While the Flying Eagle canoe has been making annual trips up and down the Willamette and Columbia rivers for more than a decade under the guidance of a man who goes by the name "Willow Bill," the St. Helens City Council is now hoping to develop better communication to ensure the canoe is being used properly.
The Flying Eagle, a hand-carved 24-foot-long cedar dugout canoe, was crafted by several canoe aficionados, along with the help of hundreds of Columbia County children, in St. Helens in 2006. Its creation was aligned with the sesquicentennial celebration of the Corps of Discovery Expedition led by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Willow Bill, whose real name is Bill Goulardt, lives part time in Oregon, in Wheeler in Tillamook County, and part time in Nevada. He has regularly been taking the Flying Eagle canoe on trips every summer for the last 12 years, and has acted as an ambassador for the canoe and its rich history, as well as the city of St. Helens.
The canoe originally belonged to the nonprofit St. Helens Community Foundation. Under the foundation's ownership, the city supported the canoe in an auxiliary way while the foundation coordinated with Goulardt to plan annual excursions.
When the foundation dissolved in 2017, however, the city assumed the canoe as an asset. The city now includes the canoe under its property insurance, but the transition left a lot questions unanswered about how the canoe could be used by Goulardt going forward.
Earlier this week, the St. Helens City Council and city staff renewed those discussions.
"When it was the community foundation (Goulardt) would come in to check and make requests sometimes," City Administrator John Walsh explained. "When it became the city's property, it became a different level of interest. We want to ensure that the canoe comes back."
Throughout the summer of 2018 and 2019, Goulardt continued to take interested people on canoe trips on the Columbia and Willamette rivers. Earlier this summer, Goulardt requested support from the City Council to host what he dubbed "Eagle Fest 2019," which was going to be a work party on the city's waterfront.
Earlier this year, the council approved $500 for Goulardt's efforts to repair the canoe and conduct preventative maintenance.
While it's not clear exactly what happened at Eagle Fest, incidents including Goulardt's hosting of a cookout, selling t-shirts, and other activities akin to camping, raised questions from city staff and members of the public.
Goulardt explained that he used the city money, along with his own, to purchase $838 worth of supplies for the canoe, like spar varnish and sandpaper, T-shirts which he intended to sell, and supplies to host a barbecue while working on the canoe on the city's waterfront.
At least one person anonymously accused Goulardt of using the money to purchase marijuana products. Goulardt, who is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments for color cancer, said he uses marijuana for pain management, but denied spending any of the city cash on marijuana products.
"This is a man with stage four colon cancer and I'm spending my time to serve their community to spread the history and love of the Flying Eagle," Goulardt said when asked about the accusation.
Walsh said the council does not have policies in place to account for how discretionary funds are spent by the recipient of the money, and there is an inherent level of trust in the process.
Goulardt said he intends to continue his next canoe trip after his next round of chemotherapy treatment and plans to paddle the canoe through the Multnomah Channel by the end of the summer. This summer marks the 12th year in a row that he has provided people with a hands-on, living history experience, he added.
"If that don't speak truth to my commitment, I don't know," Goulardt said. "I am not done with the canoe this year and we're going to finish in September."
This week, the St. Helens city council held a brief discussion about the arrangement with Goulardt and indicated that while they enjoy his ambassadorship of the canoe, they will request more detailed plans from him regarding his travels next summer.
"I like that Willow Bill gives it life," Mayor Rick Scholl said. He added, however, that with more advance planning, even more could be done with the canoe.
"We're still open to the canoe being used, but we need specific plans to know what's going on," he said.
Councilor Ginny Carlson expressed a similar sentiment.
"We're just done with the last-minute planning," she said.
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