I want to keep following the river down, but that would be a bit hairy: The North Fork plunges 1,000 feet in its first three miles. So after camping out by the lake, beneath the bright stars, I head about 30 miles down Highway 58 to the tiny town of Oakridge and the delights of breakfast at Stewart's 58 Drive-In. Afterward, I pull my bicycle out of the car and, in a gentle rain, start riding along silky smooth, curving Westfir Road, climbing an almost imperceptible hill that slopes upward for miles, eventually becoming Forest Service Road 19.
I'm within hearing distance of the river now. This section of the North Fork was designated a National Wild and Scenic site in 1988, meaning that it can never be dammed. The river here is a whitecapped snake of cold water, wending through a skinny gorge lined with maples and conifers. In places, the banks rise to 80-foot spires of rock, and as I ride, the sun begins to poke through the clouds. The light overhead is a gray halo.
I pedal upstream for 10 miles or so until the rain comes on again, hard, forcing me to turn back toward the car. But as I descend—faster now, drenched, and shivering a bit—I can't help myself: I keep stopping to take photos. Every twist in the river, every moss-covered rock sheltered by the bough of a fir makes me wistful because I know that, from here north, the Willamette only becomes more tame.
Out of the Wild
In 1868, the same year Simpson's poem sang of a river "racing to the wild forever," the Army Corps of Engineers began dredging the Willamette. Eventually, the Corps built 13 dams on Willamette tributaries to control floods and generate power. A meandering, braided river that once sprawled across its entire floodplain, in some places four miles wide, became a narrow, fast-moving chute. Shallow side channels that had long harbored spawning salmon were dug deep and straight so that steamers could barrel through, carrying timber and wheat.
The river became a freight train, a workhorse, and when I drive toward Eugene and pull off onto a back road, I can see how it's suffered. I'm here to tour the Willamette Confluence Preserve with Chris Orsinger, director of the Friends of Buford Park and Mt. Pisgah. He's tall, with a slight Southern drawl. He meets me at the locked gate of the preserve, which is still closed to the public save for some periodic guided tours.
In his pickup we rumble over a vast, morphing landscape toward the meeting of the Willamette's Middle and Coast Forks. "That pond over there was filled with rebar and old tires," he tells me. "Over there, the county used to dump street sweepings. We found elevated levels of hydrocarbons in the soil. Over there were barrels of old paint."
Now the trash is all gone, and Orsinger recites to me the virtues of the thousands of plants that Friends volunteers have recently put in alongside the dirt roads—Oregon grape, bitter cherry, red flowering currant. "All that vegetation will filter out the sediments," he says. "A healthy floodplain means a diverse assemblage of plants, a diverse assemblage of wildlife."
We keep driving. For six contiguous miles, the frontage along the Middle Fork was once a quarry owned by Eugene based Wildish Land Company. In 1990, Orsinger began visiting the site—and considering the possibilities. In 2006, the Wildish family expressed a willingness to sell. Four years later, the Nature Conservancy purchased those six miles of riverfront for $23.4 million. "Over there," Orsinger says now, "we breached a dike. We opened up those ponds so the river could get in. It's working its fluvial geomorphic processes again. It's braiding; it's inviting to salmon."
Orsinger is so happy, he's like a kid let loose in a sandbox, and when I leave him, I yearn to get in the river and play. In Salem, I stop to join a group kayak tour hosted by Portland-based Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe. As a dozen of us float along for 12 miles, the current is placid; you can just barely sense that it's propelling you north. The river is a half mile wide here, and there are no eddies, no rapids, no whirlpools.
I'm communing with a dredged, tamed Willamette, but the experience is pleasant. At times, I find myself kicking back, my paddle in my lap as I bask in the sun. Ducklings swim in so close that I can work them into my selfies. The journey ends at the Arcane Cellars winery, on the river's banks north of Salem, and along with my fellow kayakers, I imbibe pinot noir made from grapes nourished by the Willamette. I wander down into the reeds on the shore, glass in hand, as the sun sets.