Lessons from the River

By Barry Lopez

This essay to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act first appeared in the Patagonia November 2018 Journal. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

Only with our patient attention will a river open itself up to us. The McKenzie rushes past Finn Rock Reach near Blue River, Oregon. Photo by Tim Giraudier – Beautiful Oregon.

Within 24 hours of noon on September 17, in any given year, spring chinook salmon arrive on gravel bars in front of my home to spawn. The females dig their redds, the males fertilize the eggs, and then both breathe their last. I’ve watched this event for 48 consecutive years on the middle reach of the McKenzie River in western Oregon. Each year I wait for the reassurance they bring, that even though things abstract and concrete are looking bad everywhere in the world, these fish are carrying on. If the salmon don’t arrive by the evening of the 17th, I walk down through the woods to stand in the dark and listen for them. I know most all the sounds this river makes, and there is no other sound like their caudal fins breaking the surface of the water as they mill. If I hear them, then I know things are good for this particular strain of salmon for at least another three years. If I don’t hear them, I toss and turn through a sleepless night and go down to look first thing in the morning.

They always arrive. I’ve never had to wait more than a few hours.

Much of what I know about integrity, constancy, power and nobility I’ve learned from this river, just as I’ve learned the opposite of these things—impotency, fecklessness, imprisonment—by walking across the dam on Blue River, a tributary of the McKenzie, and by standing on Cougar Dam on the river’s South Fork, another tributary. I stare at the reservoirs from the tops of these dams and see the stillness of the impoundments. The absence of freedom there.

I couldn’t say that I knew the McKenzie after my first year here. I had to nearly drown in it once, trying to swim across from bank to bank one day and dangerously misjudging the strength of the river’s flow. I had to watch a black bear wade through a patch of redds, biting through the spines of the adults. I had to come into the habit of walking its stony bed upstream and downstream, in daylight and at midnight, bracing myself with a hiker’s pole and calculating each slippery step, the water vibrating the pole in my hand like a bowstring and breaking hard over my thighs. I had to see how the surface of the river changed during a rainstorm, with the peening rain filling in the troughs and hammering down the crests. I had to become more than just acquainted with the phenomenon. I had to study beaver felling alders in its back eddies, great blue herons stab-fishing its shallows and lunging otters snatching its cutthroat trout. I had to understand the violet-green swallow swooping through rising hatches, and the ouzel flying blind through a water-fall. I had to watch elk swimming in the river at dusk. But still, I can’t say I know it.

As I showed continuing interest in the McKenzie over the years, the river opened up for me. I began to feel toward it as I would a person. I learned that it had emotions and moods as subtle as any animal’s. And I learned that, in some strange way, the river had become a part of me. When I was away traveling I missed it, the way you miss a close friend.

Chinook salmon at Finn Rock Reach - photo by Tim Giraudier, Beautiful Oregon
As integral to the river as water itself, the spring chinook salmon — threatened and dwindling in number — are a harbinger of the health of the McKenzie, and in turn, our own. Photo by Tim Giraudier – Beautiful Oregon.

The first river I developed any strong feeling for was a stretch of the Snake that winds through Jackson Hole. In 1965 I was working a summer there in Wyoming, wrangling horses and packing people into the Teton Wilderness. Some afternoons when I was free I volunteered as a swamper on float trips, eager to get a feeling for the undulation of that water. Since then I’ve been able to float the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, the upper Yukon in Alaska and the Green in Utah, gaining from them experience with more formidable water. I’ve since seen rivers far from home, like the Urubamba in Peru, perhaps the wildest river, in terms of its miles of continuous commotion, that I’ve ever stood before. And I visited some way-far-off rivers like the Onyx, a name that brings a wrinkled brow to every river rat I’ve ever mentioned it to.

The Onyx, Antarctica’s largest river, flows for only a few months in the austral summer, from the base of the Wright Lower Glacier in the Wright Valley to perennially frozen Lake Vanda. During a week I spent there once, at New Zealand’s Vanda Station on the shore of the lake, I decided to hike a few miles of the river’s north bank, wishing keenly all the while that I had a kayak. The Onyx is about 30 feet across and a foot deep, and it runs flat. A little bit of experience with the Onyx, though, helps you grasp the breadth of meaning behind the term “wild river.” The designation includes everything from the virtually unrunnable, like the Urubamba, to pristine but tame rivers, like the Onyx. I’ve also spent time in the thrall of another, singular type of wild river—ones that are perfectly runnable but that have gone, in my lifetime, from being virtually unknown to being popular destinations.

