There Must Be Something in the Water,
At the base of the Hawthorne Bridge, extending into the dark green waters of the Willamette River, is a long, wooden boating ramp connected to a fenced police boat dock. During the summer Portland teenagers gather en masse on this ramp, colloquially known as “the docks” to smoke and swim and pass the 102 degree heat wave days when nothing else is bearable. There are stick-and-poke tattoos and novelty bongs and string bikinis. Sometimes, there are dead bodies.
My first encounter with this phenomenon was upsettingly casual. Two women in sharp gray suits, with the assistance of a policeman, rolled a gurney down the ramp and into the boat dock. When they rolled it back out it was occupied by a long lumpy shape wrapped in a thick gray paramedic blanket.
My friends and I debated the realities of what we had just witnessed. Was it possible that the police would handle the retrieval of a dead body with such practiced ease? That they wouldn’t even bother to clear the dock before hoisting remains out of the river?
As I found out that night when I took to Google, and have continued to discover since, it’s not only possible but probable. There is, quite literally, something in the water in Portland, and it highlights some unpleasant truths about the city.
The body retrieval I witness on Holman dock was one of the average of 36 corpses recovered from the Willamette and Columbia rivers annually. Between July 2016 and July 2017 the Multnomah County River Patrol reported 45, that’s nearly one body per week (O’Neill). If those numbers sound high it’s because they are; according to the Willamette Week in the same year there were only nine drownings in Pittsburg, PA, 11 in Austin, TX, and two in Columbus, OH: all cities connected to comparable bodies of water. The river’s body count is also more than double the 20 reported homicides in Portland in 2016 (Bernstien). This unsettling phenomenon is the result of reckless recreation and high suicide rates.
It’s not uncommon for inexperienced or intoxicated Oregonians to take to the water. Moments before the women in gray marched down the boat ramp a crowd of wasted 20-somethings had cruised by the dock, blasting M.I.A.’s 2007 hit “Paper Planes”from a bass-heavy speaker on the hull of their sparkling white speedboat. I made uncomfortable eye-contact with a dancer with dollar bills tucked into the back of her bikini. According to the Oregon State Marine board there were 85 boating accidents in 2016, 19 of which were fatal. That accounts for 42% of the bodies recovered from the river that year. The remaining 68% are likely the result of suicide.
A report by the Oregon Health Authority found that in 2012 Oregon’s age-adjusted suicide rate was “17.7 per 100,000, 42 times the national average” (Shen, 1). The CDC reports that 772 Oregonians died from suicide in 2016 (Hammond). Drowning was the cause of death for 92 Oregonians whose deaths were ruled suicides between 2003 and 2012 (Shen, 13), making it the the 6th most popular mechanism of suicide in Oregon, accounting for 1% of deaths. 16 of those who drowned jumped from Portland’s Freemont bridge, which has the highest rate of reported suicide attempts of any bridge in Multnomah county (O’Neill). The Burnside and Hawthorne are close runners-up. All three span the Willamette River, which divides East and West Portland.
It’s hard to square these statistics with my own memories of the river and it’s bridges. I still know every word to the song my third grade class performed about Portland’s bridges: “The bridges in town,” we sang with the boisterous, off-key confidence of young performers, “go up and down. So boats can go through, oh yes they do.” On the wall next to my pillow at home is a picture that was published in The Oregonian of two of my closest friends and I marching across the Hawthorne bridge with hundreds of other public school students during the district’s student-organized protest of the 2016 election. It’s difficult to read the gruesome account Sergeant Stephen Gangler gave The Willamette Week in 2017 of diving blindly into black water, hoping to grasp something that feels like flesh, and not think of all the slow motion videos saved to my camera roll of me and my friends cannon-balling into the water on sunny summer afternoons.
Yet there is something inherently Portland about this contradiction. The divide between the public image of Portland that my friends and I exemplify: the children of Dead-Heads and former Rajneeshees biking from food cart to food cart in thrift store jeans, getting stoned by the waterfront; and the Portland where two percent of the population (about 38,000 people) is homeless (Templeton). That’s seven times the national average. Of those who comitted suicide between 2009 and 2012, 199 had recently lost a home (Shen, 17).
For all of its Portlandia liberalism Oregon has one of the most racist histories in the Northern United States: when it joined the union in 1859 it “explicitly forbade black people from living in its borders,” (Semuels). To this day it is the whitest large city in the nation: 72% of the population identifies as white. Compared to the national average of $41,000, black people in Portland — a metropolitan area with a $12 minimum wage — make, on average, $34,000 annually (Semuels). 803 of the people who committed suicide betwen 2003 and 2012 were expereiencing financial difficulties (Shen, 17).
A report by Mental Health America ranked Oregon 50th out of 51 states for prevalence of mental illness and access to care. According to the same survey we are first in the nation for marijuana and pain reliever misuse, second for methamphetamine, and fourth for both alcohol and cocaine (Monahan). Of those who attempted suicide between 2003 and 2012, 4,352 reported mental health problems, 1,263 reported problems with alcohol, and 807 abused another substance. 1,243 had attempted suicide in the past. Investigators believe one in four suicide victims in Oregon consumed alcohol prior to their suicide (Shen, 17).
I love my hometown. I want to believe it is a place where people look after one another, because I have always been supported there. I am fortunate that my experiences with the Willamette consist of bathing in August sunsets while biking over the esplanade and lazy afternoons on the docks. There is a dark underbelly lurking under my flannel-clad hipster haven, and the thing about bellies is that they bloat. They rise. As the bodies of those that Portland has failed continue to float to the top of the Willamette, I hope my hometown makes efforts to clean up its act.
1. Bernstien, Maxine. "Homicides, gang-related killings are down in Portland for 2016." The Oregonian [Portland], 31 Dec. 2016, www.oregonlive.com/portland/2016/12/homicides_gang-related_kilings.html.
2. Hammond, Betsy. "Suicide prevention a priority in Oregon, where 2 people a day die by suicide." The Oregonian [Portland], 8 June 2018, www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/2018/06/suicide_prevention_a_priority.html.
3. O Neill, Natalie. " Nearly Every Week, a Body is Found in a Portland River. This is Not Normal." Willamette Week [Portland], 13 Sept. 2017, www.wweek.com/news/2017/09/13/nearly-every-week-a-body-is-found-in-a-portland-river-this-is-not-normal/.
4. Oregon State Marine Board. "Recreational Boating Accidents and Fatalities in Oregon." Oregon.gov, www.oregon.gov/osmb/Pages/Accidents-and-Fatalities.aspx. Accessed 18 Nov. 2019.
5. Shen X, Millet L. Suicides in Oregon: Trends and Associated Factors. 2003-2012. Oregon Health Authority, Portland, Oregon
6. Templeton, Amelia. "PSU Report Estimates 2% Of Portland Metro Population Was Homeless In 2017." Oregon Public Broadcasting, 20 Aug. 2019, www.opb.org/news/article/portland-state-university-metro-homeless-report-2017/.