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The Willamette River's Natural History

An Oregon author traces the history of human impact on the Willamette.

Abby Phillips Metzger, author, reads book while sitting on rocks in the Willamette River picture
Photo credit
Photo: Karl Maasdam Photography
Photo caption
Metzger, a Corvallis native, enjoys a quiet moment on the Willamette River.

The Willamette River, one of Oregon's great natural features, helps define the landscape from the northern tip of Portland to just south of Eugene. In her book Meander Scars, Abby Phillips Metzger weaves together the river's natural history and her own experiences.

Q: What was the Willamette like before the Oregon Trail? A: It was a complex, wandering system of braided side channels and sloughs. In winter, high waters drowned the low-lying wetlands, depositing silt and other nutrient-rich matter.

Q: What happened next? A: In the mid-1800s, the river was channelized for shipping and agriculture. Over the course of 150 years, the main stem was dredged, the banks were bolstered, and erosion stripped the bottom to bedrock.

Q: Should we try to "heal" the river? A: I'd say yes. Give it a chance to breathe, while remaining mindful of infrastructure and landowners. For example, working with the Greenbelt Land Trust, some farmers have agreed to conservation easements that allow the Willamette to flood and create new channels.

Q: Can we still glimpse the bygone river? A: Yes! In winter and early spring you can experience the river in all its surging power along Willamette Park in Corvallis. In summer, put in a boat at Irish Bend Park, south of Corvallis, and camp out on a riverside greenway parcel to see little islands and sloughs.

Q: Best way to explore the Willamette? A: Read books by local naturalists or take a raft trip. Once you get to know the waterway, you'll want to protect it.

This article was first published in Summer 2016. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.