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The Tualatin River — An Urban Oasis for Wildlife and Paddlers


Wedged in among industrial complexes and rows of housing developments and bordered in places by farmland and a national wildlife refuge, the Tualatin River provides an urban oasis away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and noise. More importantly, it's a vast watershed that provides drinking and irrigation water for the towns, cities, and farms that surround the river while also providing vital habitat and sanctuary to countless species of wildlife.


At 79.3 miles in length, the Tualatin River snakes its way from the Oregon Coast Range to the Willamette River. Its name, "Tualatin" in Native American language means "lazy," a fitting name for a river that twists and turns as it flows slowly (less than 2 mph much of the year) east through the Willamette Valley landscape toward the Willamette River.


A 38.5-mile stretch of the Tualatin River was designated a national water trail by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2020. It provided welcome relief for Oregonians otherwise forced to shelter at home when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Paddlers could safely recreate while at the same time socially distancing themselves from others.


Once a polluted river, the Tualatin Riverkeepers, Clean Water Services, and several cities have worked hard to clean up the river. It’s now safe to swim in, and many people do, and eat fish caught in the river. In fact, coho salmon have returned to the river. Dissolved silt in the river gives the water its brownish color.

 

While motorized boats are allowed on the Tualatin River, a speed restriction of 15 mph limits motorized boats to small fishing boats with electric trolling motors or deck boats, though I have seldom seen any motorized boat on the river in the thirty plus years I’ve paddled the river. Most days, especially weekends, the river is dominated by canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards. The lack of powerful, motorized boats makes the river an ideal paddling destination for families and those new to paddling.


There are numerous places for paddlers to launch from, my favorites being the boat launches at Cook Park in Tigard and Tualatin Community Park and Browns Ferry Park in Tualatin. The latter is best utilized earlier in the year when the water level is higher and the gangway to the dock not so steep. The launch at Rood Bridge Park in Hillsboro is another popular boat launch on the river. The city of Tigard will be replacing the aging dock at Cook Park this summer, and current plans are to have in place an adaptive paddle launch at the park by summer 2025.


Wildlife abounds on the Tualatin River, where paddlers have plenty of opportunities to spot bald eagles, great blue herons, green herons, Canada geese, mallards, cedar waxwings, American robins, and belted kingfishers. A variety of songbirds can be heard singing while hiding in the dense foliage along the banks. As a paddle trip leader for the Tualatin Riverkeepers (TRK), I often lead their spring and fall birding trips on the river. Birds aren't all paddlers might encounter on the river. Lucky paddlers may also glimpse mink, river otters, beaver, raccoons, deer, coyotes, western pond turtles, and great horned owls depending on the time of day.


Those wishing to paddle who don't have a boat of their own need not fret. TRK operates two boat rental locations, one at Cook Park and another at Rood Bridge Park during the summer. Alder Creek operates a boat rental business at Browns Ferry Park, and their rental shop typically opens in April.

 

The river is an easy drive for people living within a thirty-mile radius of river, so it draws people from Portland, Oregon; Vancouver, Washington; and south to Salem, Oregon, which is why I paddle the river several times each year and why I volunteer my time leading paddle trips for the Tualatin Riverkeepers.

 

I encourage you to check out the river. You’ll be amazed by its serenity and the wildlife you encounter within the urban areas it meanders through.



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