Disappearance and Return on the Klamath River

By Katharine Blake McFarland

408px-Klamath_river_CaliforniaLast weekend I slept in the back of my car by a stream in the Klamath River Basin, a territory that stretches across the top of California and into Southern Oregon. This is how you camp when you don't have a tent, and it still does the trick. You still get to watch for shooting stars and you still wake up in the cold and the mist, with no one around for miles.

The Klamath River itself is a river upside down. Like most rivers, it flows North to South, but unlike most rivers, which begin as trickles high up in the mountains, the Klamath begins in farmland and then winds its way down to the mountainous Pacific coast. In other words, the terrain gets wilder and higher as the river runs south. In the droughty state of California, the Klamath's 266 miles of water are sought after like the gold once buried below its banks. Indian tribes, farmers, fishermen, conservationists—and at one point, even, Dick Cheney—have all thrown down the gauntlet over the river. Meanwhile, coho salmon, Chinook salmon, and stealhead trout follow their migratory patterns upstream as they've done for thousands of seasons; but fewer and fewer make the journey each year.

Seven thousand years ago, before the logging and lawsuits and fish kills, when the river's waters were cooler than they are now and cleaner than they'll likely ever be again, salmon were called ney-puy. Yurok Indians built their villages along the river's banks from keehl (fallen red wood trees), used dentalia shells, like tiny white elephant tusks, for money, and danced the u pyue-wes and mey-lee (White Deerskin dance and Brush dance). The first white settlers to meet the Yuork tribe in the early 19th century were fur traders, interested in the territory for its beavers. But interest outpaced supply, and soon both beavers and fur traders disappeared. This was the first time the river's ecology changed because of humans: beaver dams and ponds tempered the river's winterfloods and created wetland habitats for the Northern Spotted Owl and other animals; without them, flooding caused erosion and wetlands dried out.

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