In the boreal summer of 1979, I was camped on the upper Utukok River, on the north slope of the Brooks Range in western Alaska. A wolf pack denning in a cutbank there interested my friend Bob Stephenson, a wolf biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and me. We’d set up our tent on a rise on the opposite side of the river, about 500 yards away. During the week we spent there, we not only saw no person except the bush pilot who brought us in, but also no evidence of anything from the man-made world. A tundra grizzly had torn up a ground squirrel’s burrow 20 yards from the tent just before we arrived. We watched wolves hunting every day. We saw gyrfalcons, snow buntings, horned larks and jaegers on their nests. One night, 30 or so caribou crossed the river in front of us at a run, throwing up great sheets of water—diamonds backlit by a late-night sun.

When Bob died last year, we held a memorial service for him in Fairbanks, and I caught up with a retired biologist I’d known at the department who told me that commercial float trips now take people regularly down the Utukok. It’s certainly a wild river, providing an unforgettable experience for adventurers, some of whom have become river activists as a result. To my way of thinking, however, the Utukok is not so wild now as it was when we were camped there 40 years ago, when the country, for as far as you could see, belonged to the animals.

Home from some trip and back here on the banks of the McKenzie, I always feel that I’ve come back together again as a person. In spring, when I notice the first few flowers blooming in the riparian zone—trillium, yellow violet, purple grouse flower, deer’s head orchid—I’m aware of similar changes in myself. I’ve lived here long enough now—intimate with the McKenzie’s low- and high- water stages, its winter colors, its harlequin ducks, its log jams, and aerial plankton (tens of thousands of spiders “balloon drifting” in summer on breezes above the river)—to know that without this river I’m less. Listening to osprey strike the river, watching common mergansers shooting past me at 60 miles an hour, a foot off the water, hearing the surging wind roiling the leaves of black cottonwoods close around me, I become whole again.

Many people, I have to think, have wilder and more inspiring stories to tell than I do about illuminating and staggering moments spent with a wild river. I have to believe, though, that we all share equally a love for the great range of expression this particular kind of being offers us, whether we’re with it in the moment or must call up remembered feelings from former encounters. And, of course, today we all share a fate with them, during these days of the Sixth Extinction; and we know how late it is in human history to finally be thinking about protecting rivers.

We’re only just now getting started with it. Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, 50 years ago this year. The bill was designed to protect eight different rivers from development—among them, the Middle Fork of the Clearwater in Idaho, the Eleven Point in Missouri and the Middle Fork of the Feather in California. In 1988, after another 27 rivers had slowly been incorporated into the system, Oregon passed an omnibus river bill that added another 40 rivers, including the McKenzie, each one with designated stretches of “wild,” “scenic” and “recreational” water, and each one of these sections subject to increasingly stricter levels of management. Today, there are 208 wild and scenic rivers across 40 states—12,743 miles of protected river water. It’s a paltry sum, actually, less than a quarter of 1 percent of the nation’s river miles. But each year our understanding of the nature of this kind of planetary lifeblood grows deeper. As more land trusts come into being, like the McKenzie River Trust here, the number of champions and custodians grows larger.

Fishing the McKenzie River at Finn Rock Reach, Photo by Tim Giraudier, Beautiful Oregon
Anglers in a drift boat float through the Finn Rock Reach on the McKenzie River in western Oregon. Photo by Tim Giraudier – Beautiful Oregon.

Over the years, I’ve learned much about the McKenzie that is obvious and much that is subtle. On this waterway that supplies the city of Eugene with virtually all of its drinking water, for example, state and federal agencies have cooperated to protect bull trout and to restore the spring chinook salmon run on the upper South Fork of the river. And for subtlety, I would offer you obsidian tools buried in the river’s riparian zone, evidence I’ve found of the very early presence of people here, some of it from before the days of the historic occupants, the Kalapuya and Molalla, tribes who traveled to the upper McKenzie in the summer to gather a great profusion of berries—blackberries, salmonberries, huckleberries, elderberries, osoberries and thimbleberries (all of which remain a priority today for local residents and others to gather).

