The beautiful Willamette river stretches 300 miles across Oregon and weaves its way throughout Eugene providing a place for locals to swim, kayak, see wildlife and connect with nature. This year the Willamette River Festival will celebrate the Willamette and all that it offers to the local community in its fifth year running. The festival takes place from Aug. 21-Aug. 28 and offers a myriad of activities such as a paddling challenge, river recreation activities, self-guided tours of the Willamette and more. The goal of the festival is to celebrate the beauty and diversity of the Eugene area and to inspire residents to actively care for the Willamette River.
The PaddleCross is one of the main attractions that the Willamette River Festival offers. Paddlers sign up to race a loop around Alton Baker Park and are responsible for recording their own time and route through GPS tracking. This year participants can choose to do the paddle on their own and still have their time considered in the competition or attend the actual event that will take place on Aug. 28. Those who do not wish to race competitively can still participate and paddle the loop at their own pace. All participants that register online and complete the loop will receive a digital finisher's recognition and the first 50 to finish will receive prizes.
“The origin of the festival is actually the paddle race, which was just in the canoe canal at Alton Baker Park,” Michelle Emmons, the Upper Watershed Program Manager for the Willamette Riverkeeper, said. Emmons estimated that around 50 people will participate in the PaddleCross this year. “I really love doing the PaddleCross and just getting groups of friends to come and do it with me.”
There are other opportunities to get out on the river for those who aren’t as ambitious. The festival also offers guided paddle and kayak trips with safety support for less experienced river goers. “The festival provides an opportunity for people to experience the river through different kinds of recreation,” Emmons said. “There are canoes, kayaks, SUPs, rafting, as well as opportunities to give back to the river through stewardship.”
Indigenous connection workshops are also offered through the Willamette River Festival. “The Salmon is Everything” performance explains salmon’s importance to the Oregon ecosystem through the story of three families living on the Klamath River during the 2002 fish kill in which 34,000 fish died, deeply impacting the surrounding Indigenous communities. Tribal elders from across Oregon will perform “The Salmon is Everything” on Thursday, Aug. 26 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Island Park Amphitheatre in Springfield.
The Eugene Symphony will round out the week of events with a live performance. The concert — which will include “The Wisdom of the Elders” and the Eugene Symphony — is called “Taking Space for Native Voices” and takes place on Thursday, Aug. 28 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the River Edge Public Plaza in Eugene.
“The “Wisdom of the Elders” is also putting on a traditional and current performance during the concert we’re hosting at our river play event,” Emmons said. “There will also be tours of the new riverfront park, and Wildcraft Cider will be serving some nonalcoholic beverages.”
The event on Aug. 28 is a culmination of the week-long celebration of river life that will feature four locations around the river throughout Eugene, and will include educational opportunities, biking and more water activities. “There will be a location at Maurie Jacobs Park next to the River House Outdoor Center, with the Eugene Fire and Rescue boat and the Eugene Adaptive Services with a cache of adaptive bicycles,” Emmons said. “There’s also a big paddle demo that will happen on the River House beach… with all sorts of watercraft.”
Another activity hub is located at Alton Baker Park. The McKenzie Fly Fishers will have a fly casting clinic, and Nearby Nature will host family Nature Quest Walks. “East Gate Woodlands will host another big hub of activity including Cascadia Wave Whitewater Park tours, a booth from the Parks and Recreation Department, and Eugene Skindivers is doing a snorkeling tour so people can try out river snorkeling,” Emmons said.
The festival also offers a talking stones tour that provides a self guided walk and guided walk through the Whilamut Natural Area that teaches about local Indigenous connections and culture. The talking stones are engraved with words in the Kalapuya language — the tribe that once lived in this area — to reintroduce them to the land. “Marta Clifford, who is Chinook, is leading the tour of the talking stones and also working with Willamette Riverkeeper to give a tour of the Whilamut by canoe,” Emmons said. “We’ll get an opportunity to look at the Whilamut passage crossover murals, which are just under the I-5 bridge.”
“The reason that we do locations all around the river is that it emphasizes the connection between Eugene and Springfield,” Emmons said. “We also don’t want to gather too many people in one spot because of COVID.”
The Willamette River Festival is a safe and fun outdoor activity to do this summer. Their emphasis on the culture of Eugene, the Willamette River and the area’s Indigenous roots creates a festival rich in both knowledge and culture. Details of the festival can be found on their webpage.