1996 is a year most people from the PNW are familiar with, its the last mega flood we have seen in the area. That year the Willamette River peaked on February 9th, which coincided with my dads birthday. He and a friend decided to get out and paddle that day. Below is his story.
My friend John Godino and I decided to kayak through downtown Portland to celebrate my 32nd b-day the day the Willamette crested. The water was up to the bottom deck of the Steel Bridge and tons of debris were trapped and pushing up against it. They had the middle section raised, so our big concern was making sure we were in the middle of the river by the time we got there. The water was up to the seawall in downtown and I was planning on paddling over to it and high-fiving the spectators there! We put-in at the park just downstream from the Sellwood Bridge after checking with the Harbor Master (works for the Fire Department) to make sure the river was still open to navigation, and he said that it was. He was a little puzzled as to why I was asking, and I didn't elaborate.
There were a lot of naysayers trying to talk us out of doing it as we geared up. They were convinced we would get wiped-out by the large debris rocketing downstream: huge trees, docks, parts of houseboats, etc. Our theory was that we would be travelling at the same speed as the debris, so the flotsam wasn't likely to sneak up on us. Our thoughts about being "just another piece of debris" turned out to be mostly correct, although the weird currents would occasionally surprise us and something large would suddenly come out of nowhere and rush towards us. The river seemed pretty friendly overall and you could only sense motion when you looked towards the shore and saw it zipping by at 15 miles an hour.
Across the river was a tug-boat that had been working full-time for days pushing upstream to keep a group of houseboats from breaking loose from their moorings. I'm sure that was not cheap, but they won the battle and their moorage ultimately survived. We were feeling very confident after about 5 minutes on the water and were looking forward to our pass through the center of town, when we saw a Multnomah County Sheriff's river patrol boat making a beeline for us. They were visibly angry and started yelling at us as soon as they were within earshot. They said the river was closed and to get on board immediately. As they pulled us and our boats onto the deck, I was starting to worry we were going to get a ticket or worse, so I quickly played the "Fireman Card." I told them I was a Portland firefighter and had checked with our Harbor Master earlier to make sure the river was open to navigation. They said the decision to close it must have come after that conversation, so things cooled down quite a bit at that point. They did contend that we were crazy, but the earlier animosity died down and they offered to drop us at Oaks Amusement Park, less than a mile from where we started.
As a "Plan B" it wasn't bad as we paddled around the flooded rides, even dragging our boats to the top of the giant slide and riding it down into the water - very fun!! The roller rink was flooded about halfway up the doors, so we peered in and saw the wooden floor floating above the water. It is designed with flotation and during floods, they run a chain-saw around the edges and it bobs on top of the water, saving the floor from ruin. Pretty clever! After awhile, a crew of Oaks Park employees came by in an outboard and pretty tersely told us to leave, so we worked our way to dry land and made the short walk back to our truck. I'm still a little disappointed that I didn't get to paddle through downtown, but it was memorable regardless. Hopefully I will live to see another one just like it - or bigger - and can triumphantly complete the run we started 20 years ago.
A shot from inside Oaks Park that day.
Below is an Oregon live article with a couple videos. The first video is around Portland, and the second one is in the Willamette Valley, locals will probably will recognize some of the locations.
Remembering Oregon's epic 1996 flood: 20 years ago (photos)