence with the Columbia River 187 miles below. Without that investment and commitment, future population growth and climate change will exacerbate the already serious challenges facing the river and the diversity of life that its clean, cold water sustains. 

A slide show of photos from Paddle Oregon trips can be found at 

Things Learned On the River

• The Willamette is one of the largest rivers in the lower 48 states that runs north. It is also the only major river system that begins and ends in the same state. River mile 0 is where the Willamette flows into the Columbia north of Portland. RM 187 is at Waldo Lake, one of the river’s sources. The spring at Clear Lake feeding the McKenzie is another source. The Coast Fork starts above Cottage Grove Reservoir.

• About 2.4 million people live in the Willamette Valley, about 70 percent of Oregon’s population. Population growth has been projected to four million by 2050, and that number could grow even larger if Oregon sees an influx of “climate refugees” from dryer states. (The growth could also be less if the recession continues and the Oregon job market declines.)

• Water quality in the Willamette is fairly good in the Eugene-Springfield area, but worsens as the river flows toward Portland, picking up agricultural and industrial pollution, treated municipal sewage, runoff from roads and parking lots, and dirty stormwater from residential and commercial properties. The river does get an infusion of cold, clean water from the Santiam confluence north of Albany.

• Eugene gets its drinking water from the McKenzie and dumps its treated wastewater into the Willamette. Corvallis uses the Willamette for its drinking water, then returns its treated wastewater to the Willamette a few miles downstream.

• Water quality samples are taken at tributary confluences. If pollution is detected, more samples are taken upstream along the tributaries until the source is located. Willamette Riverkeeper collaborates with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in water quality testing.

• Large gravel bars are important to the health of the Willamette. Gravel filters the water and cools it. Abandoned gravel pits can provide opportunities for habitat restoration, particularly if they are opened up for inflow and outflow. The Delta Ponds in Eugene are one such project.

• Small side channels, alcoves and backwaters provide valuable habitat for a variety of wildlife. Vegetation along the banks is much healthier for the river than riprap. Vegetation provides wildlife habitat, erosion control and cooling shade.

• Floodplains along the river are also important to the health of the river and flooding replenishes the land; but most floodplains are now disconnected from the river’s main channel and in use for agriculture. Some private lands along the river and even islands are now protected through conservation easements.

• Eagles and ospreys flying with fish in their talons will turn the fish so that it offers less wind resistance.

• Nutria can be mistaken for beavers, but the non-native nutria are smaller and have rat-like tails. Beavers have large, flat tails. Early explorers, trappers and settlers ate a lot of fatty, chewy beaver tails. Lewis & Clark ate puppies and beavers; Lewis called beaver tail, “a most delicious morsel.”

• Most common trees along the banks of the Willamette are black cottonwoods, Pacific willows, red osier dogwoods, Oregon ash and Douglas firs. Himalayan blackberries and scotch broom are non-native, invasive and often the first plants targeted for removal in restoring riparian habitat.

• Wapato is a large and lush native plant that can be found in quiet backwater areas. Its roots were once used as a staple by Native Americans. Women would wade into the water and pull up wapato roots with their toes and load them into special canoes.

• Western pearlshell mussels live in muddy bottoms of backwaters and side channels. They look like black razor clams and can live more than 100 years. Little is known about them and their role in the ecosystem, but they are currently being studied.

• One of the best sources for information about the river is The Willamette River Field Guide (2009) by Travis Williams, available in most local bookstores or from 

More mundane things learned at Paddle Oregon:

• The Willamette is warmer than the McKenzie, but hypothermia is still a problem when extended immersion happens. A nice layer of body fat helps. Experienced kayakers carry special body heat-retaining pull-over jackets for emergencies. Unfashionable, but effective.

• Zip-lock baggies are fairly useless in keeping anything dry when your boat is going down the river without you.

• Cell phones tend to survive immersion better than digital cameras. One trick to drying out electronics is to take them apart as soon as possible and put the parts in a baggie filled with rice for a few days or even weeks. Memory cards and digital recorders still work after drying out.

• “Croakies” or other elastic bands intended to hold eyeglasses or sunglasses on your head are not much good in your pocket.

• Most “waterproof” suntan lotions are not effective after a few immersions. Getting in and out of boats all day can lead to sunburned feet. Socks and sandals are stylish on the river.

• Paddling skills and stamina will be tested in five days on the river. Ibuprofen is the drug of choice on long paddling trips.

• Man-made obstacles on the river are more hazardous than natural obstacles. Stay clear of the Willamette University Crew Boathouse in Salem, which used to be tucked away in a quiet cove, and now has rapids slamming into it and water flowing under it. Watch for rebar and other hazards near bridges.

• Whirlpools and other big hydraulic phenomena are caused by flowing water encountering big boulders and other irregularities on the river bottom.

• Whistles attached to PFDs are required for Paddle Oregon. One blast means “attention,” two blasts means “boater in the water,” and three blasts means “oh, shit!”

• Wet socks take on a distinctive aroma after several days.

• Few people can truly appreciate the beauty and grace of old and wrinkled bodies dancing half-naked around the fire pit after wine-tasting.

• Total strangers can become lifelong friends after a few days together on the river. 

• Family members and old friends can become people you never want to see again after a few days together on the river.   

