The Klamath Challenge

Nearing the Coast
Wild osprey nest along the banks of the southern Klamath River.

All was quiet. As we floated downstream, the ocean only a few days away, we were surrounded by a fish and wildlife haven. The feeder streams to the Klamath River pour from a mountain knot that hides some of the most diverse country in America. On the river, which provides access for anybody, you can see a continual abundance of birds, wildlife and fish.

As you tumble and float down the river, you feel as if you are being allowed to view nature's secrets. The feeling comes quickly: At our put-in at Iron Gate Dam, a golden eagle winged past. Each mile brings something new, if you look for it.

In the first 100 miles, we saw 25 species of birds, as well as otters and deer. Claypole, who lives in a cabin about 40 yards from the river, told me he had seen 125 species of birds in a 10-year span. Scientists say there are 280 species of animals along the Klamath.

"This country is a coming together of different mountains," Claypole said."It's ancient and diversified. That's why so many different kinds of birds and mammals live here. The river comes alive with birds, and we're like intruders getting a secret glimpse."

In the spring, the most abundant birds are nesting waterfowl, primarily mergansers, mallards and Canadian geese. Osprey, which nest on the top of dead trees, and blue heron cruise up and down the river canyon. Occasionally we saw turkey vultures staring at us from their perches, apparently waiting for us to tip over.

Rivers are the lifeblood of this world; without them, we have nothing. The fisheries on the Klamath are prime examples of that. The Klamath remains home to one of the largest steelhead runs anywhere, with fish arriving from the ocean from August to April.

When trailblazer Jedediah Smith first saw the Klamath, he said there were so many salmon that "you could walk across the river on their backs." Now special controls are needed in an attempt to resurrect this once-great fishery. Fifty years of overharvest from commercial fishing and Indian netting-as well as significant damage to spawning habitat from heavy logging-has reduced the once-great salmon population here.

As we made our way, we could see spring coming to the river in different stages. On the upper river, the plants were just starting to bud. Down at Happy Camp near the Ikes, the pines were inching out growth on every limb. Wildflowers were blooming, among them fawn lilies and red larkspur. No matter what the river might hold in store for us, the beauty along the riverbanks transcended all.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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