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The Human Access Project kicks off Willamette River swim season with Mayor Ted Wheeler

TRIBUNE PHOTO: HAILEY STEWART - A River Hugger takes the plunge into the Willamette on Monday, June 18. Nearly 40 swimmers jumped into the Willamette River alongside Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler early Monday morning, kicking off the Human Access Project's swim season for its River Hugger team.

Bright green swim caps and neon orange buoys bobbed in and out of the river after River Huggers left the Station 21 Fire House Dock near the Hawthorne Bridge. Attendees swam half a mile across the river and back, starting at 7 a.m. Monday.

Wheeler said many community members have a outdated notion about the river's water quality, and he encourages people to use the river.

"Most people say it's crazy, but we just want people to come down and swim," Wheeler said.

The swim kicked off the River Hugger Swim Team's season, in which they trek across the river and back before or after work every day from June to September.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: HAILEY STEWART - River Huggers don their wetsuits for their inaugural swim in the Willamette River on Monday, June 18. The Human Access Project is a group of volunteers dedicated to transforming Portland's relationship with the Willamette River, Ringleader Willie Levenson said.

When Levenson moved to Portland several years ago, he noticed a lack of appreciation for the city's main downtown river compared to other river-based cities where he had lived.

"When planning, I drew a lot of inspiration from living in Boise and Virginia," Levenson said. "Those communities had such a strong relationship with their river."

Levenson toyed with the idea of creating a project to aid in that relationship, and after 15 years, the Human Access Project was born.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: HAILEY STEWART - Willie Levenson, Human Access Project ringleader, jumps into the Willamette River early Monday morning.Levenson began organizing "The Big Float," an event that brought 1,300 participants into the Willamette River on inner tubes and other gear, demonstrating it was safe for swimming and other forms of human recreation in 2011.

Levenson said the name for the event came from Portland's Big Pipe project — a 20-year undertaking that was completed in 2011. It entailed the overhaul of the city's wastewater system to divert sewage from flowing into the Willamette River and the Columbia Slough. After completion of the pipe project, the Willamette River became more swimmable, but Levenson said the public's disdain for the river barely wavered.

The Human Access Project has been trying to change that ever since.

"There's a lot of work that needs to be done with any river, but there's a lot of misinformation spread about the Willamette," Levenson said. "Once you get in the water, you realize you're still alive. Then you realize it feels pretty great. And by the time you get out of the river, everyone wants to come back."

Gretchan Jackson, a member of the River Huggers team, said the summer swims have been a good way to begin her mornings for the past four years.

"If you don't wanna keep doing it, you probably shouldn't start," Jackson said. "You'll get hooked."

Levenson said he hopes the project continues to improve water quality and water access. The project's yearly river events, he said, are "movements disguised as a party."

"When we're trying to get our message heard and there are hundreds of voters out on the water, local government really notices that," Levenson said.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: HAILEY STEWART - Mayor Ted Wheeler joined the River Huggers to start their 2018 summer swim season on the Willamette River on Monday, June 18. Wheeler recognized the movement in 2016 when he swam his ballot across the river, in a campaign publicity stunt. He's been swimming across the Willamette River ever since.

"This river is our largest public space. It cuts right through the heart of Portland," Wheeler said. "We encourage people to dive in."

Wheeler said the project is pushing forward with clearing the rocks from the Tom McCall Bowl access point, and hoping it will bring more community members to the shore.

"You can't just be a city next to the river. You have to be a city that can access it," Wheeler said.

Still, Levenson said there is plenty of work to be done with Portland's relationship to the river.

"People still worry about the river, but this sort of action helps normalize utilizing it," he said. "The river belongs to the people, so why not swim?"

Hailey Stewart can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; follow her on Twitter at @Hailey_ann97

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