The goal for most of us on the McKenzie today is not simply to protect the physical river from miscreants by implementing various layers of necessary regulation from ridgeline to ridgeline, but to revitalize and protect the entire community associated with the river. To help all who are interested understand that this river began its life long before human beings arrived, and that the wildness it offers us all can still be accessed, engaged and offered to our children. We’re living today, of course, in a time of true political, social and environmental upheaval and growing threat. You can select living creatures like rivers, if you choose, and take your stand with them to ensure your own future and the future of other beings. It’s a good place to be with your friends and your family, as the growing shadows blanket our skies.

On September 17, 2018, I will go down to the river and wait. I will watch for sun-light gleaming on the salmon’s caudal fins, standing proud of the surface of the water in the river’s shallows. I will smell them on the evening air and watch the males converge on the females, shouldering each other out of the way. And I will concentrate on this thought: If I do not help them to keep doing this, my days too are numbered.

About Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez, photo by David Liitschwager
Photo by David Liitschwager

Lopez is the author of Arctic Dreams, which won the National Book Award, and over a dozen other works of fiction and nonfiction. He writes regularly for Harper’s, Outside and numerous other journals. His next book, Horizon, will be released by Penguin Random House in March, 2019. Lopez has lived near Finn Rock since 1969. He served as the honorary chair of the McKenzie Homewaters Campaign.

Member Spotlight: Palo Alto Software

The Shire for the River campaign continues through October 26! Your gift goes twice as far with over $12,000 available in matching funds from local tech businesses. Every day, we will share the story of one campaign supporter.

Sabrina Parsons Palo Alto Software
Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, shares why she supports McKenzie River Trust.

Sabrina Parsons shares why she feels businesses should support McKenzie River Trust

Sabrina is CEO of Palo Alto Software, one of nine Silicon Shire technology companies offering matching dollars for this year’s Shire for the River campaign.

Why do you support McKenzie River Trust?

It’s important for businesses to support organizations that are effective in our community. There’s so much going on in our world right now, and I think people can feel a little helpless about what they can do. Supporting McKenzie River Trust is a way to affect something immediately in a very positive way.

What about McKenzie River Trust’s mission appeals to you?

McKenzie River Trust is working on projects that make a direct impact, whether it’s river cleanup or buying land to preserve or protecting our drinking water source. It’s an organization that’s really thinking long term—but at the same time, their work affects the short term and allows people to participate in change that feels immediate.

How does McKenzie River Trust’s work impact you as a business owner?

Our employees want to work for a company they feel has the values and a mission they can relate to. It’s important to so many of our employees that we participate in a positive way in our community. It’s part of who we want to be as a company, and it’s something we can do by working with organizations like McKenzie River Trust.

What do you wish people knew about McKenzie River Trust?

The McKenzie River Trust is protecting the water we actually drink. I don’t know that a lot of people realize when they’re on the McKenzie River that it’s that same water that comes through their pipes. I think everyone should know that, and hopefully it will inspire everybody to be a little more involved in any way they can—whether helping with river cleanup, educating yourself, or giving money so McKenzie River Trust can do more of the work that they’re doing.

Why do you think people should contribute to the Shire for the River campaign?

Because more businesses are on board this year, the match is going to be bigger. When you contribute one dollar, it’s actually two dollars. That’s a compelling reason to give today. Your donation will go farther.

Join us!

Give now to the Shire for the River campaign by visiting the campaign website on Crowdrise, or by mailing a check to McKenzie River Trust, 120 Shelton McMurphey Blvd, Suite 270, Eugene, OR 97401. You can also donate over the phone by calling the McKenzie River Trust offices at (541) 345-2799.

Learn more on social media with the hashtag #ShireForTheRiver at:

Member Spotlight: Twenty Ideas

The Shire for the River campaign continues through October 26! Your gift goes twice as far with over $12,000 available in matching funds from local tech businesses. Every day, we will share the story of one campaign supporter.

Mike Biglan Twenty Ideas
Mike Biglan, CEO of Twenty Ideas, shares why he supports McKenzie River Trust.

Twenty IdeasMike Biglan shares why he supports McKenzie River Trust

Mike is CEO of Twenty Ideas, one of nine Silicon Shire technology companies offering matching dollars for this year’s Shire for the River campaign.

Why do you support McKenzie River Trust?

It’s really concerning to our family to see what’s happening to the planet. McKenzie River Trust has a unique perspective on creating a barrier around the rivers—which are really the arteries and veins of the planet—to protect those rivers. The McKenzie River affects us in so many ways. It’s something that really is integrated into everything we do.

