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3. Willamette River, Willamette River Valley

Panoramic view of Portland, Oregon, with the Willamette River in the foreground and Mount Hood in the back.
The Willamette runs right through downtown Portland, the state’s largest city. 

The Willamette is a 187 mile river which drains the northwest quadrant of Oregon through its floodplain, the Willamette Valley. This river valley is incredibly fertile making it for great agriculture including many vineyards, and it touches numerous cities on the I5 corridor. The Willamette is a thread of connectivity for anyone in its vicinity. It also goes right through downtown Portland, reminding me of Chicago River, one of the best kayaking spots near Chicago, although with fewer crowds.

Disneyland for boaters

Further up in the watershed there are some stout whitewater runs housed in a multitude of forks that attract hardshell enthusiasts (the real deal, big kid rapid-runners). Down river, towards the mouth, the Willamette is a haven for water skiers, trollers and other motorboatists. 

The down river can be affected by the coastal pressure cells, gails and tides that ride upriver through the Columbia and haunt the confluence point near Sauvies Island, an area that doesn’t quite qualify as sea kayaking, but tidal and brackish all the same. Scappoose Bay makes a nice and super mellow half-day kayaking outing if you’re in the area.  

Retrace the steps (and paddle strokes) of early settlers 

When I think of the Willamette River, I think of fertile soils growing grapes for wine and monuments to historic events like Champoeg State Heritage Area. Kalapuya Indians, fur trappers, explorers and settlers all passed through the Willamette River Valley and you can retrace some of their steps by kayaking from Champoeg to Canby Ferry, perhaps a 5 mile jaunt down river. 

Accessible terrain

This stretch of river has no whitewater though it is deep and wide. Not only does a Champoeg launch give you the chance to camp on-site and explore the park’s offerings like Manson Barn and Farmstead (a 1860s-style garden and barn) and the Pioneer Memorial Building (a pavilion and plaza on the banks of the Willamette marks the site of the famous 1843 vote that formed the first government in the Northwest), there are gorgeous wild pheasants roaming the premises and tons of facilities and amenities to be taken advantage of.

Having grown up in the Willamette Valley myself, just a stone’s throw away from Champoe in southwest Portland, the river holds lots of meaning. The McKenzie River, mentioned later in this article, drains into the Willamette and it connects to the Columbia which the Deschutes drains into. The Willamette has been a thoroughfare since the days of yore in what is now the I-5 corridor. It’s a common ground—or common waters oasis—that has connected river recreationalists, sleepy farm operators and urban commerce movers and shakers since time immemorial. 

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