The 8th Big Float event, taking place in front of the Hawthorne Bridge at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland, Ore., is hosted by the Human Access Project to encourage people to swim in the Willamette River. 

The 8th Big Float event, taking place in front of the Hawthorne Bridge at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland, Ore., is hosted by the Human Access Project to encourage people to swim in the Willamette River. 

Miranda Daviduk/OPB

Willie Levenson wants Portlanders to fall in love with their hometown river, and he’s betting a refreshing summer swim will help.

The co-owner of Popina Swimwear founded the Human Access Project to encourage people to swim in the Willamette with annual events like The Big Float.

He lead the charge to create the new Audrey McCall (named for the late first lady of Oregon) swimming beach near the Hawthorne Bridge, which will officially open Friday.

A long history of sewer overflows and toxic pollution sullied the Willamette and its reputation, but that’s changing with regulation, sewer upgrades and cleanups. Now city and state officials agree the river is clean enough for swimming.

That is, Levenson says, if you can find a way in.

“It’s really challenging to figure out where you can get into the river,” he said. “I thought I found this place under the Hawthorne Bridge, but it was cluttered with concrete chunks.”

Levenson worked with prison inmates to remove 19 tons of concrete from the river to create the city’s second swimming beach: this one on the river’s east bank. He also had a hand in creating Poet’s Beach, the city’s first official swimming area. It’s on the west bank of the Willamette near the Marquam Bridge.

After successfully lobbying for city planning funds to help create the new swimming beach, Levenson’s group raised the money needed to pay for permits and lifeguards.

“All of these people are saying it’s safe to swim, but the city is providing virtually no direction on where to swim,” Levenson said. “We need to start telling people where we want them to go because we’re at risk of people pioneering their own spots.”

His group will be working with a group of low income can and bottle collectors called Ground Score to keep the new swimming beach clean.

They’re holding an opening ceremony with the Grand Ronde Tribe at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Fire Station Dock on the east side of the Willamette River near the Hawthorne Bridge.