Photos by Thomas Teal
YOU MAY NOT KNOW anybody who lives on the river, but I promise you know somebody who knows somebody who lives on the river. In Portland, you're never more than two degrees from a river residence. If you're too lazy to put out the call on Facebook and spend a week exploring the dope-ass boat cribs in your extended network, FEAR NOT, I did it for you.
The most popular way to live on the river is a floating home (not a "houseboat," you asshole—that's like calling a canoe a kayak... in that nobody cares except the people who REALLY care). Floating homes are just houses built on a bunch of logs tied together and then parked at a dock. They're plugged into city water, sewer, and power. The other main types of dwellings are just boats. People who live on boats ("liveaboards") are a bit more adventurous (especially in the bathroom department), but in return they get more freedom, since one can't actually take floating homes out to sea. But boats are still, well, boats.
No matter what you choose to call them, river livers remind me of (pleasant) cult members. Even when they're complaining, boat crib owners have a glint in their eyes... like they found a cheat code to life. Almost every person I interviewed talked about the freedom, the adventure, the perpetual vacation, and the chance to live just outside the normal boundaries of the landlocked. And every one bragged about not having to mow lawns.
- Thomas Teal
Roz is the owner of the food cart Snackrilege that just opened on NE Killingsworth. When we arrived, she had a spread of her house-made vegetarian sandwiches (which were top-notch) and a pitcher of spicy margaritas. She blasted metal from her kitchen and her small dog ran around investigating every sound/smell.
There are plenty of retirees in floating home communities, so Roz and her husband stand out: Theirs was the only crib we toured with a room built around a drum set. But they also fit in perfectly: Roz is incredibly friendly and welcoming. It's no surprise she knows everybody in the community (and many of the ducks) by name.
Roz and Mr. Roz have been in their 800-square-foot floating home for three years and she's quick to evangelize the lifestyle. "Are you thinking of buying a house?" she asked. "You should definitely come live here."
It's easier said than done; there are only a few banks that will finance a floating home. It certainly wasn't easy for Roz and her husband, but she's clearly in love with the decision. I can see why: She's got a huge swim float (a private dock for diving off, which is also useful for staying dry and just kicking it), a hot tub, and a view of the open river.
If the floating home is rocking, it's probably this one.[slideshow-1]
- Thomas Teal
"Write this down: I haven't mowed a lawn since 2010." Like everybody else we met, Rob is proud of his lack of yard. It felt rude to point out that we landlubbers aren't spending the bulk of our waking hours dealing with the scourge of grass cutting.
If he gets bored talking about the dearth of grass, though, he could easily point out what he does have in his front yard: a water slide. If that weren't enough, he's also got a glorious roof deck that makes one feel like he must have made some great life choices along the way.
But the focal point of the house is the second-floor lounge with floor-to-ceiling windows and a wonderfully stocked bar. Regardless of the weather, it would be an amazing place to host a party, or just sit and read and sip something. Rob is happy to consult one of his many cocktail guides and make you something to complete the atmosphere.
There is little to complain about in the life of permanent-vacation home, though Rob admits the ramp is a bummer. Walking to your moorage from the parking lot with armloads of groceries is a pain, and the gate starts to feel like a barrier from the rest of the world.
Still, it's a small price to pay for a cocktail bar, water slide, and week after week of not cutting grass.[slideshow-2]
- Thomas Teal
Miguel is a commercial diver for a living and his hobbies include gold dredging. He spends pretty much all his time on the river already, so it wasn't a huge leap to move there.
It helps that he's a contractor specializing in fixing the floats under floating homes, and he got offered this one for free.
He covered the taxes on it, moved in, and started fixing it up. It's two stories and, while a bit shaky in places, seems like it could be a real beauty when it's finished. And in a visual non-sequitur, there's a beautiful 20-foot-tall fig tree growing on the back deck.
"I don't know where it came from," he says. "I don't really like figs."
His experience working with floating homes makes him popular with neighbors who call him with the kind of problems that can arise in the aqua lifestyle. Sometimes cables break and homes float away. And sometimes a raccoon drunk on free figs is hiding under your house. Regardless, Miguel can help you out.
While his ramp can be a huge pain—his house is at the end of a nearly one-third-mile-long dock—it's also incredibly beautiful in its seclusion. While we could hear freeway noises from several other moorages in town, at Miguel's house you can only hear the bugs. And while we were talking to him, a beaver floated lazily by, paying us no mind at all.[slideshow-3]
Liveaboards have a different lifestyle than the three-story floating mansion types. Rory's been calling his 1970s powerboat (Triple Play) home for the last three years. He's quick to admit that life on the river isn't all beavers and figs. While he does refer to jumping off the back of the boat as "mowing the lawn," he also admits most landlocked homes don't take on water during rainstorms and risk sinking. They also don't spring fuel leaks and make your whole wardrobe smell like diesel.
