Floating the river. Anyone living in Central Oregon knows what you mean when you say those words. It may seem like the popular summer activity is a long-standing tradition. It turns out, it’s not that long.
“Gen Z. That’s the first generation that can say they grew up floating the river,” said Kelly Cannon Miller with the Deschutes Historical Museum. “So people come through town and think, ‘This is great’ and ‘Did you grow up floating the river?’ And it’s like, ‘No, no, we didn’t.’ For most of the city’s history, the river was used to float logs, not humans.”
Back in August of 1915, the area where the Whitewater Park is today was seeing the installation of a new dam and trestle for the log mills.
It wasn’t until the age of Nirvana — as in the Seattle grunge band — that any of that really changed.
“Basically from 1915, that moment until 1994, that whole stretch of the river was an industrial use area,” Miller said.
“Because everything on this side and the other side was all either a Shevlin-Hixon land all the way to century drive on this side and all the way to say, what is the Healey Bridge now. And that was all Brook Scanlon,” said local historian Jim Crowell.
“1994, when the mills are finally closed down for good and William Smith Properties purchases it to create the Old Mill District, over the next ten years you have all kinds of river restoration work going on in that stretch,” Miller said.
When I first moved here in 2012, the housing market was at its bottom and I was still impressed that the public passed a bond to use their hard earned money on something that seemed kind of pie in the sky.
“2016, what changes? Well, we’ve had the bond measure to support Parks and Rec for multiple projects around the city, but the biggest piece of that was the creation of the Whitewater Park,” Miller said. “But it wasn’t just creating the Whitewater park. It was taking out the dangerous elements of the Colorado Dam that created the log pond.”
And once the Whitewater Park was done, they unleashed the floodgates of a river of humans that flows down to today.
Miller said, according to Bend Park and Rec, 250,000 people float the river every year.
“The highest use day has seen 8,000 people, which is just mind boggling,” Miller said.
Now, before you go, getting frustrated and blaming big industry for robbing us of so much fun for so long, well, you’re going to have to register a complaint with Mother Nature as well. Those 80, 90 and 100-degree summer days we’ve become accustomed to weren’t a guarantee.
“In contrast to these days, you couldn’t rely on the 4th of July to be snow-free. And so those summers, Bend’s growing season and its summer season was pretty compressed,” Crowell said.
And on the bright side, the delay kept a lot of people from unwittingly swimming in, well, pee.
“And at that time there was a considerable rivalry between (Bend and Redmond), especially athletically. So some of us never failed to take advantage of the opportunity, maybe at night, to stand on the footbridge down there and relieve ourselves in Redmond’s water supply,” Crowell said.
So despite big lumber, our climate changing and some kids relieving themselves of the burdens of the day, the not so time honored tradition of floating the river was born.