Willamette River Festival Returns in 2020—With a New Look

By Matt Wastradowski

When COVID-19 first hit Oregon in the spring of 2020, it would have been disappointing (but understandable) for Willamette River Festival organizers to postpone their summer event and regroup for 2021.

But Michelle Emmons, South Valley advocate for Willamette Riverkeeper and director of the Willamette River Festival, said that organizers saw a unique opportunity: With medical professionals encouraging us to get outdoors, what if the festival could be reimagined for a world where social distancing is the norm, not the exception, and where attendees could experience the Willamette River at their own pace, on their own schedule? (Roughly 70% of Oregon’s population lives in the Willamette Valley, after all, and within a short distance of the river.)

Months of brainstorming and planning will culminate in the fourth annual Willamette River Festival, happening Aug. 15-22, 2020, along the Willamette River around Eugene and Springfield. And the reworked festival, chock full of self-guided and unscheduled events, will look remarkably different than in the past.

COVID-19 Presents Challenges, Opportunities

Even as COVID-19 became a fact of life throughout the Willamette Valley, Emmons said organizers sensed an opportunity to get people outside and resisted canceling the event altogether. “The outdoors have become the space that people are getting out to as much as possible,” she said. “Bringing people to nature is a great way to foster some happiness, and it’s just good for the soul.”

So with coordinated, in-person activities off the table, festival organizers wondered how to encourage visitors to commune with and learn about the 187-mile-long river at the heart of the festival—all in the safest manner possible. They even turned to a few online platforms, like Instagram and iNaturalist, to bridge the digital divide while offering a dose of interactive fun.

People canoeing and paddleboarding along the Willamette River

Events Offer a Variety of Ways to Connect with the Willamette River

What they settled on were a series of self-guided events that could be done solo or in small groups, and at a convenient schedule for attendees.

Those events include:

PaddleCross Challenge: Paddlers can tackle a route between the Alton Baker Canoe Canal and the Whilamut Natural Area in Eugene and Springfield, all on their own time. Registered paddlers can virtually record their times or paddle just for fun; all registrants who complete the route will receive a special finisher’s patch for their efforts.

Kalapuya “Talking Stones” Cultural Walking Tour: The self-guided walking tour of the Whilamut Natural Area showcases indigenous history, culture, artwork, and more along the Willamette River.

UpStream Art Stormwater Cycling Tour: Who says you need to get onto the Willamette River to appreciate its regional importance? This self-guided cycling tour showcases 21 murals and stormwater restoration features that raise awareness of the importance of storm drains and their connection to our rivers.

Other events include instructional videos on stand-up paddling, canoeing, kayaking, and rafting; plant and animal identification projects; a plein air painting competition; and a Willamette River clean-up project.

If those events seem designed to deepen connections with—and understandings of—the Willamette River, that’s by design. Emmons said one of the festival’s goals this year is to get beyond the basics to encourage a proactive appreciation for the massive waterway. “Nature is moving forward, and we are part of nature,” she says. “So this event gives people the chance to play a role as part of nature and learn more about it.”

Interested attendees can visit the festival website for a full list of events and registration information.