River Rats

Life and death on the Sandy River.



"Back flip!"

"Dooooo iiiiit!"

The pressure's on. Ryan stands on the brow of a sheer rock cliff, 40 vertiginous feet above the rippling green water of the Sandy River. Far below, the beach at Dabney Park is ripe with babes of every description—hotties in bikinis and denim skirts, with glowing tans and luscious curves, bopping to the tunes blasting from a boom box. The guys sport crew cuts and tattoos and torsos ripped from an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial. Every eye is fixed on him. "Juuuump!" they shout. "Come on, brother!"

Ryan brushes his dark hair out of his eyes and hesitates. He's 15, a couple years younger than the crowd staring up at him. As he pauses at the precipice, Yody Lillie, a 20-year-old contractor, clambers up the face of the rock, elbows Ryan away from the prime spot and promptly launches himself over the edge. With a mighty splash and a crown of spray, Lillie plunges deep into the water and does a lazy crawl back to his cheering friends. He hauls himself onto the beach, beads of water winking from the hair on his chest, and takes a swig of beer.

Ryan steps up to the edge and brushes the hair from his eyes again. A week before, a man drowned diving off this cliff—did a belly flop and died of blunt trauma to the chest. A few days later, another man drowned swimming in the same spot. Bad omens. Down on the beach, a honey babe with big brown eyes and a tiny black bikini is watching Ryan intently. "Do it!" shouts a voice. "He's just trying to impress people," mutters another. Ryan gazes down at the river. From up here, the water is hardly inviting. It looks like a slab of concrete. But he can't back down—not now, not with all these people watching. So he steps forward and jumps into the empty air, his hands fluttering in front of him like tiny, broken wings as he hurtles towards the river's face....


Every summer, a fascinating transformation takes place along the banks of Portland's rivers. When the mercury creeps past 90 degrees and the asphalt burns and the sun feels like a furnace, city-dwellers by the thousand descend on rivers like the Sandy, turning them from backcountry brooks into the outdoor equivalent of municipal swimming pools. On a blistering weekend, popular spots like Dabney, a few miles upstream from Troutdale, throng with urban refugees in all their sunburned glory, fleeing the heat and hassle of the concrete jungle in the swift, cool water.

Roughly 180,000 people visit Dabney every year, according to the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department. About a half-million more visit the other parks along the Sandy (Dodge, Oxbow, Lewis & Clark, and Glenn Otto) or just hike down the bank wherever they see an inviting stretch of sand. And that's just one river. Throw in other local waterways like the Clackamas and the Washougal and you're talking about a major sociological phenomenon—especially (if our experience is typical) among young people, blue-collar folks, immigrants and eastsiders. They don't have a cottage on the coast or a yacht at the marina. Hell, they don't have air conditioning. When it gets hot, they can sweat in their houses with the fan cranked on high and the windows open and listen to the neighbors yell at their kids. Or they can head to the river. Beach culture? That's for California. Oregon has river culture—a scene you cruise by inner tube, where social status is measured in the height of the rocks you jump off; where Hispanic evangelicals perform baptisms; where steelheaders cast their lines alongside naked sun-worshippers; and where the chirp of birdsong mixes with the hoot of numbskulls chanting, "Show us yer tits!"

The rivers have drawn a lot of attention over the past few weeks, thanks to a tragic surge in drownings (see map, above) and reports of "wild parties," underage drinking, litter, drug use and public sex. There have been 29 drownings in Oregon since May, an increase from previous summers. Local authorities have turned up the heat, sending officers to patrol the river on jetboats.

Ultimately, however, the conflicts on the water are likely to get worse before they get better. There is something irredeemably wild about the river, wild and lawless and dangerous. Beneath its glittering surface lurk the turbulent currents and opposing forces—law and anarchy, age and youth, civilization and nature—that have characterized America from its earliest days as a republic. They are not going to go away because a few deputies are handing out tickets at a boat launch.


Standing on the rustic, double-decker back porch of his house, Michael Drais gazes out at a postcard view of the Sandy River, which sweeps cool and green through stands of cottonwood, alder and maple, forming a quiet beach known as Big Bend. High above, an osprey patrols the sky while a great blue heron stands on a boulder liked a taciturn, feathery Minuteman.

Drais, a 61-year-old retired lawyer, and his wife, Deborah, a nurse, bought this waterfront property a few hundred yards below Dabney Park for its languorous beauty. But when the temperature hits 85 degrees, this tranquil spot becomes the staging ground for a parade of numbskulls.

