10 Ways to Stay Safe While Having Fun on the Willamette Water Trail

By Matt Wastradowski

Signs of spring and summer are everywhere around the Willamette Valley: Temperatures are inching higher every day, farmers are picking their first crops of the growing season, and our world-famous wineries are expanding their outdoor seating for the coming months.

But the changing season also means the chance to paddle the 187-mile-long Willamette Water Trail, which covers the mainstem Willamette River, as well as the Coast Fork Willamette, Middle Fork Willamette, and the McKenzie rivers.

If you’re excited to hit the water this summer, we don’t blame you: After all, where else can you paddle past wineries; see osprey, bald eagles, and herons soaring overhead; and cut through the heart of charming communities along the Willamette River?

We can’t wait to see you on the water—but we wanted to pass along 10 important tips for doing so in a manner that’s safe, fun, and responsible. Whether it involves grabbing a life jacket en route to the river or dressing for chilly conditions, here are 10 tips for staying safe and having fun on the Willamette Water Trail this spring and summer.

Photo by Joey Hamilton

Plan Ahead for a Safe Day on the River

A great day on the water starts with a little advance planning. Keep these tips in mind for a fun outing:

Know your access points: Before you hit the water, make sure your desired boat ramp is open, safe, and operational. The Oregon State Marine Board maintains a map that shows all of the state’s boat ramps—along with each ramp’s status, managing agency, and any additional information that might help inform your plans.

Keep tabs on possible obstructions: Even in the best conditions, debris flows can be a nuisance. Avoid hazards (and enjoy a safe day on the water) by checking out the Oregon State Marine Board’s map of obstructions and alerts.

Fill out (and share) a Float Plan: Fill out a Float Plan (PDF)—with information on where you’re going, what your boat looks like, and what time you’re expected back—and leave it with a friend or relative; if you’re overdue, they can call for help.

Bring the right gear: In this case, “the right gear” includes a Waterway Access Permit if your craft is 10 feet or longer, a properly fitting life jacket or personal floatation device, and a whistle for safety. And if you’re bringing your cell phone on the water, consider slipping it into a dry bag in case it gets wet.

Plan an outing suited to your skill level: If you’re new to paddling, consider a trip that will ensure an enjoyable experience; try to choose a section of river that is protected from wind by natural features (such as a thick forest), has a weak current, and isn’t congested with other users. The official Willamette Water Trail website has numerous recommendations for paddlers of all skill levels.

Photo by Joey Hamilton

Make Smart Choices on the River

Even in ideal conditions, the Willamette River can pose challenges to even the most experienced paddlers. Keep these tips in mind for making the smartest possible choices on the water:

Paddle with a buddy: Paddling with a friend or loved one means one of you can help the other in case of hazards or an emergency—and leads to an all-around safer experience. Not just that, but two people and two vehicles makes the shuttling process easier to put in and take out.

Know what to expect—and paddle accordingly: Several stretches of the Willamette River are peaceful and quiet—but that can be deceiving if you get caught up in the river’s natural beauty, wildlife, and other sites along its banks. Keep river currents, weather, remaining daylight, and your own paddling abilities in mind so you stay safe and healthy on the water.

Dress for the conditions: Oregon is considered a cold-water state, which means many of its bodies of water are 65ºF (18.3ºC) or colder. Even on warm summer days, the Willamette River can feel frigid—so dress in layers and wear synthetic, water-resistant or waterproof clothing. (Even the best of us become swimmers occasionally on these trips—so throw a change of clothes in your dry bag, just in case, and be sure to clip the bag to your craft.) And while you’re at it, sunlight reflects off the river and can mean a quick sunburn—so wear a hat, sunglasses, and other clothing to protect against the sun.

Practice Leave No Trace principles: The idea behind Leave No Trace is to establish a framework for having the smallest possible impact when outdoors. The seven principles of Leave No Trace range from planning ahead to leaving what you find and properly disposing of waste. (Yes, that includes human waste, as well.)

Stay sober: According to the BoatUS Foundation, about half of all boating accidents involve drugs or alcohol—so limit your consumption and partake in moderation when on (or around) the water.

Learn more about safe paddling—and get inspired for your next trip—via the official Willamette Water Trail website.