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Agencies with jurisdiction over the river, boat launches say safety will be key factor in determining reopen dates

COURTESY PHOTO: LESSA CLAYTON - Running through locations like Milo McIver State Park and the Mt. Hood National Forest, the Clackamas River is surrounded by nature.

Outdoor enthusiasts are usually looking forward to adventuring on the Clackamas River around this time of year, but many public boat launches are closed because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The body of water that runs through Oregon City, Estacada and the Mt. Hood National Forest has public access points operated by the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon State Parks, Clackamas County Parks and Portland General Electric, all of which are closed. The river itself, over which the Oregon State Marine Board has jurisdiction, remains open.

Fishing is typically a popular activity on the Clackamas River during this time of year, and peak use for activities like floating and kayaking begins in July.

This year, the popular Upper Clackamas Whitewater Festival — which brings hundreds of river enthusiasts to a stretch of the Clackamas that runs through the Mt. Hood National Forest — has been canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Throughout the summer months, there are typically numerous group floats and other activities on the river.

During this time, some homeowners are able to access the river through private access points. Conversely, there have been instances of individuals using public access points amid the closures.

Though all recreation sites on the Mt. Hood National Forest are closed to promote social distancing, forest service staff noted that some visitors to the area are moving barricades to access blocked off locations.

Clackamas County Parks Manager Rick Gruen said the number of people accessing the river through boat launches at Barton and Carver parks "has been fairly minimal."

"On occasion, a couple of people have walked through the park with a paddle board, but it's been marginal. People aren't crashing the gates down," he said.

PMG FILE PHOTO - River enthusiasts make their way along the Clackamas River.

Ashley Massey, public information officer and legislative coordinator for the Oregon State Marine Board, said the organization is encouraging boaters to respect the closure of public access points.

She added that there are many factors to consider when social distancing on the water, including the type of activities and boats, along with the volume of people on the river.

"A 16-foot aluminum fishing boat can allow one person at the bow and one at the stern and maintain 6-feet or more of distance. People who live in the same household can boat together," she said. "It becomes more challenging when two or more friends want to be in the same boat and they need to consider their personal risk of exposure. With paddling in a single-person kayak for example, being able to paddle and maintain a 6-foot distance from another paddler is generally easy to do. The bottom line is all about maintaining distance from others, on land and on the water."

Though it is possible to social distance while on the river, reaching the waterway often presents difficulties.

"In the common areas, parking lots and restrooms, social distancing becomes more of an issue," Massey said.

Looking to the future

Closures at many boat launches and parks along the Clackamas River are scheduled through early May, though the COVID-19 crisis is a quickly evolving situation and openings have the potential to be delayed.

Gruen noted that when the closures are lifted, it will need to be a collaborative effort between agencies.

"If Carver is open, then everybody would go to Carver. It would just be crowding many more people instead of trying to disperse them," he said, adding that it will likely take several weeks to reopen Clackamas County Parks.

Maintenance is continuing at the parks, but seasonal hires still need to be brought on board. Typically, there are 37 of these roles for the county parks.

Though the Marine Board approved a temporary closure of stretches on the Lower Deschutes and John Day rivers because of their remote nature, Masey said that similar action is not currently planned for the Clackamas.

"Everyone is hoping the stay home warnings are working," she continued, noting that land managers along the Deschutes and John Day rivers had asked for the temporary closure. "Safety is our number one priority, and we work very closely with facility owners and marine law enforcement and their assessments before making a closure determination."

Gruen added that safety will be the guiding element as groups involved with recreation on the Clackamas River move forward.

"We all want to see parks and boat ramps open, but the factors are so much more than opening the gates and letting people in," Gruen said, citing the healthy and safety of park staff and visitors as the most important element.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Whitewater activities are popular along stretches of the upper Clackamas River.

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