Monday, September 23, 2013

We Did It!

On Sunday Sept. 8, a quorum of Challengers, both veterans of the sport and first-timers, gathered at the Slammer Tavern under sunny skies. Their purpose: to celebrate the 10-Year Anniversary of the recreational/cultural phenomenon known as Challenging, or undertaking a symbolic land/water journey without the aid of money, motors or bridges. And: to raise funds for Nangu's Grocery, an income-generating gathering place and affordable store in Babati, Tanzania. Sound incongruous? Then you have obviously never participated in a Portland Challenge before! Around 2pm, to the thundering accompaniment of the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers, the multigenerational parade began its journey through the Buckman neighborhood and Central Eastside Industrial District. It was all convertibles and dancing camels till just before Water Avenue. Then, in a moment of decisive action, Challenge organizer Jay Boss Rubin was forced to hold up the parade while he waited for a series of speeding trains to pass. Safely across Water Avenue and onto the Eastbank Esplanade, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 Challengers completed the final stage of their land journey then entered the Willamette River under the Hawthorne Bridge. Following the crossing, the group shower at Salmon Street Springs and the ceremonious loading of the Shoe Boat onto a rented school bus, the band of Challengers returned to whence they came for an afternoon of rooftop New Wave, rock 'n' roll and Swiss-o-Rican hip-hop. All in all,it was one of the funnest and certainly one of the most heartfelt Portland Challenges ever. The next day, exhausted organizers awoke at dawn to begin work on a more stationary production: "Diary of a Madman" at the serendipitously named Headwaters Theater. As of September 23, the Portland Challenge and the associated theatrical production have brought in approximately $3,500 in proceeds for Nangu's Grocery. With one week of fundraising remaining, the effort to launch the beneficiary project as robustly as possible still has a fighting chance of reaching its goal of $5,323. Want to help? Donate online via Indiegogo or write to arrange for a donation via cash or check. What to expect next: It is safe to say that the Portland Challenge is "back" after its six-year hiatus, but it is equally safe to say that the Portland Challenge is not exactly back as an annual event. Let it suffice that the notoriously unpredictable Challenge Gods predict a strong likelihood of some variation of the event unfolding in the Summer of 2015. Till then, Challenge on as individuals or in small groups (safely, please!) and thank you all very much for all the support you have given as participants, contributors, advisers, performers and witnesses to the rich, ongoing tradition known as Challenging. The 2013 Portland Challenge will live on in our hearts, in our memories and in this excellent video on YouTube by Laurel Kurtz. THANK YOU ALL!!!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Final Event Details

Swimmers/Paddlers/Challengers of all stripes, we are looking forward to seeing you this Sunday September 8 for the 2013 Portland Challenge! A few last-minute reminders: If you have a life jacket, please bring it. We will have the usual pile on hand, but we never know how many swimmers are going to show up. The more personal floatation devices we have, the better! Also: there will be a dragon boat race on the Willamette around the same time as our crossing. Both the sponsoring dragon boat organization and the U.S. Coast Guard are aware that there will be multiple events on the Willamette on Sunday and neither we nor they foresee any reason for a conflict. The Portland Challenge loves dragon boats and the dragon boaters have a healthy appreciation for the Portland Challenge! Last but not least, here is the line-up of bands for the afterparty back at The Slammer: Horse Fingers, Big Duck, Los Chinches (NYC) and Le onde del cielo (Switzerland). See you on Challenge Day!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Event Details

The 2013 Portland Challenge will begin at High Noon on Sunday September 8. Come to The Slammer Tavern (500 SE 8th Ave) for all your life-jacket borrowing, T-shirt purchasing, donation-making, hot-dog-and-hamburger-eating, valuable-checking-in and Karaoke-From-Hell listening needs. The journey to the river will begin at approximately 2pm. The crossing--which will take place just south of the Hawthorne Bridge--will begin at approximately 3pm. After the crossing (and group shower at Salmon Street Springs, of course!) Challengers will be shuttled back to the Slammer for an outrageously fun block party with more live tunes, libations and rustic NW cuisine. As in years past, if you can bring your own life jacket, please do!

Nangu's Grocery

In keeping with the spirit of Portland Challenge events of years past, the proceeds from 2013 Portland Challenge will go toward launching a worthy community project in Tanzania. The beneficiary of this year's event will be Nangu's Grocery, a proposed income-generating gathering place and affordable store in Babati, Tanzania. Nangu Mpinga, a resident of Babati, Tanzania, proposed the project to Jay Boss Rubin several years ago as a way he could both better serve his community and better care for his two young children. After drawing up a budget and consulting with some micro-economic development experts, Jay and Nangu came to an agreement: the proceeds from the 2013 Portland Challenge will be used to launch Nangu's Grocery, and once it's up and running Nangu's Grocery will begin setting aside a portion of its proceeds to help launch another worthy community endeavor. Our fundraising goal is $5,323. You can help us meet it by donating in person at the 2013 Portland Challenge on September 8, or by donating online via Indiegogo. Remember, it is FREE to participate in the Portland Challenge but we do our best to raise money via local business sponsorships, participant donations, concession sales and associated fundraising events. Chip in! Spread the word! Many hands make for light work! And don't forget, "asante" means "thank you" in Swahili!