What about McKenzie River Trust’s mission appeals to you?

It’s not just about the clean water and the fish and preventing run off. It’s not just one single benefit, but a reminder of all the things that the river is able to provide. Growing up here, so many amazing things that I take for granted tie in with the McKenzie. I got married in Vida. I went river rafting as a kid. And now my children do that too.

What are the long-term benefits of supporting McKenzie River Trust’s work?

I have an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old. With the fires becoming the new normal and all the different weather events that are very likely related to the climate, we need to put money into supporting anything that makes a healthier planet. It’s something that I want for my kids and for all the other kids of their generation. At the very least, they really deserve to have what we have—if not much more.

What do you wish people knew about the Shire for the River campaign?

The Shire for the River campaign shows other businesses, employees and clients that you’re a business that cares about the planet, the world and the people. With this money, it’s very specific and targeted. This money will protect square feet and acres that will be a buffer, one that you can walk on with your kids. And it’s going to be there for a long, long time.

Join us!

Give now to the Shire for the River campaign by visiting the campaign website on Crowdrise, or by mailing a check to McKenzie River Trust, 120 Shelton McMurphey Blvd, Suite 270, Eugene, OR 97401. You can also donate over the phone by calling the McKenzie River Trust offices at (541) 345-2799.

Learn more on social media with the hashtag #ShireForTheRiver at:

Member Spotlight: MPulse Software

The Shire for the River campaign is raising money for the lands and rivers of western Oregon from October 16-26. Your gift goes twice as far with over $12,000 available in matching funds from local tech businesses. Every day, we will share the story of one campaign supporter.

Randall Brous and Jason Johnson of MPulse Software share why they support McKenzie River Trust.

Jason Johnson and Randall Brous share how they believe McKenzie River Trust’s work impacts our community

MPulse SoftwareJason is president of MPulse Software and a McKenzie River Trust board member. Randall is CTO of MPulse Software. MPulse is one of nine Silicon Shire technology companies offering matching dollars for this year’s Shire for the River campaign.

Why do you support McKenzie River Trust?

JASON: It’s water, right? It’s our source of water that keeps us alive every day. I think that’s easy to rally around. It’s something that we all recognize is important. And it’s something that, quite frankly, is sacred to all of us—tech businesses and other businesses alike here in Eugene and Springfield.

RANDALL: We all have a responsibility to give back to the area that we live in. It’s important to help recover, restore and protect it—for the way we want it to be now and the way we want it to be for our children. That’s part of being a responsible business.

What do you wish people knew about the McKenzie River Trust?

JASON: Sometimes people ask me, “What does McKenzie River Trust do?” We still have a long way to go as an organization in educating people about the Trust. The basic mission is to preserve riparian habitat along Oregon’s rivers. We want to restore habitat for wildlife. We want to provide clean drinking water for the future, for your grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren. And we want to provide recreational access—like the Finn Rock boat landing on the McKenzie—so people get out there and understand what they’re protecting.

How does McKenzie River Trust’s work impact local businesses?

JASON: The clean water that comes from the river makes this area a great place to live. You have all these fantastic recreation opportunities. You have the scenery itself. The privilege of living in a place with rivers like the McKenzie adds to the quality of the community. I think local tech leaders really understand that. It attracts employees, and it makes this a great place to live.

RANDALL: When we hire someone, and they come here because of the quality of life, they’re going to bring along their family. They’re going to need to go to the grocery store, to buy clothing, to buy a car, to buy a house. All these things are interconnected. When McKenzie River Trust and the tech community help protect the water here in the Willamette Valley, it works for all businesses. Everything is interconnected in an economy.

Join us!

Give now to the Shire for the River campaign by visiting the campaign website on Crowdrise, or by mailing a check to McKenzie River Trust, 120 Shelton McMurphey Blvd, Suite 270, Eugene, OR 97401. You can also donate over the phone by calling the McKenzie River Trust offices at (541) 345-2799.

Learn more on social media with the hashtag #ShireForTheRiver at:

 

Raise a Glass and Celebrate World Water Day

The pristine McKenzie River is the sole source of drinking water for over 200,000 people in Eugene and Springfield. Photo by Tim Giraudier / Beautiful Oregon.

