The Clackamas River slices through a rocky canyon, cutting a deep divide between Oregon City and Gladstone — just two miles from where it ends at the Willamette. Cars pass overhead on I-205. On hot days, sun-tanned young people leap from the rocks into the Clackamas.
Taneka Burwell-Means specializes in river rescue for American Medical Response, or AMR. She says divers think “no whitewater means no problem.”
“The Clackamas River is very cold and has very swift water — and this area in particular — High Rocks here, is a very deep, narrow channel,” she says. “And they jump in, and they’re surprised to feel how strong that current is, and how quickly it pulls them downstream, quite quickly.”
Over the years, High Rocks earned a reputation — as a place for thrill seekers.
Kirk Stempel is a lieutenant in the Gladstone fire department.
“The kids like to come down here and party,” Stempel says. “If you’re out and about, and you mention High Rocks, it’s like ‘oh yeah, I remember going down there with my buddies.’ Kinda scary.”
AMR set up a station at High Rocks after one terrible month, more than ten years ago.
Taneka Burwell-Means tells the story, “In the summer of 2002, there were three deaths within a 30-day period. Gladstone took efforts to close the park down until they could put lifeguard services in.”
Burwell-Means says lifeguards have averaged up to 40 water assists per summer, ever since.
Two people have drowned with lifeguards around in that time. The lifeguards hand out life jackets — and authorities say the place has mellowed noticeably. But Lieutenant Stempel says that stream of partiers hasn’t stopped — it’s just been redirected.
“Now it’s more the Barton area — the Carver area, not so much High Rocks anymore,” Stempel says.
Visitors haul thousands of salmon and steelhead out of the river every year from Carver up into a stretch where hydroelectric dams tightly regulate the river.
But when officials fret about Barton and Carver parks, fishing isn’t the worry.
Barton Park is 12 miles upriver from Gladstone. Hundreds of people hop into rafts and spend hours floating five miles to Carver.
Steven Azul came out with four friends from Portland for a day on the river.
“I think it’s like a family, so everybody looks out for each other. If you see someone going crazy, you just - ‘OK, come on my raft’, ” Azul says.
Azul’s friend, Michael Broschert says there’s a party atmosphere on — and along — the river.
“Usually pretty respectful, even farther down where there are some houses - you’ll see some of the people who own the property come out, and they’ll have tents and have barbeque going, music going. So it can turn into a pretty fun day just meeting people and partying with the locals.”
But Clackamas County authorities say it’s getting out of hand. The biggest concern is safety.
One problem is the sheer number of people, according to Sgt. Steve Thoroughman. He says numbers have likely gone up since a survey six years ago found more than 400 people an hour getting on the river on the hottest summer days.
“When it’s really busy, you can almost walk from Carver to Barton on people’s rafts, if you wanted to,” Thoroughman says.
On this overcast weekend day, Barton Park is busy, but not that busy. At least six sheriff’s cars — and a police boat — are on site. Officers hope to find people with life jackets. They don’t want to find people carrying alcohol.
But enforcement is messy.
Life jackets are required if you’re in a boat with a hull number, but not if you’re riding an inflatable that the law considers a “pool toy.”
“That’s a boat up there, that’s a pool toy, that’s a pool toy, that’s a pool toy,” Thoroughman points out.
Alcohol is actually legal on the river — but not in the parks people use to get on and off it. Thoroughman doesn’t mention that when he asks rafters what’s in their coolers.
Thoroughman doesn’t have the legal authority to search the coolers. But county officials are working to change that.
At a recent meeting, Clackamas County commissioners related stories from unhappy property owners who are fed up with visitors’ drunken behavior and littering.
County chair John Ludlow is backing a rule change.
“We have our rights to those parks, and we are the owners —- the people are the owners of those parks. So we will be — in all probability — adding more enforcement to really hit it hard for the remainder of this season, if this ordinance passes,” Ludlow says.
Commissioners are scheduled to vote this week to allow police to search coolers at Carver and Barton parks.
They’ve also mentioned using permits to control river access and raise revenue.
Back at Barton Park, local resident Don Burton sits with a clipboard in his hands, counting adults, kids, and rafts as they enter the Clackamas. But Burton is not anti-rafting — far from it.
“Rafting is the best industry you can ever have. If people are going to ride the river, why not provide a service for them to do it safely?” Burton asks.
Don Burton wants a system of shuttle buses or taxis that might contract with the county, to manage the crowds. Some have discussed the possibility of turning a county transportation facility in Barton into a parking area. Both rafters and hikers interested in a nearby trail-under-construction — might use it.
If Michael Broschart is any indication, getting folks to pay for a bus — rather than hitch a ride — could be a hard sell.
“I been here on some big days where there’s just like thousands of people that already flood the place and they actually have taxis down in Carver that can shuttle you back up here. But it’s like ten bucks. Better to just hop in a truck,” according to Broschert.
County officials hope whatever fixes they come up with, they’ll address one more problem that at least some rafters create: trash.
“Last year, during the river cleanup, we actually took out four tons of litter that’d been left behind here,” Thoroughman says.
The next river cleanup is scheduled for the weekend after Labor Day - when raft traffic usually winds down.
Trash in the river is unpleasant enough if you see it, while riding a raft. But more than 300,000 Oregonians drink out of the Clackamas - and there’s stuff in the river you can’t see. Drinking the Clackamas, Tuesday.
View Clackamas: A River In High Demand in a larger map