Ancient Tualatin River Once Lifeblood of Tualatin Valley

The Tualatin River is the largest river that runs through the Tualatin Valley in Oregon.  It starts its flow to the East from high up in the Coast Range above the historic town of Cherry Grove.  Rushing forth from those tree covered ravines that resemble a rain forest the frothy white water comes crashing down at Lee Falls and rushes its way down the Patton Valley heading East and gaining steam.  By the time the River hits US Highway 47 at Gaston, Oregon it has slowed to a fast crawl.  

Flowing East on it's way to the Willamette at West Linn, Oregon the river takes on bigger and bigger volume.  Along the way, the water turns from a crystal clear stream to a dark brown muddy river which flows almost to a halt in the dog days of Summer.  

The 84-mile long Tualatin River drains over 900 miles of streams and a land area of 712 square miles. It runs from west to east, beginning in the Coast Range Mountains and ending in the Willamette River near West Linn. Major tributaries that drain into the Tualatin River include Scoggins, Gales, Dairy, Rock, and Fanno Creeks. There are also many minor tributaries that drain into the River.  Find out more about the Tualatin River Watershed here.

The muddy appearance is caused by run-off.  Much of that is from heavy plowing and farming in the Tualatin Valley.  There was a time when logging played a role but those days are over.  Development of huge factories like INTEL and Genentech have added to the problem.  The river has problems with pollution and it is not a great place to take the kids for a swim.  The currents and many snags can be very dangerous.  In the 1930's and 1940's many people in the Tualatin Valley would gather for a swim at Roamers Rest along Highway 99.  The water was clear in those days and there were places where the water flowed over rapids.  Steelhead and Salmon were caught in some numbers and crayfish were in great numbers.  

In 1980 we put a small boat in the water at Cook Park in Tigard.    Heading upstream under the power of a 5 horsepower motor and only 17 years old we figured we could conquer the river.  Boy, we were wrong!

About 20 minutes upstream we hit the first of 8 log jams.  Each one took us at least 20 minutes to cross.  The banks were steep and the foliage so thick that no one could get up or down the river banks.  After the second logjam, we found the first of several "river shacks" which were basically plywood boxes with people living in them.  One of them had a deer carcass hanging outside on a limb and the whole scene took on a real Deliverance feel.  A mile or two up we found several more animal carcasses in the water.  By the time we crossed under Scholls-Sherwood Road we had discovered 15 dead sheep floating in the water.  The scene was flipped into the surreal when we found the rest of the herd, over 40 of them, alive and stuck in the mud.  Two hours later, freezing cold and beaten half to death by the poor animals we tried to save in neck-deep water, we gave up.  

Confronting the farmer was an anger filled affair,  he tried to pretend they were not his animals and he had nothing to do with it.  We called the Oregon State Police and headed upstream to our take-out point.  It was a sad day and one that left me in shock.  That may have been the lowest period for this wonderful river that deserves better.

Looking back on that day and having been on the River a few times since I am always amazed at how much wildlife this river supports. It is a mysterious and unique body of water.  It should have perhaps been named The Snake because it serpentines its way right through the Tualatin Valley providing so many benefits as it flows.

Tualatin River 1.JPG

The Tualatin in recent decades seems to be much improved and it provides irrigation through the Tualatin Valley Irrigation District for thousands of acres of farmland; the water so crucial for the berry industry, nursery business, and countless others.   Numerous places are being established for the modern day river goer to enjoy the Tualatin.  Canoeing and Kayaking are popular and bird and Duck/Goose migrations are observed at wetlands and habitats along the length of the Tualatin.  

True to our commitment to history these modern observations should never be allowed to overshadow the people who lived along its banks for thousands of years.  The Atfalati people,  members of the Kalapuya tribe, relied on the Tualatin River for their very existence.  They were hunter-gatherers and lived in concert with the seasons and the predictable rising and falling of the water.  They were also known as the Tualatin tribe and they harvested fish, ducks, eggs, willow, Wapato, Camas, and a wide variety of nutrients from the river and its many waterways and drainages.  Those people are gone but the river remains, continuing the ancient dance of life that has been performed since the Tualatin Valley was formed.

GET ON THE TUALATIN RIVER -  In 2018 most of the 500,000 plus people that live in the Tualatin Valley do not think about the river as a place to recreate.  For the most part, they forget about it or do not see it because it is where they are not.  Flooding has kept development of housing and industry away from the river, thank God for that.  Because of a wonderful and determined group known as the Tualatin River Keepers the use of the river is up.  Several safe launches have been established and over the last 15 years, the group has done an amazing job of advocating for the health and safe enjoyment of the water. 

We encourage you to get involved and get on the water - but BE CAREFUL!  This river is a resouce for all of us, just as it was for the native people for eons before.


Check out this Usage Map and Brochure -

Also enjoy this drone view of the river below from the new Paddle Launch park at River Road and Farmington Road.