World Water Day is Thursday, March 22. And as our executive director Joe Moll says, “There is one thing that we can all agree on: clean water is good for fish, wildlife, people, and brewing beer.”

That’s why on March 22, we’re gathering with Ninkasi Brewing Company for Pints for a Cause from 5-8pm at The Bier Stein.

Over 200,000 people rely on the McKenzie as their sole source of drinking water in Eugene and Springfield. And water is the #1 ingredient in Ninkasi’s award winning beer. Join us to raise a glass to the rivers we love and share!

We’re teaming up with Ninkasi Brewing and The Bier Stein to raise awareness about something we all care about deeply: protecting and caring for the lands and rivers in western Oregon so there is clean, fresh water available for generations.

Join Us on World Water Day

For every Ninkasi bottle, can, or draught beer sold at the Bier Stein on March 22, Ninkasi will donate $1 to McKenzie River Trust — all day long. The Bier Stein will match their donation up to $500! On draught: Believer, Yours Truly, Dry Irish Stout, and Prismatic. And from 5 to 8pm for a minimum $5 donation, Ninkasi will make you a custom hat!

“Without great water, we couldn’t have great beer,” said Ali AAsum, communications director with Ninkasi Brewing Company. “We’re lucky to have access to pristine waters such as the McKenzie River and to work with people like the McKenzie River Trust who are committed to keeping our river and our people healthy.”

The World Water Day fundraiser with McKenzie Trust is part of Ninkasi’s Beer is Love program to support nonprofits doing work in five core categories — women, equality, recreation, the environment, and arts and music — by offering beer donations for fundraising or volunteer events.

RSVP and see who else is coming on March 22

Planting Trees for a Healthy Future

two volunteers planting trees

Trees and more trees, along with grasses and shrubs — all native Oregon plants — are key to ensuring a healthy future for the rivers in the South Willamette Valley. And in turn, that means a healthy future for all of us. The floodplain forest on Green Island, near the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette Rivers, is a major restoration project managed by the McKenzie River Trust. It’s supported by hard working volunteers and generous donors like you. This winter, we added over two hundred thousand new stems to the forest there.

Volunteers on the ground

A young volunteer plants a tree on Green Island.
A young volunteer plants a tree on Green Island. Photo by Elizabeth Goward.

To kick off February, volunteers put on their boots and rolled up their sleeves to plant 5,000 bare-root trees and shrubs over several days on the south end of Green Island. These plantings continue the efforts throughout the past winter to re-vegetate areas impacted by construction that re-connected an alcove of the main stem of the Willamette to an historic McKenzie channel. Next, MRT staff planted the remainder of the trees and shrubs, including potting about 1,000 plants for future volunteer events.

In addition to the work in the south, contractors planted over 260,000 trees and shrubs over the winter on the north end of the property. Since 2006, MRT has restored hundreds of acres of floodplain forest or riparian habitat. In all, we’ve planted more than half a million native trees and shrubs on Green Island. Many more are yet to come.

Because of strong member support over many years, these trees will grow to become a gallery forest and provide refuge for birds, bugs, frogs, beavers, and all the creatures that visit and live on this land.

Focused investment, big results

The project is part of the Willamette Focused Investment Partnership. This basin-wide effort helps restore the Willamette River from its headwaters to its mouth at the Columbia. The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Bonneville Power Administration, and Meyer Memorial Trust’s Willamette River Initiative provide the major institutional support and grant funding. The collective effort includes coordinated work by land trusts, watershed councils, riverkeepers, universities, and friends groups.

volunteer tree planting crew
A volunteer crew from February 2018 helped Restoration Projects Manager Christer LaBrecque plant thousands of native trees on Green Island. Photo by Elizabeth Goward.

Back on Green Island, MRT’s Restoration Projects Manager Christer LaBrecque leads the restoration efforts. In February, he planted a variety of native species close to the river, including cottonwood, ash, honeysuckle, and willow. “We encircled the plants with large pods of bark or leaves to help mulch the growing vegetation,” LaBrecque says. Planting in the pods can increase the density of the plants. “Over time, they will spread between the pods. Then, we will plant additional native grasses to fill in the area.”

Volunteers came from all walks of life to help with the planting. They dedicated a significant portion of their days to the work. All expressed their dedication to conservation and their desire to see the environment protected for future generations, which is a common theme for all of you who help us carry out this work.