— Ted Taylor



It’s the Water
What’s in the Willamette? Whatever flushes, drains and flows
by Camilla Mortensen

Travis Williams

While Amazon Creek, making its murky way through town channeled in concrete banks, doesn’t always scream, “drink me,” most of us tend to think of Oregon streams and rivers as clean, drinkable and eminently swimmable. On hot summer days, the Willamette and the McKenzie beckon us in, inner tube in one hand and beer in another. 

But where does that cool, clear river water come from?

The rain and the snow in the mountains, mainly. But consider all the rain that falls in the cities, on businesses and industrial complexes. That stormwater hits the chemicals and pollutants and mixes with them and then drains into creeks like the Amazon and into our rivers. 

If you or your business has never accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose leaked chemicals or contaminants into the Coast or Middle Fork Willamette, the McKenzie, or any other Oregon rivers and waterways, you might not have heard of the Oregon Clean Water Action Project (OCWAP). But if you have leaked, you’ve probably gotten a letter.

Eugene environmental attorney Doug Quirke founded OCWAP in 1999 and has been working ever since to try to get Lane County and surrounding areas in 100 percent compliance with the Clean Water Act (CWA). OCWAP provides Willamette Riverkeeper (See Paddle Oregon story) with legal representation in CWA enforcement cases.

Massive agricultural facilities, big industries, “when you think about pollution, you think of these first,” Quirke says, but not enough people think about what goes into the stormwater that runs off buildings and businesses.

Quirke says what OCWAP does is “watchdogging.” They review the discharge reports from facilities with CWA permits, thanks to relationships with state agencies like the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the cities of Eugene and Springfield. 

Sometimes, Quirke says, they’re alerted to possible water contamination issues by concerned citizens, or other times he’s just driven by and noticed possible issues. That water you see spraying over stacks of logs as you drive out Hwy 99 to Junction City? It needs to have a permit. All kinds of businesses and construction sites need to have National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for the water they release. For stormwater, as the rain’s runoff flows over impervious surfaces, such as paved streets, parking lots and rooftops, it picks up debris, chemicals, sediment and other pollutants that flow into and contaminate rivers. 

“All this stuff really adds up,” says Travis Williams of Willamette Riverkeeper, who says part of the work they do is keeping people aware of the stormwater issue to help reduce violations.

Water from your bathtub, toilets, sinks and such flows through the sewer system. It’s gets treated before it gets released back into the rivers. It’s not a system without flaws — sometimes the released water is warmer than salmon like it, and things like medications and artificial sweeteners make it through the system and into the rivers. And unfortunately Quirke says even sewage treatment plants have issues. Creswell and Junction City’s sewage treatment plants have had chronic problems, not unlike a recent incident in Portland where heavy rains caused untreated sewage to flow into the Willamette. 

Stormwater as a rule flows straight through the storm drains and back into the waterways directly, without being treated. Thanks to the CWA, businesses have to get a permit for any pollutants that get mixed into their stormwater and find ways to deal with the water if the levels of pollutants are too high. 

Willamette Riverkeeper and OCWAP are trying to clean up the Willamette not only for those folks downstream who get their drinking water from it, but for the fish and wildlife that depend on it. 

If OCWAP finds a violation, the first thing they do is send a letter notifying the company of their intent to sue on behalf of Willamette Riverkeeper. Sometimes there’s a happy ending immediately. Many businesses never intended to pollute, or didn’t realize they had to monitor and report their discharges, and they try to fix the problem right away. Any fines assessed go to local non-profits and watershed councils. Oregon Toxics Alliance has gotten funding from this, as has the Coast Fork Willamette Watershed Coucil, says Quirke. 

Bear Mountain Forest Products, which manufactures wood pellets in Brownsville, is one example Quirke gives of a good solution. In September 2009, OCWAP found Bear Mountain failed to perform to required monitoring, didn’t submit monitoring results to the DEQ and failed to properly address pollution levels. Within one year, Bear Mountain agreed to construct bioswales that capture and treat stormwater, comply with its CWA permit in the future and pay $6,000 to the Marys River Watershed Council for use in water quality-related projects.

On the other hand, other businesses ignore the letter and their pollution problem and hope it goes away. 

Currently OCWAP and Willamette Riverkeeper are taking action against Hearin Forest Industries. The business’ Iowa Street location, which appears to discharge water into the Roosevelt Channel that makes its way into Amazon Creek, has exceeded permitted levels of copper, zinc and oil and grease, as well as the general nastiness known as “suspended solids” in discharges since 2003, OCWAP alleges based on monitoring reports. Despite receiving two notices of intent to sue from Willamette Riverkeeper and OCWAP, the problems haven’t been fixed. 

On Sept. 15, the city of Eugene sent Hearin a letter as well, warning the business that since it had not installed the stormwater settling vault it promised it would in 2008, it has 30 days to start constructing the vault. If Hearin doesn’t comply by Oct. 15, it will be considered a “significant violation of Oregon environmental law” and it will be referred to the DEQ, which can assess civil penalties for each day of violation. This is in addition to OCWAP’s possible lawsuit in federal court. 

Fines and lawsuits can get a little spendy. Thanks to OCWAP, polluting the Willamette doesn’t pay. 

For more on OCWAP’s work and to check out its maps of businesses with CWA permitted discharges, go to