Paddling Source to Sea on the Imperiled Klamath River

Paddling Source to Sea on the Imperiled Klamath River

In an era of increasing dam removals across the country to restore rivers to their natural habitat—the tally stands at more than 1,000 so far—it’s often hard to gain a true before-and-after picture of how these cement blockades have changed their river’s environment. A trio of standup paddleboarders recently went out of their way—a long way—in a multi-year effort to find out.

In early May, adventurers Spencer Lacy, Lance Ostrom and Driy Wybaczynsky headed out as the first team to SUP—self-supporting the trip with a 10-foot raft—from source to sea down 234 miles of Oregon and California’s Klamath River, which is impeded by four dams, all of which are slated for removal in the next few years. Their goal: chronicle the river in its current dammed-up state, and then return in a few years’ time to do it again once they are all removed to see the difference first-hand.

“We wanted to make an environmental statement on this trip,” says Lacy, who is sponsored by Badfish SUP and has several first SUP descents to his credit, but none as calorie-depleting as this one. “Starting in 2023, the section’s four dams are slated for removal in the largest dam removal project in history. One day not too far off we’ll be able to do the same stretch again when the dams are gone and see the river corridor as it begins to return to its natural state.”

Paddlers saw something similar recently when two dams came down on Washington’s Elwha River, in what The New York Times called, “One of the most promising and pure acts of environmental restoration the region and nation have ever seen.” With the removal of the lower, 108-foot-tall Elwha Dam and the upper 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam, the river is now free-flowing for the first time in a century. Built in the early 1900s, before the establishment of Olympic National Park, the two hydroelectric dams had long been barriers to salmon and other fish populations as well as whitewater recreation. Now it runs free from the wilderness backcountry of the Grand Canyon of the Elwha all the way to the Juan De Fuca Strait near Port Angeles, Washington.

Built in 1903 and owned by PacifiCorp, the 125-foot-high Condit Dam on Washington’s White Salmon River also came down in 2012, opening up the lower White Salmon to the more than 40,000 paddlers who use the waterway every year. It was the second tallest dam to be removed in the country, and a milestone for paddlers. “At the time, the removal of Condit was the first major dam removal on a river as popular as the White Salmon,” says American Whitewater’s Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director Thomas O’Keefe.

Klamath SUP
courtesy Spencer Lacy

The Klamath is perhaps even more popular, and, with the removal of four of its dams, will get even more so. In November 2020, the Karuk and Yurok tribes, California Governor Gavin Newsom, Oregon Governor Kate Brown, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation and PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, announced an agreement advancing the removal of its four dams. The effort has taken decades of effort by the tribes, conservation organization American Rivers and other partners.

Klamath River
courtesy Spencer Lacy

A revised schedule calls for dam removal to begin in 2023, contingent on a FERC ruling approving transfer of the license and decommissioning. Once removed, the dams will open up new paddling (and fish migration) possibilities in 44 miles of the 234-mile-long waterway that stretches from the Cascades to the Pacific Ocean. It will create classic new sections of paddle-able water for river runners, right alongside its such existing whitewater stalwarts as Class III-IV Ward’s Canyon. “When the dams come out,” says Northwest paddler Bill Cross, “boaters will be able to explore a host of new day-trips and string together outstanding multi-day journeys. The restored Upper Klamath will be one of the West’s great whitewater rivers.”

rafting Klamath
Spencer Lacy

And what’s good for floaters is good for fish. In a story for outfitter OARS, Tyler Williams, who paddled the Klamath from source to sea in 2009, wrote: “When Iron Gate and the other dams are gone, wild salmon will swim past, perhaps pausing momentarily, before gliding over once-dry boulders to find nearly forgotten spawning sites.”

Over Lacy, Ostrom and Wybaczynsky’s eight-day trip, a sufferfest as much as a scenic one, the trio encountered “some rowdy whitewater, easy-going ripples, four dams and about 15 miles of reservoirs.” Starting just below the Keno Dam, which is not scheduled for removal, they paddled these reservoirs as far as they could, the feat entailing a whopping 13 miles of portaging. To do so, they hauled their small Hyside MiniMe support raft by hand in a portable, makeshift trailer featuring a homemade axle and snap-on Burley wheels.

Klamath SUP sled
Spencer Lacy

“Those portages were definitely the hardest part, especially the first five-mile one,” says Ostrom. “I’ve never had my forearms so pumped out in my life from hauling that trailer. There’s nothing more demoralizing than knowing you have five miles to make and only being able to go for for a couple hundred yards before needing a break.”

Camping on the Klamath
Specer Lacy

Still, they persevered, putting up with the gear-hauling hardships to reap the area’s beauty as a reward. “It was lots of paddling and long, long days,” says Lacy. “But there was fantastic scenery, wildlife and camping. Luckily, we kind of like huge days on the river, pain and getting completely sandbagged.”

hauling around a dam
courtesy Spencer Lacy

Eight days later, they emerged exhausted at the mouth of the river near Klamath, CA, in what Ostrom called the best part of the trip. “It was one of the rawest scenes I’ve ever seen,” he says. “Over 100 sea lions were swimming around hunting salmon and shaking them around in their teeth in seven-foot swell. There was also a massive rip current and a whale just off shore. It was one of those ‘Don’t fuck with Mother Nature but this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen’ moments.”

Klamath Team
Spencer Lacy

And as soon as they finished, they couldn’t help but look back upstream, cherishing the moment when they’ll return to document the corridor’s changes.

“We can’t wait to come back and re-do the trip in a few years after the dams are gone and its environment is starting to recover,” says Lacy. “It will be great to enjoy the same stretch in its newfound, free-flowing glory.”

Klamath cruising

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