MRT Executive Director Joe Moll put the restoration efforts on Green Island in perspective. “For most of us in the area, you don’t think too much about the river,” he said. “You don’t have a chance to realize that every time you pour a glass of water or take a shower or drink a beer or a glass of wine, that’s the river, that’s the river itself.”

Learn more & get involved:

Finn Rock Boat Landing Closed for Toilet Facility Remodel March 26 & 27

Hundreds of boaters and anglers use the Finn Rock Boat Landing every day in the summer months. Coming soon, they’ll enjoy the comfort of upgraded toilet facilities. Photo by Ephraim Payne.

Amenities available to boaters and anglers who use the Finn Rock Boat Landing are about to be upgraded to provide more comfort and ease at one of Lane County’s most busy recreational areas. The boat landing will be closed to install toilet facilities March 26 and 27.

McKenzie River Trust will replace the port-a-potty that has been on site for many years with a more accessible and comfortable lavatory.

“This is the first of several improvements we’re making to the boat landing this spring and summer,” said Liz Lawrence, Development Director for McKenzie River Trust. “Other improvements include a new informational kiosk, and improved parking and traffic flow. A possible trailhead is being explored.”

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife donated the vault toilet for the new lavatory, and a grant from Eugene Water & Electric Board enabled the installation to be completed this spring. Other boat landing improvements will be funded from the McKenzie River Trust’s McKenzie Homewaters Capital Campaign that included grants from Oregon State Parks, Land Trust Alliance’s Oregon ACE Program, and the Yarg Foundation.

About the McKenzie River Trust:

The McKenzie River Trust is a nonprofit land trust based in Eugene, Oregon. Our mission is to help people protect and care for the lands and rivers they cherish in western Oregon. Since 1989, we’ve acquired property and voluntary conservation easements to protect over 5,700 acres of clean, free-flowing rivers, plentiful salmon runs, and vibrant farms and forests that provide livelihoods and habitat. We envision a future in which conservation lands are at the core of community efforts to sustain clean water, abundant fish and wildlife, and diverse natural resource economies in western Oregon. Working with private willing landowners in eight different watersheds from the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, we take on the responsibility of ensuring that the land and its conservation values will be protected forever. For more information, visit www.mckenzieriver.org.

For more information contact: Liz Lawrence, McKenzie River Trust, office: 541-345-2799 x106 cell: 541-844-9334, llawrence@mckenzieriver.org

Sharing Finn Rock Reach

Exploring New Opportunities for Recreation

The Finn Rock Boat Landing hosts hundreds of people a day in the summer months. With your help, we’re looking at adding a hiking trail and wildlife viewing areas, while protecting the river. Photo by Liz Lawrence.

In addition to rare species like turtles and salmon, Finn Rock Reach includes the popular Finn Rock Boat Landing. Throughout our first year of ownership and management of this unique place, resplendent with enormous cottonwoods and maples, spawning Chinook salmon, and habitat restoration opportunities galore, we’ve heard the question many times: Will you keep the Boat Landing?

For us there was no question: the Finn Rock Boat Landing is a key recreational asset that must be preserved. We’ll keep it open, largely thanks to the enthusiastic and immediate offers of volunteer help and financial support from the McKenzie Guides Association, McKenzie Masters, and other river users.

Now, with your encouragement we’re exploring more possibilities for public access at Finn Rock Reach, including hiking trails and wildlife viewing areas.

Walk a New Footpath through an Old Logging Camp

Huckleberry Lane leads past the area that used to be home to the Finn Rock Logging Camp. Photo by Harper Johnson.
Upriver from the boat landing, Huckleberry Lane leads into the forest. This road was once the main street for Finn Rock Logging Camp, the ‘company town’ for Rosboro lumber. Walk down the old road, and imagine it lined with 25 wooden houses, a church, and a baseball field. At the end of the road, a newly installed footpath takes you just over a mile into riparian forest. This out-and-back path offers beautiful views of the McKenzie River and is open this season as a trial run. If you visit, let us know what you think!

New Possibilities

Several challenges remain for broader public access at Finn Rock Reach. Opening the property would require thoughtful planning and maintenance to accommodate visitors while still preserving ecological integrity.

“Public access has to be able to adapt to a living river,” notes MRT associate director for conservation Daniel Dietz. “Any infrastructure has to be compatible with this river dynamism.”

