River Angel

At the beginning, there’s always an outing, says Kate Ross Kuthe, Education and Outreach Coordinator for Willamette Riverkeeper. “I’m screening films about environmental activists for a festival,” she tells me over coffee next to the river. “Every single one has a visceral connection to a place—a river, a beach, a mountain. And every single story starts with someone getting outside to explore.”

For Kuthe, the outings began in the Adirondacks, followed by hopscotching around Alaska and the Northwest doing environmental science, fighting fires for the National Park Service and guiding kayak trips. “I had one stream restoration internship where they gave me machetes and vague directions on which invasive plants to cut,” she recalls. “None of my friends’ internships gave them machetes.”

Working with Willamette Riverkeeper, making that connection starts with getting people to rediscover a river they think they already know. The Willamette’s 187-mile course winds past most of Oregon’s population, “but most people just drive over it,” she says. “You can hop in the river in downtown Salem, and in two miles you’re in wilderness. We show people the river in a new way, from a kayak or canoe.”

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Conservationists are born on those trips. Paddle Oregon, an annual five-day, 100-mile downriver journey, is a particularly fertile breeding ground. “There’s a ripple effect from living on the river and falling in love with the river for that much time,” Kuthe says. “Those people become our best advocates.”

But love is just the beginning. Willamette Riverkeeper’s paddler-advocates then enter the daunting world of restoring and protecting a river with centuries of heavy use. One example is cleaning up Portland’s harbor, a Superfund site. “Here we are, 16 years after the EPA’s designation. How do you mobilize people?” Kuthe asks. Then she answers her own question. “By speaking in plain language. People need stories to connect to the river, not gobs of scientific data and policy jargon.” Even at polluted sites, outings are key. “We do canoe and walking tours, and let people see and smell the sites. It sticks.”

Looking downcurrent, she thinks her greatest impact will be the Superfund section of the Willamette becoming a place that people visit and enjoy. Then she changes course.

“Well, in a few years, I think Canyon will be my largest achievement,” she says, referring to her and husband Paul Kuthe’s one-year-old son. He’s already been on more river trips than most people manage in a year. At the beginning, there’s always an outing.

This article was originally published in Adventure Kayak, Volume 16 • Issue 1.

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