Even for native Portlanders, the Willamette River conjures up that massive wide body that winds it's way through the city and divides the East from the West. Some folks cross it multiple times each day. It is perceived as everything from an open sewer to a "party" lake. The murky sepia water has uncommon beauty at dusk, and often windblown, or sparkling in the last light of day can provide a romantic thought or two. People walk and ride bikes over it, they jog and stroll alongside, and they fear it's chaotic, fickle currents. But it's Portland's river, and it rhymes with dammit-the Willamette.
Every great river has to start somewhere and the headwaters of the Willamette tell a different story. I had no idea at the time, but 35 years ago when I drove my old VW bus down the Interstate and east through Eugene and Springfield to Lowell, Oregon, I was almost there. I'd read a classified ad for a teaching job, and armed with nothing more than a college degree and a passion to teach, I interviewed for a position in the little logging town of Lowell.
"Did you ever belong to an organization that advocated violent overthrow of the U.S. government?"
"No, but my last employer was the U.S. government."
Still, they weren't going to give that job to the 23 year old kid who looked like me, hailed from California, and had barely a year of teaching experience.
Last week, on my way to a Trout Unlimited outing at Gold Lake, I took a few hours to go beyond Lowell, on the way to Oakridge, Oregon. Right before Highway 58 scoots through Oakridge, I took the turn for the village of West Fir and then followed Highway 19 up the North fork of the Middle fork of the Willamette. Here the river is a pristine mountain stream. This is a community of covered bridges, folks who hunt and fish, make their own jerky, and are proud of their schools and volunteer fire department.
On this Friday morning, I pulled into a turnout and fished for an hour or so. A few small but beautiful wild rainbows attest to the purity of the Willamette here. They fancied a black stonefly nymph I had tied myself! Only a few cars passed by on the highway above me. Solitude, clean air, rushing water. The river has no idea what's in store once it gets to the big city.