On rafts and drift boats, inner tubes and air mattresses, the great blue-collar tide washes up onto the beach (or hikes in from the Columbia River Highway). They come equipped with boom boxes, cell phones, coolers, deck chairs, beer, chips, dogs and barbecues—and leave behind a swath of broken bottles, plastic bags, cigarette butts and human waste.

Last month, when temperatures spiked above 100 degrees, hundreds of people converged onto this beach. "The place was an absolute madhouse," says state trooper Ken Poggi, who was called in to deal with the crowd. "Wall-to-wall people. More people than gravel and sand—the worst I've ever seen." He even busted a teenager for selling pot out of a cooler.

"Since 2003, this nice seductive area has been the party place for all the kids," says Drais. "They can drink, they can smoke dope, they can have sex. The word's out."

From his back porch, Drais and his wife have ringside seats to a show whose cast is always changing but whose script is pretty much the same. "It's become an insoluble and frightening problem," he says.

There is no small irony in Drais' situation. For many years, he fought for the public's right to enjoy this river and its beaches, a battle he waged on behalf of local anglers. In Oregon, the bed and banks of navigable waterways are considered public property up to the ordinary high waterline.

But the definition of "navigable" turns out to be both contentious and extraordinarily complicated.

Steelheaders, alarmed that property owners along the Sandy might try to prevent them from fishing, pressed the Oregon State Land Board to officially declare the river navigable—which in turn would ensure that anglers, boaters, rafters and everyone else would have the right to enjoy it. Drais, a lifelong angler, drafted their legal briefs. The board voted to declare the lower 37.5 miles of the Sandy River navigable on Feb. 7, 2002—the same day, as it happened, that Drais and his wife bought their property at Big Bend.

That ruling, Drais says, "became a door to anybody who wanted to use the river."

Now Drais has to live with the practical consequences of his own philosophy—a situation he finds extremely unpleasant. "The problem is not to keep people out, but to keep the rowdies out," Drais sighs. "The rowdy kids and drunks have chased out the families. Now families don't come here."

As he speaks to a reporter, a couple of teenagers amble along the shore and set up camp on the beach. "That's a case of trespassing right there," mutters Deborah, peering over her glasses at a dude carrying a cooler.

"Come on, the beach is open to everyone," Drais replies.

"But he's walking above the vegetation line." she says. "Is he underage? Is that thing filled with beer?"

Drais shrugs and shakes his head. When they first moved here, they used to go down to the beach every night and pick up the trash. Now they don't bother, unless Deborah happens to spot a broken bottle. The thought of shards of glass slicing up bare feet is more than she can bear. "There's no 911 out here," she says. "You take the heat, the water, the alcohol.... This river is like an accident waiting to happen."


The atmosphere along the Sandy is vaguely reminiscent of a rock show. To float it is to feel like a co-conspirator in some cosmic, subversive enterprise. People wave and shout hello, trade beer for cigarettes or a dry book of matches. Alongside the echo of Harleys blatting down the gorge and the splash of jumping salmon is the unmistakable pulse of sexual energy.

Kicked back on the beach at Dabney, Jesse and Alec relax in a pair of camping chairs. They're both 23, live in Gresham, and work in the construction trades. This afternoon, they have brought a backpack of Bud and a couple of guitars—Jesse plays classical, Alec plays steel string. "We just need the girls now," Jesse grins. As they debate the merits of various spots along the river, their attention is diverted by a group of teenagers slowly floating past them in inner tubes.

"Don't you do that, Matthew Fucking Anderson, I'm not kidding you!" shrieks a girl in a bikini as a young man, presumably Matthew Fucking Anderson himself, attempts to overturn her inner tube. Now another girl from her group swims over and grabs hold of the tube, and the two girls wrestle for possession, squeaking and squirming, a riot of wet hair, tanned legs and pert bottoms.

Sitting on the shore, the two guitarists admire the show. Jesse busts out a minor scale and Alec takes a deep slug off his Bud. "Oregon is the best part of the country," he sighs, as the spectacle floats downstream. "We got the forests, we got the ocean, we got the desert, and we got the river."

A few miles downstream, at the "Cool Pool," a group of eight young people wade into the river with bottles of beer in hand and try to explain the river's allure. "It's close and convenient," says 19-year-old Grant Ottoway of Gresham. "If you don't have air conditioning, and it gets hot—that's when people come out to the river. We come down to cool off, find some cute girls, smoke a little weed, and chill."

He puts his arm around a girl standing next to him, and gives her a grin and a squeeze. The group talks about how the media have blown the dangers out of proportion. "I can float down any rapid on this river and not drown," Ottoway continues, brandishing a bottle of Blue Boar in one hand and a can of Bud in the other. "This river isn't dangerous."

