Paddling on the Upper Klamath will see big changes with the upcoming dam removals 

By Krystal Marie Collins

Lying on the deck of the raft, below the captain’s seat, I looked up at the oar grips rowing themselves, then to the backs of my passengers. In a split second, I wondered to myself, “Does this count as ghost boating?” Crashing through each ledge drop in Scarface Rapid (IV), on the Upper Klamath River (UK), it felt as if our five pack was free falling down a steep staircase in a cardboard box or laundry basket. I tried to get back in the saddle while everyone was none-the-wiser. I got bucked right back down. My boss and the other guides in the boat eventually turned around to see my folly. This was not the high note I was hoping to leave everyone on as we pulled over in the lunch eddy below the rapid.

As my cohort spread mustard on sourdough, and I ate a salad wrap, I reflected on our obvious differences. Although I like to think of myself as being in my peak physical prime, entering guide school at 37 years old is an obvious red-flag indicator of an early onset midlife crisis. Anyone my age in the group had already been guiding for fifteen plus years. Any greenhorns were at least a decade younger than me. I watered down these truths by reassuring myself that while the Upper Klamath was by far the biggest whitewater I’d ever navigated from the captain’s seat, I had a lot to offer the group in years of experience as a private boater. 

After my internal monologue pep talk, I picked myself up by my bootstraps, dusted myself off, and got back into the boat. 

Still, the embarrassment of my lackluster showing on Scarface stuck with me through the next face-off — Snag Island Rapid (Class IV). Coming round a blind left corner, I was trying so hard to hug the left bank, I forgot to mind my downstream oar. Like a vertical clothesline, the oar caught on one of the seemingly infinite shallow entrapment rocks, stuck and nearly buckled. Yikes. Through no skilled maneuver of mine, like making slop pockets in the game of pool, we broke free and made it through the rapid. 

On my second round on the UK I rowed the bulk of the commercial stretch but not the meatiest Class IV+ section in the middle. By this time, I had improved a lot. I didn’t have any seat ejections, kept my hands on the oars and paid a lot more attention to my downstream blade. Even though most boaters only talk about running the meat on the UK, (i.e. Caldera, Satan’s Gate and Hell’s Corner Rapids), I count myself lucky to have experienced rowing any of it. 

The removal of the John C Boyle Dam which governs daily flow control on the Upper Klamath, has been green-lighted for demolition in 2023. This dam removal, along with three others along the Klamath, is touted as the biggest in US history, according to the Earth Law Center. 

Dam Complicated 

Balancing on the border of Oregon and California, known as the “Everglades of the West,” the Klamath wetlands, basin and watershed is home to mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, cougar, black bear, river otters and over 400 other wildlife species. More than 75% of migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway use the basin as a stopover. 

The section boated commercially on the UK, although dam controlled, boasts a Wild and Scenic Rivers designation from the put in at Spring Island day use site through to Stateline Falls Rapid (Class III), the marker between Southern Oregon and Northern California. 

In its entirety, the river flows 257 miles from the Oregon desert into California and the Pacific Ocean, crossing through tribal lands. Through time immemorial, tribes like Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, Shasta and Klamath have fished for Chinook, Coho, steelhead, cutthroat trout, green and white sturgeon, and Pacific lamprey. They have depended on the river for physical, spiritual, cultural and economic nourishment. 

Upper Klamath

Passengers and guides witness a majestic downriver deer crossing on the Wild and Scenic Upper Klamath (Krystal Marie Collins).

In its headwaters, the Klamath contains some of the largest rainbow trout in the world. Dams set for removal along the Klamath River corridor have significantly muddied the water (literally and figuratively) and block 300 miles of historic salmon habitat. 

To bring together dynamic Klamath Basin stakeholders, the Klamath River Renewal Project (KRRP) was forged and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) was created. The first step of the KHSA is dam removal. 

“The KHSA is supported by governments, tribal nations, irrigators, fishermen, and conservation groups …” explains the KRRP website. “One area of broad agreement in the Basin is that more robust runs of fish will benefit virtually every sector of the Klamath Basin – agriculture, tribes, tourism, recreation, conservation interests, recreational and commercial fishermen, the local economy and the ecosystem as a whole.” 

Two of the four dams slated for removal were built over fifty years ago (which is the generally accepted life expectancy of a dam); the other two are over 100 years old. Damming on the UK began in service first to mining booms in the 1850s, and in the 1870s, wetland draining and diversion practices started to meet settlers’ agricultural and homesteading needs. 

Desired outcomes with dam removal include restoration of traditional salmon runs and elimination of ongoing toxic blue-green algae bloom issues. 

Rafting on the UK will see big changes with the upcoming dam removals 

Rafters have mixed feelings. Like clockwork, every day between 10-11AM a release from JC Boyle and Powerhouse moves water levels from 400 to at least 1,600 CFS (cubic feet per second), if not more. These releases allow the section to be consistently commercially rafted throughout the season. Where most commercially rafted big water day trips on the Kern, Trinity or American are dependent on natural water-shed processes, the UK is essentially a dynamic irrigation ditch controlled by someone pushing a button. 

Without these releases, flow will be controlled by snowmelt and rain. The highest flow potential will be in the spring tapering into the summer. The consistency of guiding daily trips on the 1,600 CFS needed to accommodate the whitewater experience being sold will not be possible. Instead, some outfitters have discussed shifting permits and operations to cater to fishing. The Wild and Scenic Upper Klamath will likely be raftable for at least part of the year, but it’s uncertain what the ceiling for flows might be, and if Caldera, Hell’s Corner and Satan’s Gate will ever take their once mighty shape. 

Noah’s River Adventures raft guide, Trevor Fulton has this to say:

“I’d say the dam removal is bittersweet. It’s unfortunate that we’re losing an amazing section of consistent, year-round class IV, but if it cleans up the water as much as they say it will, then it’s probably worth it.”

As a paddler, I don’t lament the loss of these dams or the associated Class IV+ whitewater. I am a whitewater nomad, a free agent, unattached to any one waterway. Besides, who can deny that the nature of river profiles is to shift and change, with or without dams? While we might try to control rivers in the short term, in the endgame we are powerless — sometimes the oars slip out of our hands. The river is indifferent to stakeholder needs. And that is the definition of Wild and Scenic.