Willamette Riverkeeper and Keizer Business Alliance hosted a Latinx paddle canoe trip down the Willamette River this week as part of efforts to expand the Latino community’s access to boating and other outdoor activities and to promote mental health.
As they gathered to begin the journey, the group was filled with excitement and a little nervousness. Many, including Loreli Estrada and her 7-year-old son Isai Pablo, had never done anything like this before.
“This year we went hiking and looked at nature. When we heard about it, we decided why not?” Loreli said.
For members of minorities, there are many barriers to accessing outdoor activities such as canoeing, including the cost of equipment and licenses.
This event was free to attend and all equipment was provided. Participants were even allowed to take home a life jacket to encourage future trips to the river.
“Lowering barriers to entry is important to help all members of our diverse community experience the Willamette River up close,” said Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper.
Efforts to diversify access to the Willamette are not only for the fun but also for the health of the community.
RJ Navarro, a Keizer Business Alliance volunteer and local business owner, was motivated to co-sponsor this event because of his commitment to making mental health care accessible to all.
“Oregon has a serious lack of mental health services for Latinos and there are many barriers,” Navarro said.
Spending time in outdoor activities can improve your mental and physical well-being, a 2016 study shows.
Navarro said with the stigma of seeking mental health services, motivating people through activities as simple as canoeing can be a good start.
“By doing it this way, we fight that stigma. We expose individuals who would not normally seek mental health services,” he said.
After receiving instruction from Annette Pearson, River Recreation and Stewardship Coordinator, the group set about learning how to maneuver their canoes in the water.
After a lot of teamwork and a few laughs, the journey from Wallace Marine Park to Keizer Rapids Park began.
Isai hoped to see dinosaurs along the way.
Halfway through the journey, the group stopped at an island for a snack and water break and to practice mindfulness activities. Navarro encouraged everyone to be mindful by taking in the scenery, enjoying the taste of their snacks and even taking a quick dip in the cool water. This suggestion was heeded by many as it was one of Salem’s hottest days of the year.
After a while, Navarro had everyone stand in the water as he led them through a mindfulness exercise that engaged the senses and focused on breathing.
The group members were cheerful and expressed how much they enjoyed the day.
“It’s always nice to be out here. It brings you peace,” said Tania Zavala, who brought her aunt and cousin who were visiting from California.
Before getting back on the water, Pearson encouraged everyone to pick up some trash from the riverbank. Willamette Riverkeeper works to protect and maintain the quality of the Willamette. In addition to events like this, they also run river cleaning projects in hopes of promoting a healthy relationship with the river.
“If the river is healthy, we’re healthy,” Pearson said.
The group ended the trip happy and tired, many opting for a quick swim to cool off.
Juanita Aniceto, who came with her colleague and friend, said it was a nice break to be out on the water with friends and new faces.
“We were supposed to be working today, but we asked for a mental health day,” she said.
Everyone in the group said they would like to do something like this again. Back on land, they were already planning the next event.
The Oregon State Marine Board’s Waterway Access Program supported Latinx Paddle by providing licenses for all boats used.
Willamette Riverkeeper will hold various group events in Eugene and Independence going forward, one during Eugene’s Black Cultural Festival and another focused on immigrant families.
Navarro said he hopes events like this can continue for Salem’s Latino community.
“I hope this will inspire the county and state to fund organizations like Mano A Mano, Bridgeway and Project ABLE so they can continue this great work for our underserved populations,” Navarro said.