Walking the Greenway Trail on Swan Island

This post is written by npGREENWAY Acting Director, Francie Royce and originally appeared on her blog. –A well edited version of this story appears in Walk About Magazine Jan/Feb 2008

Swan Island, an industrial hub in North Portland, home to heavy industry and distribution warehouses, would seem an unlikely location for a trail for wildlife viewing on the Willamette River. Those who do walk this flat one mile trail of the future North Portland Willamette Greenway Trail will be pleasantly surprised to find a nice mix between viewing wildlife and a working river. It is one of the few locations for public access to the Willamette River in North Portland.

On a sunny but chilly October afternoon as I walk along and look out on the north flowing Willamette River, black and white ring necked Canadian Geese calmly sit on the water in floating formation, tug boats chug by, and fishermen in small pleasure craft dangle their lines into the water hopefully. A wide concrete trail starts on the south end of Swan Island, with a branch trail connecting to the street. After parking my car in a gravel lot off North Port Center Way, I stroll down this short branch towards the riverside trail. Marked with a simple “Trail Access” sign, it winds past a sewer pumping station, and joins the riverfront trail. The pumping station is part of the massive effort to clean up the river by reducing sewerage overflows every time Portland gets a downpour. From there I turn left, or upstream for a short exploration to the end, peering through the chain link fence marking the end of the trail, for now, and see a large ship, docked at a concrete plant wharf.

Then I turn around and walk downriver, looking out across to the green hills of Forest Park, and the long wharves of a barge company at the shoreline on the west side. The sandy beach below the trail is littered with logs and assorted flotsam left over from the last time the Willamette reach flood stage in 1996. Occasionally beavers have been spotted paddling along the shoreline. For beach explorers and those who want to dip a toe in the water, a fifty yard gravel walkway leads down to the beach and water line. The path passes by a glass windowed office building. Landscaping, well established oak trees, and wooden slated benches on low stone walls line a curved overlook that invites a pause to soak in the view and is a good spot for snacking, especially if walking with children. On this late afternoon the sun streams through the oak tree leaves and shimmers light on the water. The rhythmic sound of waves gently splashing the sandy beach, join with the louder pulse and buzz of various river boats cruising by.

Still walking downriver, going north, a wooden arched bridge marks the place to turn right and wander through the lower level of an office building, on this public path. Going into the ground level courtyard, I head toward a brick arched exit onto a sidewalk along a parking lot for a few steps. At a clock tower, it’s a left turn and onto a path again, officially McCarty Park. As the path reaches the river again, the sight across the river is the active industry of barge and large iron truss construction, currently a new bridge to be floated down river to replace the Sauvie Island Bridge. In a small niche along the path, stands the first of two historical interpretive signs next to a couple of old iron ship dock anchors that give the place a nautical theme. In the 1930’s Swan Island became Portland’s first airport, and some photos are worth a look. I glance down the bank at some fishermen leaning back on logs, lines out, casually sipping coffee waiting for a nibble.

Moving on further, pass a canoe launch and I edge past another parking lot and aim for a small grove of sequoias staying close to the river. This stretch of trail is landscaped to screen another office building but the trail will be your own on most days.

Another historic sign tells the story of thousands of women who came to work in the Swan Island ship yards during World War II. A 1978 photo and of the largest floating dry dock in the world coming up the Willamette River to Swan Island deserves a relaxed look. The liberty ship yards are gone and the dry dock was sold off, but the ship yards produce ocean going barges these days. At the north end of the trail, a peek through another chain link fence, past semi truck trailers, you can see the huge cranes used in building these barges.

I turn around at the north end for the walk back, and get a whole different view. The skyline of downtown Portland and three bridge in a row spanning the river: the high arched green Fremont, the red Broadway and workhorse black Steel.

Some geese fly over, honking their way south. Winter is coming but and this path will still be one of my favorites. Bundling up with a warm fleece hat pulled over ears against cold wind, Gortex jacket and rain pants, this paved Swan Island trail works even on really muddy days.

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