The following is an excerpt from the very excellent book The Renegade Sportsman (Riverhead, 2010), by Portland author Zach Dundas. He attended the "Fifth and Final" Portland Challenge as a participant/journalist and had the pleasure of rowing several hundred pairs of shoes across the Mighty Willamette. This year's shoe boat is being constructed as we speak. It will be captained on Sunday September 8 by Mr. Christopher Fanshier. Thank you Chris! And thank you Zach, for the most multidimensional and literary description of Challenging to ever hit print.

From Chapter Seven: How To Rule The World of Sports for Fun and Profit (No Profit Guaranteed):

While Jay Boss Rubin’s enthusiasm and loopy psychogeography appealed to me, I suspected that the Portland Challenge would be crawling with hippies, who would drive me crazy. On Challenge day, I arrived at the Slammer Tavern, a broken-down saloon that looks like a haunted barn transplanted into the city, and discovered I was not wrong. A couple hundred Port¬land Challengers coagulated in the roped-off street, checking out each other’s costumes (yes, Jay encouraged costumes) and drinking Pabst. One guy had a red and black necktie around his head. A woman wore a Mexican wrestling mask backwards. Jay himself scampered around in cutoff jeans and a beat-up flannel shirt, distributing life jackets from a huge pile in the back of a graffiti-covered old wine truck. Meanwhile, a band composed of aged longhairs played on the Slammer’s roof, whimpering out jam-rock critiques of national policy. One long, bedraggled anthem revolved around the singer’s repeated declaration, “I . . . con-shee-ent-ious-leee ob-ject! I . . . con-shee-entiously ob-ject!
I have a more robust tolerance for subcultural whimsy than some. In my tenure as an alternative-newspaper reporter, I inter¬viewed many conspiracy theorists, third-party politicians, life¬style activists, and self-styled “social change agents,” and never let the fact that these sources often teetered on the brink of out¬right vagrancy prevent me from presenting their provocative ideas to the public. I filed many stories based on the views of people the Wall Street Journal would expel from its offices with armed guards. All the same, scenes like the Portland Challenge preparty tickle the more misanthropic chords of my being. When I see a grown man wearing a rainbow Afro wig in broad daylight, I am liable to start talking in a loud voice about general military conscription. I was very glad I had invited my friend Jeremy along as my Challenger wingman. Jeremy is one of the most good-hearted and good-humored people now living, and I hoped his unfailing cheer would see me through the Challenge. He’s also one of those physically capable types—he builds things and so forth. I figured he could save me if I started to drown.
Jay Boss Rubin found us and handed us each an oar and gave Jeremy an orange hand-stenciled sign reading “SHOE BOAT.” “It’s tied to a rock on the riverbank, man,” he said. “Little white boat. Can’t miss it.” The idea was that the Challengers could dump their shoes in our boat, and we would ferry the chausseures to the far side of the river. (Ordinarily, the hygienic implications might give me pause. The previous night’s downpour meant a healthy combined-sewage overflow into the waves we would paddle, so I thought, what the hell.) While most of our fellow Challengers would swim, we would be part of a small fleet. Two canoes sat on the pavement next to a vessel fashioned from an old aluminum tub, lashed-together boards, and empty water-cooler jugs. This craft had its name, Desolation Row (ha!), spray-painted on its side and a tattered, homemade peace-symbol flag aloft.
At a megaphone signal from Jay Boss Rubin, a group called the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers, a corps of marching-band percussionists in matching black jackets, formed ranks and started pounding away. The ragtag mob took shape behind them, and we started off for the river about eight blocks away. Challengers at the front of the pack raised a huge banner with the enigmatic slogan “Gone to Bongo,” and a couple hundred people in life jackets and quizzical headgear commenced to block traffic on some of Portland’s busiest streets. The drum corps’ cadences exploded off the asphalt and concrete over¬passes along the Willamette’s banks. Jeremy and I found our¬selves next to the crew of Desolation Row, a grizzled bunch who pushed their tub at a deliberate pace, so as not to spill the cock¬tails balanced on its plywood deck. Three twenty-something kids, including the fellow with the necktie on his head, scampered past us with an inflatable raft. “I’m ready for glory!” he hollered. “I’m ready for glory!” Who wasn’t? The spirit of Lewis and Clark was alive and well.
As we neared the river, unlikely people started to join in. A middle-aged couple, all in black, looked like they’d just stepped out of a suburban casino or a midnight public-access televangelism program: she had a big puff of frosted blond hair, strappy black high heels, and silver-spangled painted toes; he had a pattern-baldness pompadour, a black short-sleeve button-up, black slacks, and black tasseled loafers. Did they plan to swim the river? What about the gray-haired man in the kilt? Did the future of Challenging include unexpected popularity in the AARP demographic?
The Portland Challenge reached the riverbank, a tumble of grimy boulders underneath a freeway escarpment. Jeremy and I spotted a dubious little white skiff and made a dash for it—a few Challengers, confronted with the actual river, now struck me as potential Shoe Boat hijackers. I scrambled aboard, and Jeremy held up our sign. A rain of Teva sandals and mungy high-tops filled the shallow boat in about a minute. Challengers splashed past us into the water. The river now held a flotilla of bobbing, giggling heads, inner tubes, and rafts. Jeremy and I decided that the Shoe Boat was at capacity, and tried to shove off. A few last stowaways bum-rushed us, and we relented for two women with large sunglasses, digital cameras, and jarringly fashionable out¬fits, and a grinning Tanzanian man named Elvis. We set sail.
With five people and uncounted shoes as cargo, the Shoe Boat rode pretty low in the water. I noticed this at about the same time I noticed that Jay’s oars didn’t fit the boat’s oarlocks. Jeremy had handed his implement off to Elvis. Elvis and I sat next to each other and hacked at the water. In a photo Jeremy took from his station in the prow, our female companions look like they’re enjoying a pleasure-craft outing on the Seine. Elvis looks like he is doing the most fun thing he has ever done in his life (though based on our brief acquaintance, I would say he probably always looks like that). I’m holding my paddle in a manner that suggests I am completely unfamiliar with boats, water, and elementary mechanics. Also, as though I’m about to cry like a small child.
At about this point, I glanced over my shoulder, to see a few gawkers scattered along the civilized shore, twenty yards behind us. I admit that I wondered what the hell I was doing— all very well for Jay Boss Rubin to dupe goofball Portlanders into the Willamette, but why me, hard-nosed cynic and con¬firmed hydrophobe? I looked to starboard and saw Desolation Row. Somehow, the empty water jugs strapped to the tub with duct tape provided enough ballast to support four people. Just. A man in tattered jeans stood on the narrow deck, waving the giant peace-symbol flag and whooping in the shadow of the hundred-year-old bridge above us.
Under ordinary circumstances, this sight would annoy me mightily, so I was caught off guard by a surge of benevolent good¬will. The Row and its crew, maybe because they could sink at any second, made their silly Boomer-nostalgia banner seem bold and forthright—the world would, I thought in this moment of either weakness or insight, be a better place if we were all out Challenging instead of killing each other. Certainly it would have been hard to find a group of two hundred people happier, on average, than the Challengers at that moment. Fifty yards off the Shoe Boat’s port bow, I could see Jay Boss Rubin backstroking in his bright red life jacket, smiling like a holy fool straight out of Jack Kerouac at his most overwrought and excellent. The Challenge temporarily seized and reinvented part of the city, taking over streets and freeing ordinary places from their ordinariness. This is one thing the new world of DIY sport is good for: we Challengers changed the city’s fabric, even if just for a few minutes, and made it more interesting. Maybe this wasn’t strictly sport, but it was a very pure form of play, and I could see that it delighted those who chanced to see it. As the Shoe Boat crept along beneath the bridge, we passed a fancy sailboat, standing idle in the middle of the river. A man and a woman stood on deck smiling, applauding, and taking pictures. Maybe they would tell some friends about us over cocktails—about the mob of lunatics swimming the Willamette. Today, we were the Show.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Return of the Portland Challenge!!!

