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I met up with Danielle, founder of Rivers for Change, and her friend, Season, after they had already been on the river for a couple of days. The heat caught me unprepared and when I arrived at our meeting point, it was obvious that it had taken a toll on the two of them already. Each was splayed out in her own tent hiding from mosquitoes and wishing for a breeze. I was shocked again when I went to the river to cool off, finding it tepid and barely refreshing. “Yeah,” Danielle said as I joined them again with a disappointed look on my face, “Welcome to the Klamath River in summer time.”

Season and Danielle had put in on the Klamath River just below Iron Gate dam, where Paul Gamache, acting as a Rivers for Change ambassador and completing his own source to sea bid, had recently completed the upper section of the river. We knew that the whitewater between Iron Gate and the sea was relatively benign and had planned to use our time on the river for more than just thrills.

Season and I had joined Danielle not only as river people, but also as colleagues who wanted to know how we could put our individual expertise into Rivers for Change to help it grow into a successful and sustainable organization. RFC is near completing its first year of existence and its campaign to travel the length of 12 rivers in 2012 from source to sea.

Having perspective of a whole river is an experience most people will never get, and it’s certainly not what most people think about when they turn on the tap or water their lawn. We spent our days together floating over the warm algae strewn waters, rafting up over the flats and pulling out a notebook to brain storm ideas. It was, perhaps, an unusual place to hold such meetings, but somehow it seemed perfectly appropriate and inspiring. Before the riffles and rapids could smear the ink, we would tuck them away, disband and enjoy the ride. We all took note of how easy it was to take for granted the sections of rivers that have been set aside to free flow and how whitewater enthusiasts like ourselves often never give more than a fleeting thought to what struggles the river is going through up or down stream.

We pulled supplies out again in the evenings, continuing discussions about how to engage people with their watersheds. It struck me as odd that we had seen very few people actually on the river, even though the days were hot and access was easy. Season pointed out the signs they had seen near put in warning against using water for cooking and questioning its safety for bathing due to high bacteria counts and algae. Who wants to swim in that? I had gone for a long swim, only to have my clothing stench so bad of dead fish that I had to wash them repeatedly to remove the smell. I wasn’t going to do it again.

Fall of 2012 marked the 10th anniversary of catastrophic fish kill on the Klamath. It was the largest adult fish kill in U.S. history and it was due to low warm water conditions created when the Bush administration officially overturned salmon restoration efforts in the Klamath River in favor of agribusiness interests. Conditions are ripe this fall for that same level of devastation to what scientists are forecasting as a record return to the Klamath River of 380,000 Chinook salmon. If people aren’t supposed to get in the water, how could a salmon survive?

People of the Klamath are pulling together to lobby for higher water releases from the reservoirs to prevent a fish kill, but it’s high time we take a broader look at the root of the problems and take a watershed approach to solving it. The three of us were just passing through the Klamath, but we got the take home message. Knowing the entire story of a river gives us a better picture of whether it’s healthy, sick and how to help it. Traveling its length from top to bottom is the first step in getting to know it.