Oregon is famous for its scenic waterfalls. In fact, its tallest waterfall, Multnomah Falls, is the most visited natural recreation site in the state, attracting more than 2 million sightseers a year. Yet, the largest waterfall in Oregon is perhaps its least visited.
Even though it’s just a few miles south of Portland, it’s hardly a tourist destination.
That’s because for more than 150 years, Willamette Falls has been surrounded by massive industrial buildings, blocking it from public access.
People who get a glimpse of the falls see it from the far cliffs of Oregon City. Few get close enough to it to feel the spray and hear the thunder of the water, which plummets from basalt cliffs four-stories tall.
It’s the second largest waterfall in the U.S. by volume — the Niagara of the West.
Exploring The Underwater World
The first challenge is getting to the falls.
I enlist the help of Jeremy Monroe and David Herasimtschuk of the nonprofit Freshwaters Illustrated. Fish biologists turned filmmakers, Monroe and Herasimtschuk have a unique window to the life teaming under the murky green waters.
“You go to a place like Willamette Falls and it almost feels like you’re entering like a coral reef,” Herasimtschuk says. “The amount of life and diversity that you see just in the small area is incredible.”
Setting off from the marina in kayaks, they can’t yet see the falls. On either side, the derelict shells of old factories and mills loom higher and higher.
Yet among the backdrop of industry, great blue heron catch fish at the base of the falls, while osprey perch on nests in surrounding trees.
“You can see visually these symbols of our industrial past, but right in front of you is this vibrant, powerful river that’s just teaming with unimaginable life,” Monroe says.
After paddling to the base of the falls and securing their kayaks between the slippery rocks, Monroe and Herasimtschuk set out to photograph. They wear goggles and snorkles, and hold large underwater cameras.
Swimming through the murky green water, dark silhouettes of giant fish appear and disappear. One nearly brushes against Herasimtschuk’s camera. “Swimming with sturgeon almost feels like you’re going back in time, like swimming with dinosaurs,” Herasimtschuk says.
White Sturgeon are so ancient that they are often called "living fossils." They date back more than 200 million years to the Triassic — literally to a time of dinosaurs.
Their bodies are long and narrow, with a sharp fin like a shark, but their noses are blunt, with whisker-like barbels like a catfish. Rather than scales, they have rows of bony plates, called scutes. The largest freshwater fish in North America, their bodies grow their entire life, stretching as long as 20 feet. They can live up to a century.
"When I see a fish like that, I know it’s older than I am, so it’s kind of humbling," Herasimtschuk says. "A lot of the older fish have probably seen a lot of the changes that have happened with this river and lived through it."
Getting right up to the cliffs, they spot what they’ve come to film — a long snake-like creature, clinging to the slick rocks by its suction mouth.
Sometimes mistakenly called an eel, the Pacific lamprey is a rare fish. They are the oldest fish alive today, dating back in the fossil record as far as 500 million years.
Lamprey have no bones, but rather a cartilage skeleton. They have open gill holes on their side and a round mouth.
“They’re so ancient,” Monroe says, “they’re the fish that fish were before fish decided to have paired fins and a jawbone.”
With their suction mouth, they climb the rocks, working their way up the falls.
Like salmon, lamprey are anadromous; born in freshwater, they migrate to the ocean, mature and then return upriver to spawn. It’s now early summer and they’ve come back again, as they have for millions of years.
Catching Her First Lamprey
The annual migration of lamprey to Willamette Falls brings a return of tribal members from across the Northwest, as far away as Idaho.
“Pacific lamprey have always been an important subsistence resource for the tribes,” explains Sara Thompson of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “They’re part of our feasts. They’re part of our ceremonies. They’re part of our dinner tables. And tribal members come out to harvest lamprey to take home and to feed their families, to feed their communities, to provide them to the elders.”
The Begay family, enrolled members of Yakama Nation, have come from their home at Celilo Village.
Celilo Falls was once the largest waterfall of the Northwest, a plentiful fishery of salmon and lamprey, and a cultural hub for Native people since time immemorial. It was inundated by the backwater of the Dalles Dam in 1957.
“Lamprey populations in the Columbia Basin have declined so much in recent history that Willamette Falls is one of the last places where tribal members can still come and harvest,” Thompson says.
Bobby Begay and his daughter, Daisy, carefully climb the slick rocks. Bobby drops into a rushing shoot of whitewater and then reaches his hand to catch Daisy. Together, they wade, swim and scramble over rocks.
Mist envelops Bobby as he disappears into the wall of white falling water. Then he emerges with a wriggling lamprey in hand and passes it to Daisy. Slowly, carefully, they fill a burlap sack with lamprey.
Henry and younger sister, Jackie, watch their dad and older sibling. Then Henry picks his way along the cliffs to a narrow channel of rushing water.
He lies on his belly and reaches into the narrow cleft between rocks. He feels the slick body of a lamprey. Gliding his fingers carefully around it, he squeezes. With a fast recoil, he pulls a lamprey from the water and drops it into a burlap sack held by Daisy.
