The Big Float

August 01, 2011 15:33

The Big Float: Better than by boat

Big Float 2011 In Portland Portland's Big Float 2011

The weather Sunday cooperated big time for The Big Float.

First-ever staging of the event made a big splash, as Portlanders of all nautical abilities – including Mayor Sam Adams – plunged in droves into Willamette River.

Water-loving enthusiasts by the hundreds morphed into a flotilla of floating vessels in the Willamette between the Marquam and Hawthorne bridges.

Adams was among the first wave of inner tubers from shore to shore, but apparently only after having had a change of heart about his inner tube of choice.

In The Big Float promotional video (, Adams, after some handwringing, enthusiastically chooses a yellow inner tube. But he’s seen dripping wet with a blue inner tube after finishing the trip across the Willamette.

Like Adams, many made the voyage in inner tubes – and in colors and designs much more adventurous than yellow or blue. Others journeyed in kayaks, and on rafts and surfboards, even.

Then they partied through afternoon into early evening on the east side of the river, celebrating with drink, food and music.

The Big Float was birthed to raise awareness and spread word that the Willamette is safe for recreational uses, despite its reputation as Oregon’s largest Superfund – as in, grotesquely polluted – site.

Will Levenson, who early this year began organizing the event, passionately shoots down as ill-informed jokes and statements about the Willamette as too polluted and unsafe for swimming and other urban recreation.

"I'm pretty much sick of those jokes," he told The Oregonian in mid-July, adding the Willamette has Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's stamp of approval for swimming almost year-round.

"I think what's happened is that people in Portland don't relate to the Willamette as a river anymore – a river you'd swim in," he said. "It's been urbanized."

That could be changing, if response to The Big Float is any indication. There certainly were no signs of strong-armed convincing or prodding of people into the river by Levenson or some of his friends and similar river believers – including Willamette Riverkeeper ( and City of Portland Office of Healthy Working Rivers.

The culprits, if any, were sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. Those conditions, too, were huge in luring so many to take what The Big Float beckoned as fun, refreshing and safe: a dip in the Willamette.

Article and Photos by Wade Nkrumah