Before you start, watch some videos on self-rescues so that you have an idea what to expect. There are lots of these available, so look and learn. Do some web searches as there is a decent bit of information about the river online, such as this:
Once you reach the water, put on your immersion gear and go into the water. If you can stand the temperature, then that's as bad as it will get all day.
The Williamette isn't a fast moving body of water when it reaches Portland, and I've paddled that in canoes before. Here, there may be wakes from the occasional ship or tug of which you might wish to be aware. Turn into any such turbulence and take it bow on (since you are a novice, I'm not going to recommend trying to surf). If you are on another part of the river, I can't comment on the conditions. I can say that when you paddle beside on of the large ships, you get a real perspective of not only their size and power, but also just how insignificant you are to one of them.
If you are planning a solo paddle, the following applies:
Stay close to shore - no further than you wish to swim. This may put a crimp in your style, but taking chances before you are familiar with the risks and learn what it is like to paddle this body of water is ill-advised. Bring a well protected cell phone or other signalling gear and leave a float plan with the local authorities (sheriff, coast guard, park rangers or whatever)
If you are paddling with a partner, both of you review and practice rescues. Yeah, it may not be necessary, but it is always better to have the training and not use it than the other way around.
I'd consider asking locally (perhaps the local shop) if there are any tours/groups going out and ask if you could accompany same. I've done this before and had some fairly memorable experiences. If this happens, take advantage of the situation and practice some rescues.
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