Spying on a City: Stand Up Paddling Urban Rivers


Susan_Hollingsworth-e1325179695688-100x100Sometimes staying home provides the best escape of all. Team NRS kayaker Susan Hollingsworth shares the pleasures of stand up paddling urban waters in her home city of Portland, Oregon.


Sometimes we paddlers ignore the biggest and most obvious rivers. Traveling the longest distances with high volumes of water, these rivers sneak past the recreation community, flowing discretely by millions of people. These are the rivers that flow through and around our cities.

We see the tall skyscrapers flanking the rivers’ banks. We travel over bridges from one side to another without ever leaving concrete. We even walk along their banks via boardwalks and parks. Yet, few urbanites know what it feels like to paddle these rivers. When we do find a way to feel the urban river beneath us, when we leave our cars and buses and buildings on land, the river rewards us with a secret perspective.


I slip my stand up paddleboard into the current’s quiet flow and push off the dock. The Willamette River carries me slowly downstream. On either side of the river’s wide path I can see the tall buildings of Portland, Oregon. High bridges span the sides and loom overhead. But from the river, these structures and the people moving around them become a dancing picture show. I feel invisible to my fellow Portlanders. They rush and multitask; I float and breathe.

If these rivers had hands, they would have calluses on top of calluses and dirt under their fingernails.

The rivers that flow through cities have a distinctly tougher character. They work hard and long. While diverse and forested ecosystems surround the higher-altitude mountain streams, humans, development and industry line the banks of these rivers. They lift the boats and barges that carry our crops, our goods and our people smoothly downstream. They provide us with drinking water and fresh fish. They remind even the most sheltered, urbanized yuppie that a natural world exists out there. If these rivers had hands, they would have calluses on top of calluses and dirt under their fingernails. Yet, they continue to flow peacefully by it all, as if never affected by generations of labor.

I dip my blade into the water, and my board glides past a docked ship. It towers fifty feet or more above my head. Lights blink on cranes hanging over the top deck. A dull moan reverberates off the dock as the ship presses against it. The river laps at its side. It floats this monstrous hunk of metal as effortlessly as it floats me and my board. I feel the tiny waves bouncing off the ship and spot a fish swimming below.

Rarely do pedestrians notice me paddling. As I pass the waterfront park, only two young men out of the large crowd see me. They shout and clap, trying to communicate something to me. The river breeze muffles their voices. I hear only what the river allows. They might as well be in a video, along with everything that lines the river. My perspective of the city draws me out of its hurried atmosphere, even while I’m right in the middle of it. I wave to the men and continue paddling.

I begin to feel more like an escapist now. Like I’ve found a way to spy on the city without anyone noticing me. I’ve slipped through a crack, enjoying the calm movement of the water while others contend with constant traffic, flashing lights and loud noises. This river, and all rivers that flow through busy metropolises, can provide the exact escape that urban-dwelling river enthusiasts seek without ever having to leave city limits. I feel as though I’ve experienced Portland in a way no one else has.


The sun begins to set, and the city lights play with the movement of the water. I feel tired and refreshed as I pull into the dock. Mostly, I’m happy to have the opportunity to slice my paddle through the water without leaving my city.