Oregon Governor Oswald West in 1913 signed legislation designating its ocean beaches as public highways. “The shore of the Pacific Ocean from the Columbia River on the north to the Oregon and California State line on the south, is hereby declared a public highway and shall forever remain open as such to the public.” Driving on the beach used to be common, as did the sight of a motorist frantically trying to get free from soft sand before an incoming tide claimed the vehicle. The law was revised in 1947, changing “public highway” to “recreation area.” In California, beaches are also, by law, public. The wealthy and the famous find that outrageously unfair to them.
Last July, two thousand people gathered under a warm sun at the Tom McCall Bowl near Portland’s Riverplace Marina. Led by the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers, a parade of people, outfitted in colorful swimwear, marched past the Riverplace shops and restaurants. The participants, carrying inner tubes or more elaborate flotation equipment followed the drummers and then turned toward the river at “Poet’s Beach,” a Willamette River entry point under the downtown end of the I-5 Marquam Bridge. The procession followed a path down the embankment and waded into the river. Hundreds of people paddled, or simply floated, letting the current carry them downstream, returning to the Bowl. Back on shore they enjoyed an afternoon of music, refreshments and general merriment. The big party, called The Big Float, celebrated the Willamette River’s return to relative cleanliness – clean enough to swim in, anyway.