Rewind to last summer early August: It isn’t yet noon, but already the shores of Broughton Beach are starting to fill with people in bathing suits. They’re eager to beat the heat of what has been predicted to be a day of record-setting temperatures.
Kids and adults alike jump into the Columbia River’s chilly waters, shriek... and then jump in farther. Playing in a river on a hot day is fun – and that can be a problem. In the previous week, three different drowning incidents occurred along the nearby Sandy River, two of them fatal. People often don’t realize how many dangers can hide in open water: currents, temperature fluctuations, drop-offs, sunken trees, and all sorts of other underwater hazards.
That’s why Morgan Spriggs is at Broughton Beach this day. The founder of the Black Swimming Initiative is here with a group of volunteers to hold an eco-swim camp specifically for people of color and Black and Indigenous communities who suffer rates of drowning that are far higher than those of white swimmers.
“People are inspired to learn to swim when they see people who look like themselves, but there are so few swim instructors here who look like I do,” says Spriggs, who learned to swim as an adult and is now a triathlete. “We want to address that pipeline and build skills so that when you walk into a pool it’s normal to see Black lifeguards, Black swim instructors. And that helps fight Oregon’s drowning epidemic.”
Begun in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd, these eco-swim camps teach the basics of river ecology and swim safety to families and individuals who sign up in advance through BSI’s website. The lesson starts on land, with a primer on how vegetation between the parking lot and the Columbia River acts as a filter to keep toxins out of the river. Then everyone takes part in a cleanup of the beach. One little girl gets excited as she dons her blue nitrile gloves.
“It’s like I’m a scientist!” she says, holding her hands up to her smiling mother.
Her mother, Nakila Bush, has brought her two daughters to the camp because she wants them to get more familiar with swimming safely in different environments.
“They’ve never been in the river, so I think it will give them more confidence in moving water,” Bush said.
Both girls can swim a bit, but she says it has been challenging to get them into lessons.
“I’ve only been able to get them into one swim lesson so far,” she says with a sigh. “Me and every other parent is just waiting online, trying to sign up the minute Portland opens the next batch of swim lessons.”
Helen Kidane, who is here with her husband and two children, learned to swim at an early age. For her parents, who grew up in Eritrea, swimming was part of everyday life. But Kidane has seen that this is not the case for many American families.
“When I spoke with people here, I found that learning to swim is not as common as you would think, especially in the BIPOC community,” Kidane says. “There are centuries-long systematic oppression, discrimination and racism that have created barriers for people of color to learn to swim. There are also economic barriers as a result. Economic barriers that make swim lessons inaccessible for many of us. That’s why I was so glad to hear about this event.”
After a quick beach cleanup, the students head into a roped-off section of the river set up for lessons. They are divided into groups of two or three based on age and swim level. Ages range from toddlers to adults. Each group has a dedicated swim instructor who starts them out by teaching them to enter the water carefully, feeling with their feet for any unseen dips or rocks in the riverbed.
“What I really want people to learn today is putting on a life jacket in the water, throwing a line to someone in the water, and flipping over on their back in the water,” says Dena Marshall, whose nonprofit WaterStrong is partnering with BSI to organize this camp. “Those three things could save their lives.”
Laura Smoyer, who is volunteering at the camp today through the Human Access Project’s River Huggers Swim Team, says she meets a lot of adult Portlanders who never learned how to swim in rivers because the Willamette was too polluted for swimming when they were young.
“It’s exciting that it’s cleaner now, but it presents a safety issue,” she says, noting that she was surprised to learn from her teenaged children that going swimming in the Willamette was now a popular social activity. “Those kids all have parents who don’t know anything about swimming in natural water. It’s a gap in water safety knowledge.”
Metro has increased its outreach about water safety. It provides loaner life jackets in various sizes at its boat ramps and parks with water access.
The efforts go beyond its own park properties. The agency has launched a multilingual advertising campaign to promote life-jacket usage and water safety in the region. For the past two years, it has also partnered with local community-based organizations to distribute life jackets. In the first year of the campaign Metro distributed 500 life jackets; in its second year, Metro distributed almost 3,500. This summer, Metro hopes to expand its outreach further, with life-jacket giveaways at local events and sports venues.
Just before noon, the swim lessons are wrapping up. In a little over an hour, students for the afternoon session will arrive. Some kids stay splashing in the water, but others shiver on the hot sand – a testament to how cold river water can be, even on a day when the temperature has already climbed into the 80s and will later top out at 100.
One young girl is clearly ready to go home, water dripping off her puffs of hair as her head rests sleepily on her mother’s shoulder. As her mothers stop to thank the organizers, they mention that they live in Battle Ground, Washington.
“Oh, that’s quite a drive!” exclaims one volunteer.
“It’s worth it to keep our kids safe,” says one mother, patting her daughter’s back. “As parents, you’ll drive as far as you need to. We’re just glad we got to be here.”