Regenerative tourism the new frontier along the Willamette River | local


The Willamette River symbolizes many things for Oregonians who grew up on its banks — carefree childhood summers, lazy float trips and, for some, a lifelong career in environmentalism.

River tourism is often extractive, however, according to Christina Rehklau, executive director for Visit Corvallis. We take and take from the places we visit on our weekend excursions without a second thought of what we can give back.

“You go to a destination and experience it,” Rehklau said. “You take the memories home, but what are you contributing to the community you’re visiting?”

Regenerative tourism is a new pilot program on the Willamette River where people can take two-day trips to do some form of community service adjacent to the river, such as improve fire-impacted areas or help with river cleanup, and spend the next day paddling on the water.

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“Regenerative trips are a key priority moving forward,” said Katie McFall, who works for the Willamette Valley Visitors Association. “It’s about giving back to the area you’re visiting and enjoying it simultaneously.”

Information about upcoming regenerative trips is available at www.eventbrite.com/cc/willamette-river-regenerative-tour-series-312389.

McFall is a champion of the Willamette River Trail Project, another effort to promote river tourism by tying together communities along the Willamette River. As more and more cities shift their identity to move back toward the river, McFall says the goal is to utilize the Willamette as the asset it is.

She convened a committee in September 2019 with other groups affiliated with the Willamette Valley Visitors Association to try and create cohesive messaging about the river from Eugene to Milwaukie.

“A lot of the state’s population lives within a 10-minute drive of the river,” McFall said. “It’s a world-class water trail. We’re trying to give it the love and attention it deserves.”

While the river may be a world-class trail, it can also be dangerous when used without caution. River fatalities skyrocketed in 2020, McFall said, many of which could have been prevented with lifejackets.

“We needed to come up with safety messaging so new boaters could know the river,” she said.

There was also a lot more trash along the riverbanks in 2020 due to an uptick in people spending time outdoors during the pandemic and public restrooms being closed.

In response, McFall’s committee applied for grant funding to build five new lifejacket kiosks along the river, two of which are in Corvallis. The group got additional funding for river cleanups and helped pilot a river safety program for BIPOC and LGBTQ groups, as well as veterans, formerly houseless individuals and low-income communities.

McFall said in 2021 they saw a significant decrease in river fatalities, and 2022 has been fairly low as well considering how high the water remained late in the summer.

To promote economic tourism in communities along the river, the group worked with engineers at Oregon State University to design a locker system in Independence so people can secure their kayaks and take a break from the river while contributing to local businesses. The group plans to add more of these locker systems in other cities along the river trail.

“People can paddle all the way from Eugene to Portland,” McFall said.

Many people are interested in spending time on the river but may not have the needed equipment or knowledge of where to start and end. Willamette Tides is a new adventure company in Corvallis that aims to increase river accessibility by providing rafts, tubes and kayaks (and life jackets of course!), as well as a shuttle service to the starting point.

There are three routes to choose from — the two-hour Voyage, the four-hour Journey and the one-night River Camp.

Information about Willamette Tides, which started in July, is available at www.willamettetides.com.

“It’s an opportunity for people who don’t have vehicles or kayaks,” McFall said. “The key priority is having a guided service along the river for people to rent because it’s a valuable experience and helps educate people.”

Joanna Mann (she/her) covers education for Mid-Valley Media. She can be contacted at 541-812-6076 or Joanna.Mann@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter at @joanna_mann_.

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