Advocate for swimming in Portland's downtown river shares his thoughts on why he does it

COURTESY: HUMAN ACCESS PROJECT  - Willie Levenson enjoys a swim in the Willamette River. He's one of 150 people who have participated with the River Huggers this summer. They swim downtown in the early mornings and after work. Camaraderie.




Jumping in the water, the river feeling amazing.

What an incredible way to start the day — why wait until after lunch to plunge into a river?

That's how we start our day. 

On a morning with stronger currents, you're reminded our river has tidal influence from the Pacific Ocean, 100 miles away. 

The current is never threatening, but its pull sometimes surprises as your rhythmic spirit takes over and subconscious choices are made in carving your path across the river. 

Our swim does not have chlorine, lap lanes, or flip turns.

Reaching the shores of downtown, we slowly collect and rest a moment, while the lead safety kayaker counts heads to be sure everyone made it across.  

Resting on the shore, looking around, you notice the eclectic collection of heads and shoulders wading in the water. We all have stories, are individuals, yet are all united by our love for our river and our green River Hugger swim caps.  

As summer proceeds, you realize you have become familiar with a lot of these people. 

Is this what community feels like?

You stop mid-way back across and take it all in. The bridges, downtown, the kineticness of the human swimming pod, the movement of the water. Swimming so closely to others, sometimes you imagine we are a bind of migrating salmon. 

Throughout the summer, the sun changes position as the days shorten. Mid-August, the sun shines right in your eyes at the horizon as you swim east. If you play it just right, you can steer directly behind a Hawthorne Bridge piling to eclipse the bright, late summer sun. 

You savor the swim as you climb out of the river, exhilarated, adrenalized and satiated from completing a half- mile swim.  

In the height of summer, you are lost in the sublime, never thinking about the end. But too quickly our season ends like our season started, with darker mornings, cooler temperatures. 

Frequently, it is hard to get out of bed and going in the summer — we are in the river at 7! Laying in bed, more than once, I have thought maybe it's best to linger, rest, and miss a morning swim.

But you do make it, and plunge in, and realize, somehow, you forgot, how incredible, it ALWAYS feels, to be buoyant and immersed in our Willamette River. You're overtaken by a rush and a smile, and kick into gear. 


Yours for the Willamette River,

Willie Levenson

Levenson is ringleader of the Human Access Project. He can be reached at or 503-936-6920

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