Hamburg is not a very menacing name by whitewater standards, but we’d been obsessing about this rapid on the Lower Klamath River for weeks, because it comes just a quarter-mile into the run and all of us were feeling a bit rusty.
As a kayaker before my kids were born I’d sought out challenging whitewater, but that was years ago and I’m still new to rafting. In river terms, a kayak is like a rally car, quick to turn and accelerate out of danger. A raft is more akin to a semi that’s lost its air brakes. It will roll through almost anything but is slow to turn and absolutely will not stop. Sitting at the oars I felt like a commuter behind the wheel of a big rig—no stranger to highways but still way out of my depth.
My friend Marissa was in a similar headspace. She’d worked a few seasons as a raft guide in Colorado but hadn’t touched the sticks in ten years, unless you count the few hundred yards we’d drifted from the put in to the cobble bar where we stopped to scout Hamburg. We stared at the rapid for a few minutes, as river people do.
The drop was just as veteran river ranger Dave Paine had described to me on the phone a few days before, a blind turn with “three rocks stacked up on each other in the center of the current. If you hit those you could potentially wrap your boat right there and that could be pretty ugly.”
So many things in life require a leap of faith. Raising kids is one. So is restoring a river, or simply deciding to run it.
One glance confirmed Ranger Dave’s assessment was spot on. On the other hand, all it would take to miss those rocks was one well-timed stroke. I turned to Marissa.
“Looks pretty straightforward,” I said noncommittally.
“Yep,” she said.
“You wanna go first?”
My wife Nysa, who was captaining the third raft, had been saying for months that there was no way she was going to run Hamburg. Since I’d have hike back up and run her boat through, it made sense that I go first.
I shoved off, trying not to look nervous as the current grabbed hold of the raft and propelled it straight toward that jumble of rocks. When it was time to jag I heaved on the oars and the boat lurched easily, if not gracefully, around the obstacle. I eddied out and watched from below as Marissa styled the move, then I hiked up to run the rapid again, this time with my two young daughters on board.
This was a big moment for our family. Over the years we’d progressed from flat-water canoe trips to rafting easy whitewater on Oregon’s Rogue and Deschutes rivers, but this was the first time we’d faced legitimate rapids as a family, without a salty ex-guide for backup. Eager as we were to share our love of rivers with our daughters, we also worried about pushing too hard, too fast. One misplaced stroke here could set us back years.
Before we pushed off I reminded both girls to hold on tight. Amelia, my 9-year-old, gave me a solemn nod and closed her hands around a strap. Five-year-old Addie is more inclined to give advice than listen to it.
“Daddy we’re going to hit that rock,” she observed, just before we smoothly skirted the obstacle and splashed through a foamy wave at the bottom of the rapid. The girls hooted with joy, and Addie immediately demanded to go again.
With the day’s big rapid behind us we drifted with the current. A butterfly lighted on Amelia’s bright red lifejacket and stayed there for half a mile. She beamed. The sun was high and warm, the water pleasantly cool. Time seemed to slow down, as it so often does on rivers. We began to scan the shore for our first camp, which Ranger Dave had described in a drawl as smooth as a backwater eddy.
“Look for a stump about 12 feet high and big enough to stand in. That tree used to dominate the campsite and stood up to floods for years and years. That whole area burned in the Gap Fire in 2016 and a little trail of flame traveled down the grasses and hit that tree and it burned,” he said, as if describing the passing of an old friend.
“The high water the next year took it away, and now all that’s left is the stump.”
I was struck by the simple imagery of his description, which encompassed the natural phenomena, from fire to flood and the movement of debris, that constantly reshape rivers and the ecosystems that depend on them. The old cliché is that you never step into the same river twice, though that observation is less true on a river like the Klamath, which has been dammed for more than 100 years.
A massive change is in store for the river, where the largest dam removal project in U.S. history in on track for demolition to begin in 2021. The $450 million program, funded in part by California taxpayers, will remove four of the six dams on this federally designated Wild and Scenic River, which flows 257 miles through southern Oregon and northern California. The Klamath is both an important source of irrigation water and critical spawning ground for steelhead, lamprey and five species of Pacific salmon. Fish populations crashed after the first dam was built in 1918 and declined further with the construction of each new dam, the last of which was completed in 1965. Since then, persistent drought, disease, and overfishing have further decimated the salmon runs.
Area tribes, including the Karuk, Yurok and Klamath, together with commercial fishing interests and environmental groups have worked for decades in support of dam removal, which they believe will allow salmon runs to recover, perhaps to pre-dam levels. The river and fish it supports are at the center of the tribes’ traditional economy and cultural life, both of which are under threat. In 2017 the Klamath chinook run was so anemic that the Yurok Tribe was forced to use store-bought fish for its annual salmon festival.
“The Klamath salmon is as much a part of our traditional culture as our prayers and our drums,” Yurok Tribal Chairman Thomas O’Rourke said at the time. “That is what is at stake here, the continuation of our very existence as Yurok people.”
