When I first heard about Dean Hall, the first person to swim the length of the Willamette River, I had one question in mind: Why hadn’t anyone done it before?
For much of Oregon’s population, the Willamette is omnipresent. As dwellers of the Willamette Valley, it’s difficult to go more than a few days without catching a glimpse of the murky, green river. Humans have inhabited the area surrounding the river for over 10,000 years.
It turns out, Dean had the same question. Here’s a map we put together of his journey to find the answer.
Swimming The Willamette
Each pin on the map indicates where Dean picked up each day, and corresponds to the nearest river mile marker. In total, Dean swam 184 miles — just three miles shy of 187, the river’s true length — in 2.5 to 14-mile chunks each day, depending on his physical stamina, shore accessibility and river conditions.
With just a brief look at some of the days logged on the map, it’s not difficult to imagine why swimmers haven’t exactly jumped at the opportunity to battle with this body of water.
For starters, it’s just plain cold. Even in June and with a wetsuit, Dean encountered 52-degree water and needed breaks to stave off hypothermia. Powerful pockets of rapids, like the two Dean had to swim through on his first day in Eugene, have drowned many swimmers. And since swimming long distances on the river is a relatively rare pastime, some stretches of the Willamette are limited to private docks only, which — without permission for use — could mean swimming up to 20 miles for the next public shore.
But for Dean, the journey was far more than a test of athleticism. On a Facebook blog titled “Swimming in Miracles,” which he created to recount stories and information about his journey, he shared his reasons for the swim:
“I haven’t spent this much time with my dad since I was a kid,” Dean told OPB’s Geoff Norcross on a segment of Think Out Loud.
Along with his father, Dean received assistance from two river guides during iffier parts of the Willamette. He also got his very own fan club: a group of Leukemia and Lymphoma Society volunteers, close friends and family.
When his swim brought him north to Portland, I went to watch Dean swim into Tom McCall Waterfront Park. About a dozen or more supporters were waving signs with Dean’s face printed on them, and wearing bracelets with the phrase “Swimming in Miracles.” I was immediately handed one of each.
“If you’re here for Dean, you’ve gotta take some of these!” a supporter told me.
His blog is chock full of the same enthusiasm. Every one or two days, he posts a paragraph titled “River Whispers” — lessons he’s learned from the swim of the day. Here’s one from day 17 about following your dreams.