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Float On

Great Willamette Raft Race attracts veterans, newcomers alike

The Philip Rivers boat makes preparations before the start of the Great Willamette Raft Race.

The Philip Rivers boat makes preparations before the start of the Great Willamette Raft Race. Photo by Lukas Eggen.

INDEPENDENCE — At 8:15 a.m. on Saturday, James Robinson and Nathan Litke were hard at work.

The duo was putting the finishing touches on its boat, the Phillip Rivers boat, for the Great Willamette Raft Race — which began at Riverview Park in Independence.

Their goal was decidedly simple.

“We’re not going to finish last,” Robinson said.

This was the fifth year Robinson and Litke have taken part in the race with a single level, cross-shaped craft.

It wasn’t long before they started thinking bigger.

“We heard rumors of a two-story boat back in the ’70s,” Litke said. “That inspired our design.”

The next year, they debuted their two-story boat. Since then, they’ve made tweaks and additions – including a water slide and basketball hoop — that makes their craft a fan favorite every year.

The group also planned to serve free hot dogs during the trek, which traveled from Independence to Wallace Marine Park in Salem with a focus on enjoying an August afternoon under the sun.

“You get all these people going out, meeting up with friends and making new ones,” Robinson said. “It’s a good excuse to see people you don’t get to see all the time.”

While the main goal was to have a good time, there was still a little competitive fire lit, Litke said. This was, after all, a race.

“We’ve never finished last before,” Litke said. “We’re going to finish at least second to last. It’ll be close, but we’ll work hard.”

While Robinson and Litke are raft race veterans, Thomas Woolsey and Michael Stilligan, of Dallas, were about to embark for the first time.

Woolsey and Stilligan had their curiosity piqued after seeing fliers during Summerfest.

The pair was looking forward to a relaxing trek down the Willamette River.

“I don’t care if we come in dead last,” Stilligan said. “It’s just about having fun.”

John and Kathleen Hill, of Salem, also took part in the race for the first time. The couple moved from Florida 19 years ago.

“Being from Florida, the river has intimidated us,” Kathleen said. “In Florida, we had swamps and alligators. This one has fast water and Mother Nature. I’ll take an alligator over the current, but we figured we’d be safer with a group, and you’re out here with a lot of cool people.”

The race, organized by the Networking Exchange Club of Salem, began in the 1970s.

Since then, it’s become a tradition for many to enjoy an afternoon out on the water.

Despite the name, it’s not all about who finishes first — it’s more about floating away on a summer day.

“It’s so easy to get people out,” Litke said. “You just need a tube and you can float around. It’s perfect for the summer.”

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