On the other side of the river, the salmon spawning grounds in Elk Creek are incredibly sensitive. Opening up this part of the property to public access would require thoughtful planning. Photo by Tim Giraudier / Beautiful Oregon.
The Friends of Finn Rock group is helping us consider our options. This volunteer corps made up of interested community members has met several times and will tour the property this fall.

“Finn Rock has a significant amount of the Chinook salmon spawning grounds in the McKenzie, which is amazing,” adds Dietz. “The property has been a community resource for many years. We’re excited to now be helping to care for the land and bringing together more people to be stewards of this resource.”

What You Can Do

  • Share your feedback! What do you value about outdoor recreation along the McKenzie River? Completing our Finn Rock Boat Landing Recreation Survey will help us plan for the future of the site. Click here for the survey.
  • Join the Friends of Finn Rock! This volunteer group helps guide management decisions and care for Finn Rock Reach. To learn more and join the mailing list, contact volunteer coordinator Elizabeth Goward: elizabeth [at] mckenzieriver [dot] org or 541-345-2799 x109.

About the author

Harper Johnson is an outreach intern with McKenzie River Trust. Harper is a junior at Williams College in Massachusetts, double majoring in Psychology and Economics. She grew up in Eugene and spent many summers enjoying the McKenzie River and other wild areas throughout Oregon. She most recently did research on the Colorado River Delta as an intern at an organization dedicated to protecting special places in Baja California and is excited for the opportunity to work at a similar organization in her hometown. She is interested in outreach and communications and is excited to have the chance to explore this at a land trust and gain valuable experience throughout the summer.

Green Island: A Floodplain In Restoration

A pond restoration project on Green Island brought heavy equipment to re-contour a pond on site this summer. Photo by Christer LaBrecque.
It was nearly impossible to have a conversation over the noise of the bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks. Earlier this month on Green Island, where the Willamette and McKenzie Rivers come together, over twelve thousand cubic yards of soil were being transported.

The McKenzie River Trust acquired 865 acres of Green Island in 2003, recognizing that such extensive acreage, river channels, and off-channel areas provided tremendous opportunities to implement conservation strategies that had been developed by many partner organizations working in the Upper Willamette Basin.

An aerial view of dozens of logs and pieces of large wood used to harden the outlet of a pond that has now become an alcove on Green Island. Alcoves like this are more friendly to native fish and the other floodplain species that rely on them. Photo by Christer LaBrecque.
As MRT and our partners have gotten to know the area better over the last 14 years of management and restoration efforts, the foresight of that initial acquisition and subsequent additions to the property has become increasingly apparent. The Green Island project, presently about 1,100 acres in size, gives us the chance to move beyond talking, and walk the talk of large-scale floodplain restoration.

Transforming a pond, restoring a river

With the support of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Bonneville Power Administration, and a Pacific General Electric Habitat Support grant administered through The Nature Conservancy, we took one more step this summer to increase river-floodplain hydrologic connection and improve habitat quality.

Contractors used heavy equipment to remove a 350 foot by 150 foot levee, originally constructed to make the land more suitable to farming. An existing pond wall was opened, transforming the pond into an alcove that should connect to the floodplain in high water, spreading the river over about 3 acres that was previously inaccessible.

The next step will be to stabilize the site with native grass seedlings. Later this winter, we’ll plant cottonwoods and willows to restore the site.

As the noise of the bulldozers fade, and the calls of birds can be heard again, a conversation will continue: a conversation between the land and the rivers that cradle it.

Come see it for yourself

Want to learn more about restoration efforts on Green Island? Join us for the upcoming tour on August 26th with Christer LaBrecque, MRT’s Restoration Projects Manager, to see first-hand how Green Island is being restored! Register HERE.

To see the floodplain restoration happening across 1,100 acres on Green Island, join us for a free tour on Saturday, August 26. Learn more and register here. Photo by Christer LaBrecque.

Surprises in the Ponds

Volunteer coordinator Elizabeth Goward looks for signs of turtle nests at Finn Rock Reach.

Before you can even see them, the turtles know you’re there. As you walk towards the ponds, you hear soft plops and see rings in the water. Western pond and western painted turtles escape quickly into the water from their sunbathing perches. Once they realize you are not a predator, they cautiously stick their heads out of the water and slowly climb back onto the logs and rocks that dot the surface of the ponds at Finn Rock Reach.

