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White Stage sign in Portland, Oregon.

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No experience necessary. Reservations not necessary for rentals, but necessary for lessons. Private instruction; 1 person $50 per hour; 2 people $65 per hour. The Alder Creek flagship store is in north Portland on Jantzen Beach in the Columbia River, (503) 285-0464.

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Updated: February 23, 2012 8:06AM

PORTLAND, Ore. — A city is best experienced from ground level.

Some of my most vivid neighborhood memories are of the embryonic years of Key West, Fla., Oakland, Calif., and even Wicker Park in Chicago. During the mid-1980s I lived in a graffiti-tagged, former heroin shooting gallery across the park from the Busy Bee, a superb Polish diner. I do not recognize Wicker Park anymore. It could be anywhere.

The City of Portland, Ore., also is regentrified but has been able to retain its funky spirit.

The tourism bureau tells writers (at least like me) about historic strip clubs such as Mary’s, “Portland’s First Topless,” which dates back to 1954. “Portlandia” is the most popular show on the Independent Film Channel (IFC) because stars Fred Armisen — a former Wicker Park resident, and Carrie Brownstein — a Portland resident — poke fun at the city’s urban pretense with TLC.

In a recent conference call with Armisen, Brownstein called Portland a “sensitive” city.

Sensitivity is a key component of humor — and travel. “It’s exciting when anything is struggling,” Armisen said. “The best time to be there is when it’s not completely there yet. That’s what is exciting about Detroit right now, that it’s kind of reinventing itself and dealing with the fact that it already had its heyday as the center of the United States. It’s struggling, which makes it such an attractive place.”

I thought of a recent trip to Portland where I went kayaking with Jerry Lanz, a guide-instructor at Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe in downtown Portland [(888) 285-0464;]. The 26-year-old company is based out of a boathouse along the Willamette River, and while the river never freezes, the high season launches in early April.

We paddled downstream, where the Portland skyline carried the extended melody of an M. Ward guitar solo. We paddled under Portland’s iconic bridges. We went by Ross Island, which is in city limits. The old mining island was donated to the city and is being developed as a park with native plants and trees. It’s a city park with no access besides water craft. How Portland is that? The river in downtown Portland connects to bigger things: The Columbia River is 10 miles south downstream. Then, it’s another 80 miles to the Pacific Ocean.

Lanz was born and raised in suburban Detroit. He studied history and sociology at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. In addition to working the waterways, Lanz is a professional model for Portland-area art schools. He’s been modeling for 40 years.

He came to Portland in 1976.

“When I came here I realized how Detroit grew out from the center into suburbs,” said Lanz, 62. “Where Portland, because of its land use, the inner city communities are vibrant. The parks are vibrant. Detroit died out from the center. There is interest in Detroit now, but it’s a long way from recovery.” Lanz occasionally visits his hometown. “There’s miles of empty land,” he said. “The buildings are empty shells with no glass. One of the things that attracts people to Portland is that it is new. It hasn’t completely gotten there. It is attracting young people. I moved here because I wanted to be close to water.”

We took our journey in a 14-1/2 feet-long plastic kayak. It weighed 55 pounds. About 80 percent of our paddling consisted of foreword strokes. ($30 half a day on a kayak; four hours, $50 for 24 hours). “This river was the central transportation corridor from the 1850s well until the 1950s,” Lanz said. “Cars started developing, and they put Interstate 5 over the bridge, that pretty much was the end of the river as transportation. Mainly it’s tourists now. A few barges are manufactured alongside the river.” Lanz was the perfect tour guide because his passion for history .

After our journey Lanz explained, “With the current, paddling about 4 miles you could do 25 miles. We went round trip about 6 miles. Most people that rent here do a half day. They paddle, stop for a snack on the island and come back. The wind comes in during the afternoon.”

The back channel near the island has been declared non-motorized by Oregon Marine Board, so it is a prime no-wake spot for canoeing, kayaking and bird-watching. We saw great blue heron, osprey, and Lanz said there is an active bald eagle nest on the island.

Marcus Hibdon, Communications and Public Relations Manager for Travel Portland (cool logo at said, “‘Portlandia’ has done some wonderful things for raising the profile of Portland. We don’t have a way to know if ‘Portlandia’ is driving a lot of visitors to the city, but we assume it will. We know it is a popular show. It does a great job of exaggerating Portland’s color and personality to an absurd level but also showing it is the type of place that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It can have a laugh at its own expense.”

Information for this article was gathered in a research trip sponsored by Travel Portland.

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