Tim Kennedy is about to break the law.
On a sloping, debris-strewn beach just east of the Astoria Bridge, he steps past a dead cormorant, a waterlogged bicycle seat cover and two discarded oranges.
He slides ear plugs into his ears and wades out under a trestle. He pauses to stash his sandals up among the beams and fix goggles over his eyes. A commercial fishing boat motors by, trailed by gulls.
Kennedy takes a breath and dives into the Columbia River.
City leaders don’t know how the rule came to exist, or why, but until Monday night, it was illegal for anyone to wade or swim in waters adjacent to a city park.
As Kennedy swims east, crawling steadily against the river chop to his turnaround point at the Columbia House Condominiums, he is parallel to the Astoria Riverwalk. The paved, 6.4-mile trail is a city park and, for much of his swim, Kennedy is technically adjacent to it.
But around 10 hours later, at a City Council meeting, city leaders voted to repeal the swimming and wading prohibitions.
The rule was nearly impossible to enforce. It was drafted long before the creation of the Riverwalk and no longer applies to modern-day Astoria, city councilors said. While this doesn’t mean city leaders are recommending everyone take a dip in the river, they don’t see the point in fining people for it, either.
The rule has likely been a part of city code since the early 1900s, along with other “no swimming” rules like one that forbade nude bathing in the river during certain hours, according to City Attorney Blair Henningsgaard.
He imagines the rule was drafted in response to a particular problem at the time — though it’s anyone’s guess what that problem was exactly.
“Well,” Mayor Bruce Jones joked with Kennedy as the City Council prepared to repeal the rule, “we look forward to you joining the ranks of law-abiding citizens.”
Clad in a black wetsuit, Kennedy swims in the river around three times a week. He is the only person Jones knows who does so regularly.
It’s a practice Kennedy started last year when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Astoria Aquatic Center for months. His work as a contractor brought him to the Astoria Warehousing site off Marine Drive where Fort George Brewery was building out its distribution, canning and production operations, an easy access point if someone wanted to take a quick dip in the Columbia.
Kennedy is an avid outdoorsman, not deterred by cold or a bit of risk, a strong swimmer and an experienced kayaker who has tackled any number of challenging river and ocean conditions.
He looked at the Columbia River and figured: Why not?
But some people onshore who spotted him swimming were alarmed. He’s had the fire department and the U.S. Coast Guard check on him. In the past month, he’s also had several conversations with Astoria police officers who responded to calls about a swimmer in distress. Kennedy started wearing an emergency whistle as a precaution to put them at ease.
Astorians don’t frequently see people swimming in the water for exercise, Deputy Police Chief Eric Halverson explained.
Police are more used to encountering people who ended up in the river by accident or because they were struggling with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts.
The tides that wash in and out can be extremely swift — and cold. A person without experience in the water, and with the Columbia River in particular, could quickly find themselves in trouble, Halverson said.
“In all seriousness, swimming in the Columbia River is not for the faint of heart,” City Councilor Tom Brownson said as he prepared to cast his vote in favor of repealing the rule.
“I’m OK with this but people do need to be absolutely careful when they mess around with the Columbia and being in it,” he said.
Kennedy hopes to introduce other seasoned swimmers to the experience, however.
When he tells others about his swims, most people’s first question is about water quality: Is it clean?
Kennedy times his swims with the high tides that send an infusion of salty ocean water upriver and that, he reasons, dilute any river nastiness. He’ll swim when the wind is whipping up a light chop, but not when there are full rollers.
He’s figured out safe routes that avoid maritime traffic and most of the old pilings that lurk at various levels below and above the water. He’s more likely to run into a log than a sea lion, though he can hear the large mammals bark and yip at each other when he’s underwater.
He’s puzzled why he’s alone in the water. Given the choice between the river and the pool, he’d choose the river every time.