Swimming is fine, but so are rhymes at funky Poet's Beach

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - From left, Willie Levenson, Andy Jansky, Tom Vandel, Tod Cordill and John Ostrander help move rocks and clean up the new area at Poets Beach in downtown Portland.A funky strip of Willamette riverfront in downtown Portland has been converted into a usable beach, graced with river-themed poetry by Oregon school children.

The modest beach south of Riverplace Marina — informally dubbed “Poet’s Beach” by Human Access Project ringleader Willie Levenson — hasn’t been used much except during The Big Float, when upwards of 2,000 people take off from there in inner tubes to cross the


Many inner-tubers on The Big Float suggested there needs to be a safer way to get to the water than crossing over rip-rap there, says Levenson, who created the annual event and later formed the nonprofit Human Access Project.

So the group won permission from Portland Parks and Recreation to build a safe gravel footpath leading down to the sandy riverfront. The group also cut some basalt chunks blocking the way, and recruited mason Peter Andrusko to carve excepts of children’s poems into the rocks lining the new path. The etchings also include some basic Chinook words, the indigenous language of the people who once lived along this stretch of the river, along with their translations into


There’s no official name for the beach, previously called Marquam Beach by some. But Levenson likes the sound of Poet’s Beach.

The 30 poem excerpts were selected by Honoring our Rivers, a project of the Willamette Partnership that holds an annual contest of student writing about Oregon’s fragile river systems, compiling it into an anthology.

One of those excerpts, by eighth-grader Makenzie, was written for a previous Honor our Rivers competition, but could well have been written to herald the new public art at the beach:

“Walk down the pathway

Towards the center of all life

Rushing body of magic

Forever flowing to the sea”

There’s also this excerpt from a poem by Anushka, a fourth grader: “As I walk, the tranquility propels me to the river, leading myself inside of me.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - An etched thought near the new Poets Beach in Portland.On Tuesday, July 8, the Human Access Project will host a grand opening party for Poet’s Beach at 5:30 p.m. To start the day, hardy swimmers will meet at 7 a.m. at the dock on the east side of the river near the Hawthorne Bridge. Then, in the inaugural gathering of the new River Huggers Swim Group, folks will swim across the Willamette and back, a journey expected to take 45 minutes.

Dean Hall, who recently swam the entire length of the Willamette River, will lead the way on this first event, Levenson says. Members of the public are invited to join the group swim on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 a.m. “The goal is to get to 100 river huggers by the end of the summer,” he says.

Levenson organized the first Big Float three years ago, as part of his crusade to get Portlanders to open up to the river running through the heart of the city.

The Human Access Project has worked on creating three cleared beach areas in the center city: one at the Hawthorne Bowl at Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park; one across the river, just south of the Hawthorne Bridge, that Levenson dubbed Audrey McCall Park (the former governor’s wife); and Poet’s Beach.

The Big Float raises money for the Human Access Project, which uses the event as a platform to advocate for public beaches and other ways to get Portlanders using the river.

“The Big Float is the world’s laziest revolution,” Levenson says.

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