The Willamette River certainly doesn't have the sparkling, clear blue waters of, say, the Caribbean. It's more a murky shade of brown, with the occasional stray duck feather floating by.
But for the people who showed up to float in the fairly warm river water for the seventh annual Big Float event, many folks' thought was: Who cares?
Organizers estimated that 2,500 Portlanders made a big splash on Saturday, July 15, dotting the Willamette with colorful and quirky inner tubes, ranging from blow-up slices of pizza and hotdogs to flamingos and unicorns. They floated starting at Poet's Beach under the Marquam Bridge to the Hawthorne Bridge area. But they didn't jump in without a giant parade beforehand.
Not scared of the waters either was Portland mother Ana Precciozzi, who was taking a break from the day's festivities, relaxing on a large piece of driftwood along the bank. Sporting a life vest and cradling a floaty, Precciozzi basked in the sun as she watched her children, Veronica, 12, and Phillip, 13, splash in the distance.
"There seems to be a lot of fear about the quality of the water," she says. "But I have heard about the cleanup efforts and that it's safe to swim. It's a chance to explore the water."
Precciozzi and her family often biked or walked around the downtown waterfront, but jumping into the Willamette wasn't ever really something they contemplated.
'It's your space'
Spreading awareness and changing perceptions are precisely the goals of The Human Access Project, which hosted the event. For the past seven years, the group has prodded Portlanders to use the river as a place to swim. The city of Portland deemed the river safe for swimming just last month after much testing.
"The water has steadily improved year after year, but people still have the impression that it isn't safe. We just want to let people know, the water is fine," says Denise Schurke, board member of the Human Access Project and an organizer of the Big Float event.
Another obstacle, she said, was that people seem to think they had to ask for permission to jump in the Willamette River.
"No, it's your space," she says.
But perceptions are changing, if only by measuring the attendance of the Big Float. The first year, in 2011, the event — started as a means to bring awareness — attracted 1,200 people. They've since doubled that number.
There is admission to the event, which benefits the Human Access Project. Precciozzi says all together, between their entry fees to the event plus buying floaties for she and her children, she spent about $50. But now she can keep the floaties for future swimming in the Willamette.
"If we don't show our kids that the water's OK, they're going to grow up thinking that it's not a place to play," Schurke says. So the group is working to establish more access and bring awareness to the river as a viable recreation area.
"Most people are only used to swimming pools. But being in this space, you're more connected to trees and the soil. It's just a different experience," she says.
The Human Access Project will hold the second annual Mayoral Swim with Mayor Ted Wheeler, who will swim across the Willamette River, on July 27.