The song of the river is as varied as the landscape through which it flows. Now rushing, crashing through the canyons, tossing white foam with wild impulse – then suddenly nearly silent as it eases its way past luminous sunlit pools. Sometimes broad and implacable, or sullen and swollen with spring runoff – then laughing guilelessly as it bounces its way through narrow gorges of its own carving. Disappearing into hidden tunnels, then unexpectedly gushing forth again, the river marks its course with merry abandon. The broad river basin catches the creeks, the tributaries, snowmelt and runoff from the steep ridges of the watersheds that divide it into sub-basins – always pushing, ever onward, these waters join the rivers of that flow endlessly to the sea.
Many rivers carve the face of the Klamath-Siskiyou. Mesmerizing in their beauty, both tranquil and fierce, they are the heart and lifeblood of the region. Most of the rivers in this region are tributaries of either the mighty Rogue River in the north, or the enduring Klamath River south of the Siskiyou Crest. The Rogue and Klamath are two of only three rivers which have their origin in Oregon, either within the volcanic Cascade Range, or to the east of it, and travel westward clear to the Pacific Ocean. The third is the Umpqua River, the South Fork of which traverses the upper portion of the Klamath-Siskiyou Region.
The true history of these unique rivers and the roles they have played in shaping the Klamath-Siskiyou is as tangled as the mysterious mountains through which they have cut their channels. They are considered antecedent drainages, meaning they existed long before the formidable jumble known as the Klamath Knot formed into its present topographical shape. Somehow these rivers, pulsing with life, held their positions despite the calamitous geological upheaval surrounding them which literally carried ancient rocks from the ocean floor far inland and pushed them up into mountain peaks.
The Rogue River, running 215 miles from its origin to the coast, has the largest wild fish populations of any coastal river in Oregon. It is also the largest producer of Pacific salmon and steelhead of any river beginning and ending in Oregon, with over 85,000 anadromous fish returning from the ocean each year. The watershed of the Rogue River Basin includes the five major sub-basins of the Upper Rogue, Middle Rogue, and Lower Rogue; and the Applegate and Illinois Rivers, draining 5156 square miles.
The headwaters of the main Rogue River burst forth at Boundary Springs, on the north flank of what once was Mt. Mazama, which now holds the famous Crater Lake in its collapsed caldera. The river runs north for half a mile, cascading through waterfalls, and charging through the narrow lava channel of the Rogue Gorge, no more than 10 feet wide in places. It disappears into a 250 foot lava tube at the Natural Bridge formation, and just as suddenly reappears again, receiving numerous creeks along its tumultuous path. Below the Woodruff Bridge, the river rages and foams through the Takelma Gorge, a narrow chute carved between 150 foot lava walls. It passes through a diversion dam at the small town of Prospect, Oregon, and continues southwest to the Lost Creek Lake and dam, where it is joined by its South and Middle forks, as well as Red Blanket Creek – all originating in the volcanic Cascades.
From the dam at Lost Creek, the Rogue runs free for 157 miles to its mouth at Gold Beach – a lost freedom regained for the first time in nearly a hundred years, after three dams below this point were removed in recent years. Fish populations have started to recover but there is more work to do. A little more than half, or 124 miles of the Rogue have been designated by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act – yet this is not necessarily an indication of ecological health.
The Klamath River originates at Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon’s high desert east of the Cascades. Tumbling through the Cascade Mountains it travels a roundabout 263 mile southwesterly course from Oregon through California to the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Coast. In 1905, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Irrigation Project opened the door for widespread agricultural development along the Upper Klamath. Unfortunately, this ultimately destroyed thousands of acres of wetland, as well as interrupting and blocking fish runs through dams and diversions. This influence has continued to impact the entire length of the Klamath River.
The Klamath Basin is extensive, draining over 16,000 square miles. Primary sub-basins that lie within the Klamath-Siskiyou Region include the Butte, Scott, Shasta, Salmon, Trinity, and South Fork Trinity. Just 11.7 miles of the Klamath have been designated as Wild, with 23.5 designated Scenic, and the remainder as recreational. It was once the third most productive river for anadromous fish on the west coast, with combined run sizes estimated from 660,000 to over a million per year, but these have declined to a fraction of their former glory.
These rivers face continued threats from dams, increased water temperatures, logging, mining, road-building, pesticides, toxic metals, sewage, and other contaminants from urban development. In the Rogue Basin, Coho Salmon are listed as threatened; and spring Chinook and Steelhead are declining. In the Klamath Basin, Coho Salmon, Steelhead, and Spring Chinook are all listed as threatened, and Fall Chinook have declined. In 2002, fish kill on the Klamath River was the largest in recorded American history. Numbers included more than 34,000 anadromous fish, predominantly Fall Chinook with some Coho and Steelhead. These fish perished while attempting to return to their spawning grounds due to high water temperatures and overcrowding. Reduced flow from Iron Gate Dam was believed to be a major contributing factor.
Both the Rogue and Klamath also have small breeding populations of rare Green Sturgeon, a slow-growing, long-lived anadromous fish which may reach up to 6 or 7 feet in length, weigh as much as 350 pounds, and live 60 or 70 years. Green Sturgeon populations have survived unchanged since the Jurassic period 200 million years ago, and are truly living fossils. The Rogue is the only river in Oregon where these mysterious fish are known to regularly spawn, though apparently spawning has occurred on the Umpqua River on rare occasions.
Hatcheries have often been put in to mitigate the effects of dams. However, according to studies conducted by Rebecca M. Quiñones, a post-doctoral researcher with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, hatchery dominated fish populations have decreased genetic diversity, which also results in the fish being more vulnerable to environmental change. There is growing support for removal of four dams on the Klamath, along with restoration projects.
Rivers are the arteries which carry the force of life, nourishing the soils of the region and sustaining the plants and animals. When the health of a river declines, it not only impacts fish populations, but ultimately other wildlife populations, as well as the diversity of plant species. The rivers are resilient, and though it will take time, it is not too late for them to recover. The important thing is to recognize the need and begin to listen to the song of the river.