Taking a plunge into the Willamette
How triathlon training changed one OEC staffer's mind about the Willamette River.
Last month I read an article about how 90% of Portland-area residents claimed they would not swim in the Willamette. This 90% used to include me, and I love water! In particular, rivers—from the slow meandering ones of my youth to the alpine torrent fed by recent snowfall plunging down rocky terrain. They’re rich in personality. Rivers have quenched my thirst, cooled my body, and provided hours of frolic for my water-loving Lab. In return, I tread lightly upon their shores: I clean up after my pet and I am careful about the products I use, knowing that they can eventually end up in our waterways if we are not careful. I want to preserve the intricate ecosystem that is essential to their health.
Perhaps it’s a stretch to say I “wouldn’t have” swam in the Willamette prior to this fall, but I certainly hadn’t considered it. But when a friend asked me if I would compete in a triathlon with her, I immediately resisted when she mentioned the swim portion would be held in the Willamette River near Cathedral Park. Images of barges and all sorts of commercial uses of the river entered my thoughts, and I realized that while I appreciate the Willamette’s beauty, the industries it sustains, and its navigational support (I’m newish to Portland and it really helps orient me), I’d never seriously considered it as a recreation destination.
After some pause, I signed up for the triathlon. On an early fall evening, I donned my wet suit, swim cap, and goggles and practiced my first swim. While I did find barges, ships heading out to the Columbia, fishing boats, and the errant log and stick, I also found peace. I wasn’t competing for lanes at the gym pool, I wasn’t sneezing as I inhaled chlorine, and I wasn’t swimming in a rectangular box of water. I was traversing an ever-shifting current, feeling the sun in my eyes as I came up for breath, and seeing nature all around me. For a short time, I was an integral part of the gift this river delivers to all of us everyday.