POLK COUNTY -- Sarah McKenzie used a sponge to absorb excess water from her kayak along the shore of the Willamette River just north of Buena Vista, a blissful look on her face.
She had paddled 19 miles from Corvallis and would turn in early to put most of her 28-mile trip the next day behind her to avoid headwinds en route to Newberg.
"Getting a sense of Mother Nature, moving over the rocks and seeing the sky ... it's heavenly," said McKenzie, a Portland resident who began kayaking last year. "I love being on the water."
That was a common sentiment among those who took part last week in Paddle Oregon, a mass river sojourn that saw roughly 150 paddlers undertake a 108-mile trip from Corvallis to West Linn.
The group spent an evening during the five-day journey camping at the Rogue Farms Micro Hop Farm on Aug. 16 and a quick stop at Riverview Park in Independence the following morning.
It was the first time seeing the Willamette as it runs through Polk County for Kit Whittaker, a veteran kayaker.
"I've only seen this part where bridges cross," Whittaker said. "It's gorgeous ... what I like is getting out in nature. We've seen bald eagles and osprey after osprey."
The event -- last week was the 11th edition -- is coordinated by Willamette Riverkeeper, a Portland nonprofit that focuses on Willamette River education and restoration efforts.
"Our whole point is to show that a wide array of people can safely use the Willamette River," said Travis Williams, the organization's executive director. "It's a worthy recreational resource."
Paddle Oregon was borne out of a Riverkeeper conversation in 2000, with an elderly paddler reminiscing about canoes, kayaks and row boats cruising the Willamette during the 1920s. Williams said the group wanted to model something similar after the popular Cycle Oregon mass bike tours.
The event is also designed to reconnect -- or introduce -- paddlers to the Willamette River Water Trail established by state leaders during the mid-2000s. The 200-mile route entails a collection of publicly owned and accessible sites.
The Willamette has a reputation problem, sometimes warranted, Williams said. Many of its meandering side channels have disappeared over time with land development. There are pollution issues involving PCB waste and heavy metals.
"But there's middle ground, the human health interface with the river isn't going to harm you unless you float in it for 10,000 years," Williams said, noting the Riverkeeper hopes to draw up to 200 participants next year and do multiple tours.
Whittaker described the river through Buena Vista as swift, slower as the river becomes wider in Salem, and then coming "to a crawl in Newberg."
"It can be tiring," Whittaker said of the long days of paddling. "But it's also relaxing. Yesterday we saw not one dock, power boat or car ... for the most part, it's green on the shore and water underneath."
For more information on the Willamette River Water Trail, visit www.willamettewatertrail.org.