During the warm months, these native Oregon species spend their days basking on logs, rocks, and even floating plants. As spring turns into summer, adult female turtles begin to lay their eggs in nests in the ground. They cover them with dirt, and the eggs are warmed by the summer sun. With luck, by the time the salmon return to their spawning grounds in nearby Elk Creek, a few of the new crop of hatchlings will crawl out and slip quietly into the ponds with their parents. The rest will emerge the following spring.

Western Pond and Western Painted Turtles bask at Finn Rock Reach near the McKenzie River.

Home Waters for Rare Turtles

Both of the turtle species found at Finn Rock Reach are rare in the Willamette Valley. Luckily, this area contains some of the most diverse habitat of the upper McKenzie River. In addition to providing a home for western pond and western painted turtles, Finn Rock is home to Chinook salmon and other native fishes including stickleback; elk; beaver; otter; mink; a wide variety of dragonflies, damselflies, and butterflies; and more.

Turtles need specific characteristics in their habitat, both in water and on land. Western pond turtles are usually found in ponds, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers. Western painted turtles prefer slow moving, shallow water, like streams, canals, sloughs, and ponds. Both nest on land, typically close to the water. The ponds at Finn Rock have a very stable water level, which makes it easy for turtles to find nesting sites that will stay dry during the winter.

To research turtles at the ponds, we look for dug up nests (the scientific term is depredated) like this one.

One of our goals is to make Finn Rock Reach the best possible habitat for all species. The 278-acre property was purchased by McKenzie River Trust in 2015/16 and includes 2 miles of river frontage. The former landowner, Rosboro timber company, built the ponds so that they could gather gravel to construct roads across their network of lands in the McKenzie basin. Nobody suspected that these man-made ponds would attract such sensitive turtle species.

Learning More, Day by Day

To find out how our turtles are using the area, our stewardship interns are making regular visits to the ponds. They’re observing how the turtles are currently using the ponds by watching basking behaviors, taking count of each species, and mapping their nests. The information gathered from this research will help inform our management plan for the property.

The next step is restoration to help improve the habitat. Restoration will likely include re-grading the banks of the ponds and planting them with natural vegetation to improve nesting and rearing areas. It will also likely include making the area less conducive to invasive species, and creating better basking spots.

Balancing Needs for Turtles and Salmon

Stewardship intern Peter Cooper and volunteer coordinator Elizabeth Goward look for signs of turtles in the ponds. Learning more about the turtles will help us plan for restoration at Finn Rock Reach.

Before the ponds were created, this area was a natural floodplain. During the winter and larger flood events, the river would expand on to the floodplain, creating lots of side channels. These slow moving waters are the perfect habitat for young salmon, which aren’t yet strong enough to take on the fast flowing river. Today, though, the high, steep edges of the ponds prevent the river from making these connections and creating side channels.

The challenge we now face is how to restore floodplain habitat for juvenile salmon, while still keeping the ponds and dry nesting habitat for our native turtle species. One possibility is to turn part of the pond area back into floodplain, while keeping a section as ponds for turtle habitat. Fortunately, turtles are smart creatures, and they will be able to utilize the remaining nesting areas.

What You Can Do

It’s important to protect these habitats as our population expands and demands on the McKenzie River grow.

At McKenzie River Trust, we are working hard to do our part to help make Finn Rock an even better habitat for native species. In April, we launched the McKenzie Homewaters Campaign, a $6 million community effort to protect, restore, and care for Finn Rock Reach, and to expand our conservation footprint up and downstream. To date, over 200 people like you have contributed, bringing us to more than 2/3 of our goal.

If you’re interested in seeing the turtles and exploring Finn Rock Reach, please join us on one of our tours and let us know that you want to learn more. We would be happy to sit down or walk the land with you to introduce you to the projects at Finn Rock and elsewhere in the watershed.

Join us for an upcoming tour

A visitor takes notes during a recent tour of Finn Rock Reach. Photo by Holly McRae.

About the author

Harper Johnson is an outreach intern with McKenzie River Trust. Harper is a junior at Williams College in Massachusetts, double majoring in Psychology and Economics. She grew up in Eugene and spent many summers enjoying the McKenzie River and other wild areas throughout Oregon. She most recently did research on the Colorado River Delta as an intern at an organization dedicated to protecting special places in Baja California and is excited for the opportunity to work at a similar organization in her hometown. She is interested in outreach and communications and is excited to have the chance to explore this at a land trust and gain valuable experience throughout the summer.