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by Paul Gamache

It’s 103 degrees out and I’m surrounded by poison oak. Oily reddish-green leaves litter my entire kayak. I shudder at the thought of sitting down in this poison, wishing there was a cold mountain stream beyond the bushes instead of the dam restrained Klamath River with barely a trickle of grossly warm, algae choked water.

In my typical style, I know practically nothing about what lies ahead on this section of “river.” I had left Arcata late at night and arrived at the Keno Bridge around 3am. I was back where I had left off weeks earlier in a bid to paddle the Klamath River from source to sea as part of the Explore Six Rivers project and in concert with Rivers for Change’s 12 Rivers in 2012 campaign.

With only a couple hours of sleep, I load my gear for to travel over 15 miles and two dam portages to reach the put in of the classic upper Klamath whitewater section “Hell’s Corner.” Evan Aker would be raft guiding a trip starting there at 9:30am and meeting up with his group was my only alternative to paddling Hell’s Corner alone. I’ve got to move fast, but also stealthy. If employees at the dams catch me portaging through private property, I could be arrested.

I feel ridiculous paddling the loaded creek boat across the reservoir. Within a mile, I arrive at the Keno Dam, portage quickly on a road to river right and begin knocking off miles of the Class II/III section below Keno Dam. The 800 cfs Keno Dam outflow is runnable, but less than ideal. Volcanic rock grates the bottom of the boat. A final class III+ rapid dumps the river into the reservoir behind J.C. Boyle Dam where algae smother the water.

I charge three more miles of flat water and portage the J.C. Boyle dam to find that the flow on the other side has been drastically cut. Water is diverted through a pipe that runs the length of the J.C. Boyle Bypass. It’s dropped back into the Klamath River roughly 5 miles downstream of the dam through a powerhouse just above the put-in for Hell’s Corner.

With 150 cfs, I enter into a section that will soon make me question if I am even on the Klamath River.

I face questionably runnable rapids mixed with unquestionably un-runnable ones. In places the river goes completely under rocks from construction induced landslides – a paddler’s worst nightmare. I drop into uncertainty for the sake of expediting the experience.

“This is not good,” my brain tells me. I’m in the last eddy of the lead-in for a rapid. Below me is a jumble of rocks and a log that I saw only seconds before catching a mid-river micro eddy. Being more optimistic than realistic, I convince myself there’s a way through, and luckily, there is. Ten minutes later, I am in much worse spot cursing myself. I grab hold of a rock in the middle of the river, climb out of my boat and push it across the current and into an eddy upriver, eventually finding myself safe on the bank with a long way to go. Paranoia mixes with isolation and the thought of being on a never-ending dewatered side channel zaps my eagerness.

My pre-determined meet time with Evan passes and miles of solo whitewater loom ahead. The blinking dot on the GPS is nowhere near the line depicting the Klamath River, leading me to wonder if this is some heinous side channel. I portage again and paddle hard to the next maze of rocks.

Rapids pass, marginally runnable, and a powerhouse appears. The flow more than doubles and the class III rapid below is refreshingly enjoyable. The beach on river-right pulls at my memory and I realize it’s the put-in for Hell’s Corner.

Evan is still on the beach and we high-five as I exhaustedly explain the condition of the upriver section.

The rafters are just beginning their day while my mind and body beg for respite. Class IV+ Caldera rapid is waiting. I knew it should be no problem for me, but paddling, portaging, falling, and dragging myself non-stop for the last six hours combined with a lack of sleep compounded my fear and fatigue.

After watching Evan grease the line with ease, I was ready to snap on my sprayskirt and paddle into Caldera. I clipped the hole on the left and for a split second felt my stomach drop out. The section upriver had drained me completely, but I couldn’t afford to get worked, not then. The rapid ends, and we all exchange exhilarated smiles.

A few hours later, the current slows and Copco Reservoir begins. The rafters have reached the end of their adventure and drive away. I haul out and lay out my gear, relieved to be done with the day. Sleep would remain elusive though. A family fishing trip pulled in and raged around me until dusk. When finally they moved on, I settled into my sleeping bag and became dinner for thousands of hungry locals buzzing my head all night long.

By morning, the race was on again. I had until 2pm for Evan to meet me at Iron Gate Dam or I would be stuck with a long hitchhike back to my car. I start making my way across the 5-miles of algae choked water in Copco reservoir blocking the direct path to Copco Dam.

Copco Dam is actually a two dam system. Copco 1 blocks the river while Copco 2 a few hundred yards down river creates a reservoir for piping the water through a powerhouse.
I begin my next stealth and convoluted portage around the dam, hiding from dam employees and sliding down muddy hillsides. Down the road, I notice the size of a pipe in front of me. It is the Klamath River being packaged, transported, and transformed through a mile long section of pipe. What was once a free-flowing river is now the sole property of PacifiCorp, generating power and revenue. The sight is something I have never experienced. While I saw the section upriver dewatered, this pipe staring me in the face hits home a lot harder. The Klamath River is no longer a public resource, it is owned.

The relicensing process of these dams has weighed the value this hydroelectric system generates against the harm to the environment, particularly the health of the salmon. Built in 1962 with no fish ladders, Iron Gate Dam is the upstream terminus for returning salmon. The water in which they swim is warm and shallow, deoxygenated by algae blooms. The only viable and cost-effective solution is to “un-dam” the Klamath River – a sentiment which begs a new level of discussion.

How do you tell a farming family that that they will not be guaranteed the water they have become reliant on to farm and generate income? How do you tell the homeowners on the banks of Copco Reservoir that their homes are no longer safe from flood and will most likely need to be torn down if the dams are removed? The issue is not only complex, but also very personal and passionate.

Continuing my portage in paranoia of being caught, I’m forced through a barrier of blackberry and poison oak that are creating a veritable fortress of pain and suffering – both now and in the future. Lowering my head, I take a breath and accept my fate.

Arriving at a meager 10 cfs of flow over algae covered rocks, I step into the warm bath water that escaped the pipe. I scrub my entire body in vain to try and reduce the inevitable outbreak of the itchy boiling oozing misery. I reach inside the cockpit of the kayak and begin pulling out sticks and leaves of poison oak; a reminder of the battle I had fought earlier. This is hell. There’s no other way to describe it.

An hour of slipping and falling over algae covered rocks brings me to the Copco powerhouse and the start of Iron Gate Reservoir.

Two more hours and I am at Iron Gate Dam where I stumble my way around to the fish hatchery below. With a sigh of relief, I take off my paddling gear.

Evan was nowhere to be seen so I geared up for the long walk ahead. After an hour of walking down the 10-mile road that leads to Interstate 5, four different rides get me to my car. One is a local who describes the inner workings of local irrigation and how vital the Klamath dams are to the area.

Back home, the poison oak claimed another victory with the knockout punch of a $1,700 hospital bill. But I now intimately know the whole story of what the Klamath River goes through to reach the sea, and my price seems pretty insignificant in comparison.

About the author:
In the spring and early summer of 2012, Paul Gamache was part of a team of paddlers attempting to paddle six rivers from source to sea. These six rivers, Smith, Trinity, Eel, Van Duzen, Mad, and Klamath rivers make up Six Rivers National Forest. He called the project “Explore Six Rivers”. This section of the Upper Klamath was done in conjunction with the organization “Rivers For Change” whose members were also attempting the Klamath River from source to sea.