BY BRIAN LIBBY
It’s a body of water I’ve crossed hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and a stretch I’ve walked and biked along just as long. Yet taking a boat ride up the Willamette River last Saturday evening, I couldn’t help but marvel a bit: at the feeling of gliding along the water close enough to reach down and touch it, and at the view from the river to the natural and architectural landscapes along its banks.
This 90-minute tour was between Willamette Park in the John’s Landing area and the Steel Bridge downtown, aboard a tiny restored circa-1932 boat called the MS Wolf, the look of which brought to mind Popeye The Sailor’s vessel. Years ago I’d been on this stretch of river before in a larger ship, the Portland Spirit, for one of its nightly cruises, but never since then. And besides, this was much better. The smaller size of the MS Wolf made for a much more intimate river trip. Instead of canned music like aboard the Spirit, or voice-over narration like on many boat tours, there was a wondrous silence, a lullaby of lapping little waves—although occasionally punctuated by other watercraft blaring music while they water-skied.
After pulling away from the Willamette Park boat launch, the MS Wolf headed east to let us view a succession of houseboats. Just north was Oaks Park’s roller coasters, and we could even hear young screams coming from that direction. Yet there was an easy tranquility going by the houses, which were eclectic architecturally even though they were all about the same size.
Some were in historic styles such as Victorian, while others took a modern tone with tall glass walls facing the water. One, which I believe Portland architect Robert Oshatz designed called the Fennell Residence, seemed to take its formal inspiration from the ripples of the river.
Next we continued into the no-wake area east of Ross Island, where the water was at its most placid and the water populated with kayakers and small craft. As a frequent rider along the Springwater Corridor trail, which here runs along the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, it was an opportunity to see from the view I’d always looked out at from my bicycle. It also was striking to be in the center of a large American city and, going down the river, be surrounded by nature on both sides, with the remainder of Ross Island (that which hasn’t been mined for gravel) to the west and the refuge to the east.
Then, after clearing the natural little canal, we briefly turned the corner and moved into the Ross Island lagoon. What a bizarre shape this island now has, like a wine goblet, since the Ross Island Sand & Gravel company has spent decade after decade removing it in massive barges to become sold for cement.
There is admittedly a kind of rough beauty to industrial facilities, with their tall cranes and rusty, utilitarian forms. Here in the Ross Island lagoon, one could see massive dunes of sand and gravel, as if this was some desolate landscape easily reduced to a commodity.
Yet the juxtapositions here, from wildlife refuge to industrial dredging, and then again to cityscape and bridges along the river, were what captivated me the most. Heavy industry used to claim waterfronts across the world as their domain, yet today they are being reclaimed by the public, be they for recreation or for environmental protection. This boat tour happened on a Saturday, so the Ross Island operation was ceased for the day, lying dormant, which only emphasized the decline of working industrial waterfronts.
The trip then continued north, and our little boat fell under the shadows of a succession of bridges. First there was the Ross Island, towering high above the water. Coming into view at the same time was the South Waterfront district with its burgeoning forest of tall condos and apartment buildings.
With the tram rising upward to Marquam Hill, the bridge ferrying passengers across the river, and both MAX and streetcar rail moving here, not to mention the transit of the river itself, South Waterfront felt like a crossroads all the more. What’s more, I was reminded while looking at its towers catching the sunny late-afternoon light how much more aesthetically pleasing real transparent glass is compared to reflective glass. The Atwater Place condominium building, designed by THA Architects, seemed elegantly draped in glass and translucent, while the twin Meriwether Condominiums buildings (designed by Peter Busby) with their reflective glass felt a little bit like a Houston office tower.
One of my favorite parts of the boatride was the opportunity to see the new TriMet bridge under construction. I’d followed the course of its progress for more than a year, but only catching glimpses of it in the distance from crossing one of the bridges.
Being up close, and even between its not-yet-connected towers, emphasized that this river cruise, like any other, is merely a snapshot, that construction and demolition, fortification and erosion, are a continuous cycle.
The two sides of the bridges looked like hands reaching for each other but unable to touch. But I also thought of how this section of town, on both sides of the river, is about to transform.
Coming into the shadow of the Marquam Bridge showed more signs of life on the east side, with OMSI and the Eastbank Esplanade attracting a throng of people. There were also hundreds crossing the Hawthorne Bridge on foot or by bicycle.
From the river, the Hawthorne feels like the most vibrant bridge in the city, the one most like a city street. It’s not that I didn’t know this before—I cross the Hawthorne numerous times a week—yet the river enables one to see these spans and banks as part of one continuous succession. The Hawthorne Bridge was where the city really started to feel both human and dense, as if the Ross Island and Marquam Bridges were ring roads encircling the city and the Hawthorne was Main Street.
As the MS Wolf continued north and we came alongside the downtown skyline, individual buildings became abstract sculptures, no one building standing out much unless it had a striking form. Though I’ve never been a big fan of the KOIN tower and its neo-historic style, from the water its gently tapering top gave the building a slender elegance most of the other squatty buildings lacked; even the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt federal building, newly re-imagined by James Cutler and SERA Architects with a slanted top for maximizing its rooftop solar panels more effective, felt like just another architectural stump wearing a different hat. The South Waterfront buildings actually felt more aesthetically compelling from this vantage point than downtown, simply because they were taller and thinner.
Being on the river also re-emphasized for me the problem and opportunity with the east side. Too much of the Willamette's east bank in central Portland is dominated by Interstate 5. Of course it would require a massively expensive project to remove the elevated freeway and bury it underground (or re-route it), but it would also free up the east side to a new level of interest and investment in its real estate. More importantly we need easier ways for Portlanders to reach the river from the east side - not just the small entrances to the Eastbank Esplanade at the Morrison, Burnside and Hawthorne bridgeheads but a true stitching of the urban fabric to the water.
Meanwhile, though, it's not urban planning or future development that captured my imagination while aboard the MS Wolf last Saturday. It was the chance to move down a spine of the city that we all cross far more often than we truly interact with. Though Portland is sometimes called the River City, this trip up and down the Willamette served as a reminder that Oregon's wonders are not all outside Portland's city limits, and we could all do more to see the city create places and spaces along the riverbanks that engage this waterway and celebrate its treasure.