But even while he discussed the downsides, it never seemed like Rory regretted the decision. Maybe that's because he's got boats in his blood. His dad and grandfather both built boats in Alaska and his great-grandfather was a shipbuilder in Belfast. His family spent several years living on one when he was a kid, and though he says he once "slammed the hatch and stormed off" swearing he'd never ever live on a boat, he's come around.
Although the summer is definitely the season of boating, Rory wistfully describes nights he's spent in the winter, rain pattering around him, the boat gently rocking like a cradle, while curled up in a pile of blankets reading a book. I have to admit it sounded appealing. Then he talked about how cold it is in the mornings, and I didn't want to try it out anymore.
"Boats aren't very well insulated," Rory says, "and essentially your basement is always flooded."
I sheepishly ask him something I've been wondering about.
"Is it difficult to... I don't know... bring somebody back to your place when you live on a boat?" (I guess I thought it might be embarrassing, because I'm dumb.)
"You mean for sex?" he asked.
"Well, sure. Or to teach them knot tying or whatever."
He shrugs noncommittally. "Sex on a boat does seem to be on a lot of bucket lists."
So at least you have that to keep you warm.[slideshow-4]
- Thomas Teal
Mike is set to become one of Portland's newest liveaboards when he moves onto the 36-foot Sunshine Dream in September. He grew up sailing and has been dreaming of moving onto a sailboat full time for a while. This year his daughter graduated from high school and instead of staying in his empty nest, he figured the time was right to move that nest onto the water.
The Sunshine Dream is a beautiful boat—pretty much exactly what I'd picture if you told me to close my eyes and imagine a boat. And like a Harry Potter tent, it's much roomier inside than seems possible.
It's easy to imagine Mike sitting on the bow looking out to sea, or just battening down the hatches (a thing he probably wouldn't actually say, but I can't help myself) and staying in for the night. And while I've heard from other liveaboards that they rarely take their boats out ("it's my house, so it's less fun to hang out on it"), Mike is planning on installing solar panels, taking it out, and living completely off the grid for extended periods of time.
The grid comes up a couple of times when discussing his plans. For Mike, the sailboat is a vehicle of freedom. He has opinions about capitalism, and ways the market is keeping you down that I wouldn't do justice to by reprinting here. But if you want to take breaks from the grid or consider ditching it entirely, a sailboat home is a perfect way to do it. You can plug into power and WiFi when you need it, and then untether and float toward open water for as long as your supplies last.[slideshow-5]
- Thomas Teal
At the intersection of liveaboards and floating homes is Denise's masterpiece, a yellow and red tugboat converted into a three-story dream home. It hauled sugarcane in Hawaii before being converted. Its previous owner had just finished making it into a house when Denise, a retired postal worker, saw it and fell in love. It's easy to see why. It's charming, comfortable, has an incredible view of the river, and IT LOOKS LIKE A TUGBOAT.
For a year and a half, Denise lived in an apartment and rented the tugboat house out on Airbnb to much acclaim. She had a five-star rating, a pile of gushing comments, and profiles in newspapers and magazines. Then the marina she's moored at decided to crack down on vacation rentals and that income dried up overnight, forcing her to move back onboard.
[I asked the marina for comment and was told, "It was always prohibited, because of... you know... the insurance, and you need to be the one on your property, and I'm very busy." *hangs up* ]
I can understand why a private moorage (a gated community) would be touchy about strangers coming and going, but I also feel like all of us lost something—because while walking through the house I kept thinking how fun it would be to stay there.
Now Denise is back living on the tugboat full time, and keeping all the amazing views and the house's incredible charm to herself. It's surprisingly low maintenance and took several minutes of thinking for her to even come up with a single thing she didn't love about it. The pipes froze once. It turned out fine.
In the river cult, that's the difficult life.[slideshow-6]
Want to sample the river lifestyle for an hour without the huge upfront investment of buying a boat? Get a drink at a river bar! There are plenty of great riverside restaurants, but these are actually floating on the river.
A classic touristy tiki bar playing "Jimmy Buffett Radio" constantly. It's crowded on a sunny Sunday evening, so a 30-plus-minute wait for a table means even more Jimmy Buffett. But it's fun to feel like you're this far from Portland without leaving town.
250 NE Tomahawk Island, Slip 22, islandcafepdx.com
This is where the people who brought their tourist friends to the Island Café go to hang out when the out-of-towners are gone. It's all locals and feels much less corny. Plus it's got margaritas on the gun and strong cocktails served in sandcastle-type buckets to share. Okay, maybe that's a touch corny, but in the best way.
2915 NE Marine, thedeck.bz
Newport Seafood Grill at Riverplace
It's on the fancier side, but still welcoming, not too crowded despite being right next to downtown, and the service is excellent, as are the views of the Willamette. Rumor has it a server once quit her job here by doing a backflip off the roof deck into the river, which makes me love it even more. Plus there's a great happy hour. Put on your fanciest sandals.
0425 SW Montgomery, newportseafoodgrill.com