“It’s rough conditions. It’s navigating around boulders. It’s slick. There’s a lot of water. And so it’s not something that’s done by the elders in the community,” Thompson says. “So it falls on the responsibility of the younger generation to come out here, harvest the lamprey and take it back to their communities.”
Henry teaches his sister, Jackie, showing her how to reach as deep as she can.
Suddenly, she pulls her hand back, holding her very first lamprey. She grins. Jackie has now joined a proud lineage of her ancestors.
“It hasn't changed much over the years,” Thompson says. “To me, it speaks to the perseverance, and that’s perseverance about tribal culture, tribal members and their perseverance to carry on their traditions in face of a changing world.”
The Hidden Fish Ladder
Lamprey can work their way up the falls with their mouths, but salmon have a harder time.
They once swam and leapt up the many small fissures of the cliff walls. But mills and factories began to cover the original waterways with cement and divert the water’s flow.
In 1882, locals blasted a stair-step channel in the basalt with dynamite, making the first fish ladder.
In 1971, a new fish ladder was developed. Today, it is hidden in the depths of a massive cement bunker.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife District Fish Biologist Tom Murtagh agrees to take me into its concrete depths.
To access, we first pass through the massive empty rooms of a defunct paper mill. Then we emerge outside, climb a staircase blocked by a chain. Then we go through an unmarked metal door into a cluttered windowless room that looks like a place maintenance workers store paint cans and tools. Murtagh pushes a nondescript button and an elevator door opens. It's like a scene from a "James Bond" movie where a secret elevator leads to an underground high-tech lair.
The elevator descends. Then opens, revealing a small room with a desk and computer, and a mounted camera pointed at a single illuminated window glowing with algae-green water rushing past. A few dozen lamprey cling to the window glass. Every few minutes, a salmon swims by in a flash of silver. The camera records the passing fish 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“Close to 30,000 Chinook are all coming through the fish ladders here at Willamette Falls and migrating upstream,” Murtagh says. “All steelhead and Chinook that move up the Willamette River are federally listed under the Environmental Species Act and so it’s critical for us, as fish managers, to know what numbers of wild fish we have and what the overall trends over time are so we can best manage those species.”
The Archeology Of Industry
To walk through the old factories is like exploring an archeology site —layers of buildings have been built on buildings.
Brian Moore from Metro points out a hole in the floor of the old Blue Heron Paper mill — it once held a three-story tall machine. Now you can see all the way to the original foundation of the old flour mill, which was built in 1844 — 15 years before Oregon became a state.
These shells of concrete and steel once echoed with saw blades and grinding presses that turned Oregon old growth timber into pulp. At one point, this mill supplied most of the newsprint for the West Coast, including for the Los Angeles Times.
These buildings hold the story of many firsts. Here in 1888 — 10 years after the invention of the light bulb — a power plant was built to harness the flow of the water to spin turbines. Copper lines were strung on poles from the new plant to the city of Portland, some 14 miles downriver.
At the time, no one knew if it would work.
The following year, when the switch was thrown and electricity surged through the lines, history was made: the first long-distance transmission of electricity in the world.
Today, the original “Station A” is nothing more than a hulking cement block, with its massive pipes and spillway gates rusting. But directly across the river is “Station B.” The power company moved the power plant here in 1895. It's been humming ever since. Renamed the T.W. Sulivan Plant, it’s the third-oldest operating hydro plant in the U.S. and it generates enough power for approximately 11,000 homes a year.
With the closing of the Blue Heron Paper mill in 2011, people began to wonder what would happen to the property. What could be sold off for salvage was, then the buildings sat vacant and silent. A few film crews used the location, as it so perfectly evoked an industrial wasteland.
Return To The Falls: A New Vision
Now, the Willamette Legacy Project has a new vision for the falls. A partnership between Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro and the state of Oregon, they want to see people come to Willamette Falls. They envision walkways and businesses, interpretive displays and scenic overlooks.
Already, interest is growing. On sunny days, SUP boarders and kayakers paddle from the marina to the base of the falls. But there is still no way for the public to get near the top of the falls.
Brian Moore of Metro unlocks a gate and leads us along a narrow metal gangway.
Next year, the Willamette Falls Legacy Project hopes to begin its first phase of redevelopment and restoration, a Riverwalk.
Brian stands at the rusting railing of the old powerhouse, the furthest point we can go. We are so close we can feel the mist curling up, brushing against our faces. We are almost eye-level to the rim of the falls, which stretches in a horseshoe curve nearly a quarter mile.
Brian has to raise his voice to be heard over the thunder of falling water. “In 20 years we’re hoping that we’re able to catalyze redevelopment of the whole site to allow public access all the way out to this foundation so people can feel the mist of the falls year round."
With the saws and grinders and looms silent, the roar of the falls has returned, drawing a new generation to experience its power.