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Less early signups but more sponsors and more momentum spur Human Access Project leader Willie Levenson and his Willamette River leisure seekers.

PMG:  JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Big Float and Human Access Project organizer Willie Levenson outside his wife's store Popina Swimwear. Saturday's 2019 Big Float may not be bigger than ever, but it's more organized.

Prime mover Willie Levenson estimates that signups were down about 15 percent before the July 14 event. Levenson chalks it up to the cool July weather. A burst of sunshine on the day could easily change all that, he says.

What used to be a rag-tag band of pasty party folks floating in the Willamette on inner tubes has become what Levenson tells the Portland Tribune is a "movement disguised as a party." Nowadays it's got hurricane fences, bag storage, air compressors, giant unicorn floats, bands (Blitzen Trapper), proper food and drinks, VIP tickets and corporate sponsors. Levenson makes no apology for the changes, since they are the best way to organize 5,000 people (2018's total) and keep them safe and happy.

This year, he's particularly proud to have Kaiser Permanente as a sponsor, since the presence of a healthcare titan suggests even to haters and scoffers that the water is clean enough to swim in. "You wouldn't have Kaiser Permanente sponsor us if they didn't feel like this was a safe and productive activity," he said.

COURTESY: HUMAN ACCESS PROJECT  - The route floaters and paraders take at the annual Big Float on Portland's Waterfront.

Why swim?

Levenson has his elevator pitch down: "The Big Float does three things. At the individual level, it's a grassroots movement that connects people to our cause, and arms them with culture change opportunities. Two, it's a way to lift up the corporate community and get them invested in our work through sponsorship. And three, at City Hall you know when they see 5,000 voters on the water, it gives you a platform. Ted Wheeler, who's really been a champion of what we do, saying that creating better access is something that's important to him."

The goal of this "day of joy" is for people to enjoy the river instead of fearing it, and hopefully to become environmental activists.

Levenson has been a Human Access Project volunteer for nine years. By day he's in wholesale sales at Popina Swimwear, his wife's company. So, he is used to analyzing data. The Big Float had an 11% survey response in 2018, which is high. Of those people, 60% said it was their very first time going in the river. Fourteen percent identified as non-white.

"I went to Sauvie's Island when we had a hot week in June, there were a lot of communities of color," Levenson said. "And that's what's great about creating these beaches, because it's an equity issue as much as anything else. When you create and direct people to the least risky places get into the river, it's an opportunity to recreate for everyone."

He would like people to tell their friends "You know what? It's time we stop making jokes about this river and dig in and care about it."

Wonderful Copenhagen

He doesn't know of any other urban rivers in the United States with similar ecologically minded events, but he is part of the Urban Swimming Association, formed by people in Brussels and Paris.

"Copenhagen is the shining example of a city that a very urban and embraces its water," Levenson said. "And I draw a lot of inspiration from Boise, Idaho, which has hundred-foot setbacks on either side of the (Boise River). People swim in the river, fish in the river and they have 10 air compressors right at the river's edge. So you can come up with a deflated air tube insulated, float down the river, then have shuttles to go back."

"The thing that moves me most is (famous diver and ocean environmentalist) Jacques Cousteau said people protect what they love. There's a clear connection between recreation and stewardship, if you can get people to the river's edge in the river, there's an intimacy that happens when you connect with the river on that level."

He compares getting into the river to the sensory experience of watching a Blazer game courtside instead of in the 300-seat level.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Floaters parading to the starting point at the Big Float in 2018. The fundraiser for the Human Access Project gets bigger every year by most metrics.


The Human Access Project has created Poet's Beach and more recently Audrey McCall Beach, on the eastside of the river just south of Hawthorne Bridge. "This is a platform for people who otherwise might feel intimidated about getting in the river.," Levenson said. "But because it's a movement disguised as a party, in a way it's like tricking kids eat their vegetables."

He stresses the salmon runs have returned, the oxygen levels are up, and the superfund (polluted) area is downriver of downtown. "When someone says swimming in that river you're going to lose a limb, you're going to grow horns, your skin's gonna flake off,' whatever dumb joke, that is a reflection of people's shame and hopelessness about the river. But if you live in a green community, how can you make a joke about a river that you as a human had a hand in screwing up? There's much more work to be done. But we need to celebrate how far we've come."

Newbies should note his hero is the former governor for whom Waterfront Park is named. "Tom McCall is the person who had the guts to say 'I'm not going to give up on this river.'"

Volunteers can get in free Saturday morning by showing up for a three-hour window of beach cleanup. Floating and/or party entrance on Saturday costs $15.

"We never want cost to be a barrier participate," Levenson said. "Humans understand we have a very great capacity to screw nature up. But when you can unscrew it up, it feels good."

PMG: PORTLAND TRIBUNE  - Big Float and Human Access Project organizer Willie Levenson outside his wife's store Popina Swimwear.

Rock on

Levenson says community cleanups are an example of collectivism, and says by comparison low voter turnout "is an expression that people have given up on collectivism."

He compares it to rock concerts. "Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer, always wanted people to sing along with him, he wanted people to participate. To me, that is what the Big Float represents. There's a very low bar of entry to be an activist. We want to create a lot of unintentional activists. By the time they get out there, they'll see why this is a quality of life issue."

The Big Float has 200 volunteers and the Human Access Project team is between five and 10 people.

"As I recruited people on my team, I looked for four qualities: Cooperative, capable, committed, fun and inclusive," Levenson said. "OK, five things. Because ultimately if you're a genius and a jerk, you can go write a book, I'm not interested in working with you. If I don't crave going on a hike with you, I'm just going to be less inclined to pursue you as somebody to work with."

He sums up the idea of the Big Float thus: "What's crazy is not that we're interested in swimming in this river. What's crazy is that we've moved so far away from believing and being hopeful about our river that people think we are crazy for wanting to do it."

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Floaters parading to the starting point at the Big Float in 2018. The fundraiser for the Human Access Project gets bigger every year by most metrics.

Gates 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Parades at 1 and 2:30 p.m. Floaters line up at Tom McCall Waterfront Bowl with everyone carrying their floats and parade upstream along the Esplanade to the put-in at Poet's Beach under Marquam Bridge. They then float slowly back to a corralled swimming area and the grassy bowl.


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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