Portland Adventures
Credit: David Webb

I’m drawn to wild places.

And if I look over the bow of my kayak with tunnel vision, Oregon’s Willamette Falls could be mistaken for such a thing. A tumbling cascade 12 metres tall and 420 metres wide, by volume, Willamette is the second-largest falls in America. In its hyper-oxygenated outflow, white sturgeon leap clear into the air; some half-as-long as my boat. Earlier, we’d passed a small colony of sea lions, arf-arfing from a dock before they plunged into the river precariously close to our paddling group. 

But this is not wilderness. Willamette Falls is juxtaposed with the remnants of heavy industry. This is the site of North America’s first-ever multi-lift navigational locks, the continent’s first long-distance electrical power-transmission line, a fully-functioning fish ladder and paper companies in various current states—the inaugural mill fired-up in 1866 and today only one remains operating. 

Change is coming. Plans for this site aim to blend-in recreational infrastructure: a whitewater park has been proposed and a public-access viewing area is in the works at the old Blue Heron Paper Company. It’s just one more example of how commercial sites in the Greater Portland Area are being redeveloped to connect residents and visitors with environment, culture and local heritage.

Portland AdventuresDavid Webb

Portland, city of hipsters, knows about redevelopment. In the first-half of the 20th century, this urban centre was forged on economic drivers like shipyards and hydroelectric dams. As those projects faded, the relatively lower cost of living drew in cash-strapped artists from cities like Seattle and San Francisco. Dot-com booms-and-busts further lured designers, artists and free-thinkers who set about forging artisan industries and trendy culture-scenes—many of whom now live and work in former warehouse districts. By the 21st century, Portland would become the epicentre of urban hip we know today. In a similar vein, locales around the Greater Portland Area owe industrial roots for their newer outdoorsy ventures. And I’m traversing the region to explore two of the best.

Forty kilometres west of downtown Portland, a redeveloped industrial relic meanders through a lush temperate rainforest. The Banks-Vernonia State Trail is Oregon’s first rails-to-trails development. At 34 kilometres long, this former railway line is nowadays a paved multi-use path designated for non-motorized recreation; the sight of which has me grinning in anticipation as I straddle my bicycle at Hilltop, one of six access-points along the route. 

Rail-trails are my favourite cycling destinations. The steady grade—usually never more than four per cent—makes for pleasant pedalling over long distances. And they represent a cultural shift. These places were once hogged by coal- or diesel-burning leviathans, but have since transitioned to sites of serenity and eco-friendly recreation. The last iron-horse ran along the Banks-Vernonia in 1973, after four decades of hauling logs into Portland and a dozen-or-so years as a passenger car. The trail officially opened in 2010, after being acquired by Oregon State Parks 20 years previous.

Portland AdventuresDavid Webb

Staff at Portland’s Pedal Bike Tours had shuttled our steeds to the trailhead; a handy service for such linear cycles. We’re on a short, 21-kilometre, mostly downhill ride this morning. Its a misty Pacific Northwest day, where rainclouds threaten to soak but never quite do, and the temperature is just cool enough to encourage steady pedalling. 

Just like other rail-trails Ive ridden in British Columbia’s Okanagan and on Vancouver Island, the Banks-Vernonia is cycling euphoria. After a speedy descent to the trailhead, we snake into a mossy forest, roll overtop a curved wooden trestle and pedal through repeating rollercoaster dips. Though the 200-hectare park claims 95,000 annual visitors, we see only a few fellow riders. The trail flattens for the final five kilometres as it trades forest for farmland and briefly traces highways 26 and 47 before its terminus in the town of Banks. Rail-trails such as this hold rich promise: cycle-commuter freeways, urban green spaces and tourism draws. The Banks-Vernonia State Trail is a verdant symbol of how a dead economic engine can be rebuilt into something perpetually useful; a theme omnipresent in the Greater Portland Area.

Sam Drevo also knows a great deal about redeveloping industrial sites. Along with being the owner and head guide of eNRG Kayaking, in Oregon City—about 20 kilometres south of downtown Portland—he is entrenched in an effort to build a new whitewater park at Willamette Falls. The goal is to turn a site with 150 years of manufacturing history into a four-season, active-adventure centre, complementing additional plans for improved public access to the impressive falls. 