"I'll go different on that," says Amanda, 19. "The currents can be strong."

"For girls, sure," says Grant.

"For girls!?" she exclaims. "For anyone. A lot of people panic in the water. The current is extremely strong."

"You gotta know what you're doing," he replies. "If you're jumping off a bridge into 8-foot water..."

The debate veers into other subjects, as riverside debates are wont to do, such as the practicality of tubing and smoking, and whether most drowning victims are Mexican (in fact, the high proportion of blue-collar and immigrant families on the Sandy means that a lot of drowning victims don't have Anglo surnames.)

Just upstream, a guy with long dreadlocks and cool shades caresses a blond girl in a stripey string bikini who is obviously stoned (she compares a passing cloud to a plate of breadsticks.) His hands wander down her back, tickling her spine, and come to rest on her bikini bottom. It doesn't take a Dr. Kinsey to predict what's going to happen later.


It would be unfair to portray the river as a carnival of sin. Many of the folks on the water seek nothing more depraved than a swim and a chance to do the crossword puzzle. You are almost as likely to encounter Vietnamese Americans catching squawfish as knots of teenagers getting stoned. If you float down the Sandy on a Sunday, you might even see pastor Obdulia Chavarria of the Iglesia Cristiana Camino de Santidad performing a full-immersion baptism. Standing waist-deep in the water, he holds the repentant sinner's hands above his head and intones a fervent prayer. "En el nombre de Jesus, Aleluia!" he cries, plunging the worshipper into the river.

Nonetheless, there is an air of lawlessness, a whiff of the Wild West, hovering over the Sandy River that comes from many factors. First, there is a tangle of different agencies responsible for establishing and enforcing regulations, including the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, the Troutdale City Police, Oregon State Parks, Metro, Oregon State Police, the Division of State Lands, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Forest Service.

In Dabney Park, for example, park rangers until recently did not have jurisdiction over a sandy island that was a favorite hangout for teenage parties, because technically it belonged to the Division of State Lands. "The kids used to stand on the island and thumb their noses at us," says Kevin Price, the assistant area manager for the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department. (This spring, an interagency agreement finally gave rangers the authority to enforce park rules on the island and other public lands adjacent to Dabney.)

Second, long stretches of the river are difficult or impossible to access from the road, unless deputies want to clamber down a steep bank, which is both time-consuming and difficult to accomplish silently. Multnomah County does have a river patrol on a jetboat, but you can hear it coming a long way away. Worse, by August stretches of the river are just too shallow for a patrol boat.

Third, the rules themselves are often arbitrary. Rafts, for example, are supposed to carry whistles and life vests for each passenger. But nothing is required if you float the river in a flimsy pool toy or air mattress—unless you strap it to another pool toy, in which case you can be fined $247 for not carrying a life vest.

The biggest obstacle in policing the river, however, is the fact that it's 50 miles long. Every time authorities crack down on one trouble spot, people simply find another a few miles upstream. "It reminds me of when I was a kid," says Lt. Jason Gates of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. "We used to cruise 82nd Avenue. Then the police cracked down, so we went to 122nd Avenue. Then they cracked down there, so people started cruising on Broadway."

The same process is going on along the Sandy. Several years ago, the most notorious trouble spot was Gordon Creek. Years before that, it was Buck Creek Flats. A few weeks ago, it was Big Bend. By the time this article is published, it will probably be somewhere else.

"If they think they've got it under control, they're sticking their heads in the sand," says fishing guide Bob Plympton. "I've lived here since 1962, and I've watched it go from never seeing anyone but your neighbors to complete chaos."

Some riverside owners, frustrated with what they see as official bungling, are taking matters into their own hands. Plympton's favorite technique is simple but effective—a 130-pound Rottweiler.


Even if, in some Orwellian alternate reality, you could police the Sandy, you could never make it safe. The river is swift, cold and unpredictable. Currents form. Rocks lurk beneath the surface. "This is not a city park," says Lt. Gates. "This is a not a swimming pool. This is a wild river."

That wildness, in fact, is what we really crave when we float the river—otherwise we could just as well go to Dishman Pool or take a beach towel to Jamison Square. We want to get away from the noise and madness of the city, to escape from our bills and our chores and our appointments and disappointments. We want to slip away for a few hours and go where no one can bother us. We know there's a risk—there's always a risk—but we trust our common sense. We want to plunge into our destiny. And if you'll lend us your pump, we'll give you a light.


[Originally published in Willamette Week on 7/19/2006]