Portland Triathlon organizer Jeff Henderson has written a response to my blog last week about swimming a mile in the river with him. Basically he's telling you it's a good idea to do the triathlon, and even invites you to go along and try it. Drop him a line if you're interested. Next swim is this Thursday night at 6pm.


Henderson: Nuts?

In Which I Swim A Mile in Mr. Davis's Wake

Like Mr. Davis, I like to do stupid shit occasionally. Unlike Mr. Davis, I consider swimming in the Willamette neither stupid nor shitty.

I'm the race director for the Freshwater Trust Portland Triathlon. I gave Mr. Davis an orange swim cap last Thursday, one of dozens I handed out to swimmers looking to make themselves more visible in the lean ribbon of river between the Marquam and Morrison Bridges. Nearly every week I jump into its deep blue during summer months, sometimes with others, sometimes alone. Each jump is a calculated assessment of the dangers of the water in that section of the river during that time of year - in other words, in terms of premeditated rationality it's about as far from "idiotic" as you can get.

Continues after the jump.

That same deliberation went into planning for the first edition of the triathlon, in 2007. Had I decided to poll 20 random Portlanders at the Saturday Market, or the Oregonian editorial board, planning would have stopped - no way is it safe to swim, they would have told me. But, much like you're not going to take my word alone that you can safely swim the Willamette, I decided that anecdotal evidence wasn't the best litmus for the triathlon. Maybe the scientists should have a say.

I asked Willamette Riverkeeper about the conditions in the river. And I asked the EPA. Turns out there are myriad kinds of pollution, and its impact on you differs dramatically depending on whether you're a swimmer, a fish, or a fisherman, whether you're at the headwaters, on the bottom near Swan Island, or floating past downtown at RiverPlace Marina.

I explained all of this to Mr. Davis as we made our way down the ramp to the docks below. I had hoped his later regurgitation would be more educational and less gastrointestinal.

The 10,000 acres of parks and natural areas within Portland could easily float within the Willamette River's downtown stretch. Can you imagine the outcry if every Portland Park - Mt. Tabor, Peninsula, Waterfront, Sellwood - was too polluted to enter? I doubt most Portlanders would accept such a thing. But, sadly, years and years of irresponsible river use has left citizens with disgust for the Willamette's present and not much hope for its future.

I've been swimming since I was 6 years old. The Willamette is my park, my playground, as it is for thousands of dragon boaters, kayakers, fishing skiffs, wave runners, and sailboats each year. Last Thursday Mr. Davis experienced one of the rare reverse currents, where the river flows upstream due to Pacific tides (yes, in Portland the Willamette's an estuary). He was also, between panicked gasps and visions of Saint Peter, able to look up into the undercarriages of cars clattering across the Hawthorne's steel deck on their way home - a view few get to see. And he lived to tell about it, despite entirely normal and understandable anxiety from being suspended in a blue abyss for the first time.

The Portland Triathlon is not unique in its freshwater challenges. The New York City Triathlon (with 2,500 participants) annually takes place in the Hudson River, and walking to the swim start includes a floating tour of condoms and dead dogs. In Washington DC, emergency legislation was passed in 2007 to lift the ban on swimming in the Potomac River for one day so The Nation's Triathlon could be held - complete with participant Mayor Adrian Fenty. In contrast to these races, however, the Portland Triathlon has never been forced to cancel its swim segment due to elevated bacteria levels, and not a single person (out of hundreds of annual participants) has ever become sick because of it.

Like Washington DC and New York, Portland struggles with an inadequate sewage system and historically shameful stewardship of the river flowing past its doorstep; unlike many cities, however, a variety of groups, both public and private, are busy cleaning it up.

Though the Willamette is polluted in a variety of different ways (some of which, at certain times, make it unsuitable for swimming), I'd rather do something about it than boilerplate trite sound bites aimed at an underestimated public. City Hall is doing something about it through the Big Pipe Project and sustainable stormwater management. Willamette Riverkeeper is doing something about it by monitoring the river's ecology and spearheading education. Even Mr. Davis is doing something about it by making us uncomfortable.

I want you to be able to join me for a swim on a summer's evening. And I want you to give a damn when you're told you can't.

Thanks, Jeff. And good God, do I ever want to try that swim in the Hudson, now...