As promised back in the dog and salad days of 2007, the Portland Challenge "will challenge on in new, exciting and unpredictable ways in the years to come!" In celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the cultural/recreational phenomenon known as "Challenging," this summer the Portland Challenge is coming back. Mark your calenders SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 8, 2013 for the RETURN OF THE PORTLAND CHALLENGE!!! Cross the Willamette without the use of money, motors or bridges. Swim the width of your local waterway, help raise money for worthy community projects in Tanzania and in Portland and eat hamburgers and hot dogs at the Slammer Tavern while listening to the sweet sounds of Karaoke From Hell, the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers, Big Duck, Los Chinches, Le Onde Del Cielo and more. All the details, coming soon!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

2007 Portland Challenge--Final Report!

The Fifth and Final Portland Challenge unfolded under gray skies and amidst concerns of unsanitary swimming conditions. Nevertheless, 134 participants signed up, tromped down to the green-brown waters of the Willamette River then crossed to the other side without money, motors or bridges. A wise man once said: “You go swimming in the river you have, not the river you want.”
Although last month’s event was billed as the “Fifth and Final Portland Challenge,” event organizers explained that the August 19, 2007, incident, was more like “the fifth in a series of five.” Which means? The Portland Challenge will challenge on in new, exciting, and unpredictable ways in the years to come! Stay tuned for further developments.

Sunday, July 29, 2007