From the Pacific Northwest to the River Wild: Lessons from the Klamath

5 Min. Read
From the Pacific Northwest to the River Wild: Lessons from the Klamath River

We are still living in a time of pandemic. It’s gloomy, but it’s our reality. Every day we are practicing resilience, caring for each other, and living through grief and uncertainty. It’s a lot to carry. Reminding ourselves of that feels important.

And when every day feels just a little bit harder, the times filled with true relaxation are that much more special. Nothing does that for me like river time.

Portland to California road trip

Last summer we piled our little crew of four into the car and drove seven hours south to join OARS for three days of rafting on the Lower Klamath River in Northern California. As we navigated traffic, a heat wave, and closed roads due to ever-present forest fires and their aftermath, Huey and Cullen (ages 8 and 11 at the time) serenaded my partner Amiri and I with alternating snores and a chorus of “are we there yets?” While they are Pacific Northwest kids through and through, and have spent countless hours hiking and playing outside with Amiri, this was their first multi-day river trip.

The Lower Klamath is a great river trip for families and groups. Our group of 14, ranging from ages 6 to 80, consisted of three families and four raft guides. There were brothers and sons, cousins, birthdays, long-planned vacations, and coming-of-age traditions with us on the journey. The river is a beautiful place for a reunion. A place away from cell phones and video games, emails and blue light. Out there, under the moon and stars, we connect with each other.

Inflatable kayaking on the Lower Klamath River near Happy Camp, CA

The chance to spend time together outside with Amiri (it was his first river trip, too) and the boys was such a treat. I spent years working in leadership at summer camps and youth-focused nonprofits that included outdoor education, so the joy I feel when I watch little kids explore, discover and do something they didn’t know they could do is immeasurable. This trip had a lot of those moments.

It was so fun to watch Huey and Cullen each find rocks at heights that they were comfortable jumping off from into the river. They were learning to be comfortable outside of their comfort zones.

Huey loves to help, so getting out of the raft to “help” the guides scout a rapid was a highlight for him. Realizing that some of the other kids were nervous and anxious also helped him step into his own bravery. When given the option to walk around instead of go through the rapid, it was great to see him hop in the raft and face the unknown. Cullen is arguably the more cautious one at times, but he shined on the river and loved being in his own inflatable kayak and taking on the biggest rapids of his life. In flat water stretches, the guides introduced a game of “knock-off,” which was a favorite. It was also nice to see Cullen just relax on the raft, soak it all in, and experience the journey at his own pace. We often remind them that nature is a way to take a breath and come back to themselves.

Lower Klamath River rafting with OARS

One evening, we found ourselves in silent anticipation watching an osprey dive on three separate occasions and then come up with a fish in its claws. If you’d only heard the crowd cheer, you might have thought we were watching the World Series. (I left the Klamath a huge fan of team Osprey.) At other times, we pointed in awe at the two baby bears we saw bumbling through briars across the river and at the wingspan of bald eagles and turkey vultures. I believe these experiences help us stay curious.

The Klamath River Basin is not only beautiful, it’s a controversial place. It feels disingenuous to visit this river corridor, which stretches from southern Oregon to the Pacific Coast in Northern California, and not also attempt to recognize the reality of how hard life is here for those who call this place home. For decades, the Klamath has been embroiled in a “water war” among all those who rely on its resources for their survival and livelihoods.

This basin is the homelands of four tribes—the Klamath, Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa Valley Tribes—who remain on the forefront of environmental protection, despite constant attempts at destabilization. These tribes have worked to restore wetlands, protect various species of suckerfish, and have stood in opposition to the controversial hydroelectric dams on the river, which are slated to be removed starting in 2023.

Environmental justice advocate Faith Briggs

When I get to visit a place like this, I feel like it’s my duty to also try to better understand what it means to be here. From the raft guides to the other trip participants, we all shared our knowledge and were able to learn more about the Klamath River Basin from each other. We made sure to include the kids in the conversation, too. This is how we can teach people to not only love these wild places, but also protect them. After all, these wild places are not only our homes and our playgrounds, they are also made up of limited natural resources.

Floating down the river, I have hope. I believe that water is a place where we can and need to come together. Every day, riparian zones are being damaged, pipelines are polluting our water, people in the United States are living in places with water so poisoned that they have to use bottled water to bathe. These are facts that should be in our purview. Every day, we have the opportunity to show up, to get to know the places that we want to protect, to stand up for clean water. This is also what Amiri and I hope to teach the kids by bringing them outside to these special places.

I think we can do that one river trip at a time. Each river we get to know, each lake we learn to paddle on, every fish we see, or bird we learn about, we get closer to the world around us. Water is so important. We get to play in it, drink it, and experience opportunities that we hope to share with future generations of avid adventurers, first time explorers and lifelong protectors
of these places.

Photos: Amiri Rose

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