Portland AdventuresDavid Webb

As we board our boats and push off from his riverside retail/rental shop on the Willamette River—a major tributary of the Columbia—he speaks of the effort at-length.

“Oregon’s heritage is inextricably linked to Willamette Falls. It is the iconic end of the Oregon Trail. Native Americans gathered here, they fished here and they used the river as a transportation corridor. An authentic and integrated experience, including a whitewater park, would serve to reconnect Oregonians with the Willamette River and Willamette Falls,” explains Drevo, who serves as “chief instigator” and board chair of We Love Clean Rivers and as a sub-committee convener managing tourism grants within the county. “By building a whitewater park, Oregon City and West Linn could attract world-class events and visitors. There is opportunity for a new economy and for improved fish passage.”

I’m trying my best to listen to Drevo’s impassioned speech—but his adorable golden retriever, Mojo, who is nestled in the bow of their open-kayak as comfortably as if he were on an old blanket, steals my attention. Then, the sea lions show up—six of them, each weighing nearly 200 kilograms and barking in symphony. One by one, they leap from a dock next to the decommissioned M.V. Rose, a sternwheeler destined to become a bed-and-breakfast, sending waves strong enough to rock my boat. 

Portland AdventuresSam Drevo

I follow Drevo (and Mojo) under the Oregon City Bridge, a 94-year-old Art-Deco span that occupies a spot on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Ahead, Willamette Falls comes into view—but my concentration is once again hijacked as a sturgeon leaps from the river in front of me. The first fish, more than a metre long, amazes. By the eighth, they seem commonplace. Drevo explains that abundant oxygen in the water, plus rich food sources, seems to give these prehistoric bottom-dwellers excess energy.

Drevo steers us into the Willamette Falls Locks, once used to allow upstream-travel past the cascade. The first of their kind in North America, these multi-lift locks opened for use on New Year’s Day in 1873 and shut down just five years ago. From the locks, we cruise closer to the falls. Drevo points out a fish ladder, which fosters piscatorial transport past the sole remaining power-generating dam, allowing salmon to pass with efficacy in the high 90 percentiles—a number they hope to improve.

“Public access to Willamette Falls is one of [Oregon Metro’s] four core values, and a whitewater park can do well to serve the other three—healthy habitat, historic cultural interpretation and economic redevelopment,” continues Drevo.

Willamette Falls is gorgeous—but even though I have an affinity for exploring unusual urban environs, the surrounding collection of old paper mills is not what I’d call “traditionally picturesque.” However, with lofty plans for eco-tourism infrastructure, it’s comforting to imagine this site—and others like it—as a future green space, or at minimum, a little greener and with a lot more access. It’s redevelopment in the best possible sense. And even under these cloudy Pacific Northwest skies, the future looks bright. 

For More Information

Pedal Bike Tours provides quality bicycle rentals and guided tours in the Greater Portland Area. pedalbiketours.com

eNRG Kayaking offers kayak and stand-up paddleboard tours, courses and rentals.

Learn more about the proposed Willamette Falls Whitewater Park at willamettefallswhitewaterpark.org.

The Bike Concierge, in Oregon City, offers high-performance rentals, shuttles, support vehicles, ship-and-ride services and more. thebikeconcierge.com

Where to Stay

In downtown Portland, book at least one night at the Ace Hotel—arguably the hippest lodging in the city, and home to Stumptown Coffee Roasters for your morning cup and modern small-plate dining at Clyde Common. From $135. acehotel.com/portland

After cycling the Banks-Vernonia Trail, stay at McMenamins Grand Lodge—half haunted-house, half hippie-dream, this former Masonic-lodge-turned-hotel is as unique as they come. From $55. mcmenamins.com/GrandLodge

Lakeshore Inn offers comfortable rooms-with-a-view on Lake Oswego, just a 15-minute drive from eNRG Kayaking and the Willamette River. From $130. thelakeshoreinn.com