Oswego Lake’s big secret: It’s public and you can paddle it. In fact, I did.
By: Martin Cizmar, Willamette Week
Carrying a big green kayak down the sidewalk in Lake Oswego gets attention.
“You know you can’t just go in there?”
“They’ll ding ya if they catch ya in there!”
To hear it described by townsfolk, dropping an unauthorized kayak into the “private” lake in the center of the city could lead to big problems. Perhaps even a dinging. Yet no one left a warming Frappuccino nor an unread USA Today to offer more than tepid caution.
Those nice people—and the signs on the ground claiming this is a private lake—are mistaken. You can’t blame them for the confusion, born of an oft-repeated fiction that’s kept Oswego Lake one of the largest “private” lakes in Oregon, even as the state says it’s a public waterway. For 70 years the lake has been operated like a country club, patrolled by floating mall cops pretending to have the authority to keep people out.
In truth, anyone can access this waterway from public property. I parked legally on a public street, carried my kayak about 400 yards and plopped it into the lake from a concrete staircase leading down to the water at the city-owned Millennium Plaza Park. One good shove later, I was out on the lake.
And I didn’t expect anyone to stop me.
Oswego Lake is a natural pool in the Tualatin River. Originally called Sucker Lake, it was surrounded by heavy industry before a clever developer built dams and surrounded the rising waters with ostentatious homes. The water is the backdrop for the wholesome chain shops that constitute downtown Lake Oswego.
The Lake Oswego Corporation—a glorified homeowners’ association—owns the land underneath the lake, although the state owns the water. Under an arrangement everyone refers to as “the status quo,” only people with homes on the shores of the 415-acre lake and up to 12,000 other easement holders with stickered watercraft are allowed on it. Even the people who own condos on the water have been told they’re not welcome.
The Lake Oswego Corporation is a $2 million operation funded by yearly dues and employing at least six people full-time. (The corporation did not respond to multiple requests for comment over several days.) It takes its duties very seriously, only issuing stickers to boaters who sanitize their crafts, carry at least $500,000 in liability insurance and pass written and practical exams. I have done none of these things. State law requires only that I have a life jacket and a whistle.
I brought a Scotty 780—widely considered the world’s best marine safety whistle.
Even though two-thirds of Lake Oswego can’t access its defining feature, Mayor Jack Hoffman, surprisingly, says lake access “isn’t a priority” for disenfranchised residents. He’s also not sure what would happen if people started going on the lake without the corporation’s permission. “If there was an Occupy Oswego Lake, what would happen?” he says. “I just don’t know.”
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