For all of its beauty, the Klamath is not a healthy river. One of our biggest worries as we planned the trip was the toxic blue-green algae that sometimes blooms in the reservoirs behind two of the dams, typically in late summer of low-water years. The water quality was fine during our trip in early July, however, and we found it hard to reconcile the river’s splendor with the knowledge that the ecological balance that sustains it has somehow gone askew.
Such thoughts were far from our minds as we drifted downriver, the six kids marveling at dragonflies as big as hummingbirds and watching the river bottom scroll below us.
Our group of 13 included my wife and our daughters, my mother-in-law, Marissa and her family, and good friends from San Francisco whose daughters are like cousins to our girls. We were three generations in three rafts, which is one of the great joys of river tripping. We traveled together at the river’s pace — no waiting for dawdling toddlers or chasing fitter members of the party, as we would on a backpacking trip.
The end of the second day brought Class III+ Savage Rapid, a tougher drop than Hamburg though far milder than its name suggests. In the run-out we spotted a massive bald eagle perched high in a Douglass Fir, managing to look magnificent and a little disheveled at the same time. The bird surveyed our little party as we floated along the edge of the “big ‘ole willow curtain” that Ranger Dave had told us marked the best campsite on the stretch. Three yellow rafts were tethered neatly on the sandy beach.
They belonged to OARS, a company renowned for multi-day guided rafting adventures on such rivers as the Colorado through the Grand Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho. They also run twice-weekly trips on the Lower Klamath, catering to families with small children. The OARS guests were already enjoying hors d’oeuvres next to their perfectly staked tents when we straggled in. Their guides graciously invited us to share the camp, and we set up on a corner of the beach where we feasted on fish tacos and toasted the American eagle a day early (it was July 3) with three rounds of cocktails: red, white, and blue. Rafting is easily the most luxurious form of backcountry camping. Marissa was baking a Dutch-oven cake for her daughter’s 9th birthday when one of the OARS guides strolled over with a plate of fruit and half a pineapple full of chocolate fondue.
They were generous to share the beach but knew there were no good campsites before the next set of rapids. While the sandy beaches on this stretch are lovely, there aren’t many of them. That’s common on dammed rivers, because much of the sediment that would normally replenish the beaches, and also create critical spawning beds for salmon and steelhead, settles out in the reservoirs.
According to some estimates, 30 million cubic yards of the stuff has accumulated behind the Klamath dams. What will become of all that mud, sand, and gravel is at the heart of the debate over dam removal. Those opposed, which include a majority of local residents, some farmers and the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors, argue that it could take decades for the sediments to wash downstream, and that in the meantime it could devastate salmon runs. They also worry that removing the dams will leave the area vulnerable to flood and drought, though none of the dams slated for removal are designed for flood control or water storage.
All of them looked a bit feral, but nobody had asked to watch a video in days.
Proponents of dam removal say most of the sediment will wash out in the first high-water season, as it did when dams were removed from the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic peninsula in 2012 and Columbia River tributaries in 2007 and 2011. Below one of those sites on the White Salmon River, “the quality of the spawning gravel that’s there now was just amazing,” exclaimed American Whitewater Stewardship Director Thomas O’Keefe. I took that assessment initially with a grain of salt, coming as it did from an advocate for kayakers and rafters, but later in our conversation O’Keefe mentioned his Ph.D. in aquatic ecology. He’s well versed in the science, which suggests the Klamath and its salmon populations will start to rebound in a matter of years rather than decades. But dam removal is still a leap of faith.
On our third morning we bounced through Otter’s Playpen rapid. From here to our take-out at the town of Happy Camp the river slows down. Our families had achieved that easy feeling of “river time,” where we move at the river’s pace. The girls jumped into the water and floated beside the rafts in their lifejackets. I closed my eyes and leaned back, listening to the sounds of the river and the children’s laughter.
They’d transformed on this trip. Baylon’s hair, which on a normal day makes him look like a five-year-old facsimile of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, had grown progressively wilder. All of them looked a bit feral, but nobody had asked to watch a video in days. Lunches and snacks were constantly on their minds, however, and we pulled into a deep eddy below a 10-foot crag, passing cans of Pringles between the three rafts.
Marissa’s husband Greg clambered up the rock and without a word plunged into the water. That prompted an exodus from the rafts, with all six kids making the easy climb. After the older kids had all taken the leap, Addie stood at the precipice, knees bent and hands holding firm to the rock, her face both determined and apprehensive.
Watching my daughter from below, I knew precisely how she felt. I’d felt the same way the other day above Hamburg Falls, and a thousand other times since I’d become a father. So many things in life require a leap of faith. Raising kids is one. So is restoring a river, or simply deciding to run it.
Addie took her sweet time, but I didn’t look away until she pushed off, flailed through the air and landed in half a belly flop, then came up shouting, “I did it!”
Top photo: Tony Webster