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: XS Media

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.

Stephen Parac, COO of XS Media, shares why he supports McKenzie River Trust.

Stephen Parac shares why he supports McKenzie River Trust

Stephen is COO of XS Media, 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?

We all live in Oregon for a reason. We have many roots and we have family here. But ultimately, it’s a choice to live in this community, and we’re really blessed to be at the convergence of the McKenzie and Willamette.

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

I fell in love with what McKenzie River Trust does for our community. It felt like a calling, and it was something that I couldn’t ignore. It’s the water that we drink. Keeping it clean and preserved is really important. And McKenzie River Trust does so much more. They also take care of the areas around the water streams, do restoration work, build access with boat landings and more. I’ve taken advantage of hiking and watched salmon spawning, and those are the things that McKenzie River Trust protects.

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

As a business owner, you think about ways to have an impact, and of course, also about how to best serve your employees. We have people who like to fish on the McKenzie and hike on the McKenzie and just drive down the McKenzie. It’s so beautiful. Our employees are very passionate about doing restoration work. It’s a community-building experience for our own organization and it helps us bond with one another.

What do you wish people knew about McKenzie River Trust?

McKenzie River Trust does a lot of large real estate transactions. The goal is to preserve as much of that riverfront property as possible and return it to healthy conditions to help our water source and the wildlife. I would encourage anybody who’s interested in the outdoors to go visit Finn Rock, walk the trails, and look at the McKenzie. I think that they will fall in love with it like I have—and like so many of our employees have.

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: SheerID

The Shire for the River campaign is on from October 16-26, 2018! 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.

Jake Watherly SheerID
Jake Weatherly, CEO of SheerID, shares why he supports McKenzie River Trust.

SheerIDJake Weatherly explains why McKenzie River Trust’s work is vital to our community

Jake is CEO of SheerID, 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?

First and foremost, it’s about clean water. We live a special life here in the Willamette Valley. Clean air and clean water—these things are easy to take for granted. I spend a lot of time in other areas. It’s easy for us to assume that’s the way it is everywhere else. I think we have a major obligation—a huge responsibility on our shoulders—to preserve and enhance our quality of life, because it really is special.

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

What was intriguing to me was their interest in the history and preserving that history. That’s led the community to understand more deeply what the McKenzie River watershed is today, and what it once was. It’s a bridge to the future to make sure we can both preserve it and work to turn things back to what they once were.

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

We’ve all decided to come to Eugene and stay in Eugene for very similar reasons. Those reasons are really focused on this rare opportunity that we have in this area to balance the work that we do with the fun and healthy ability to live a quality life.

What’s your personal experience with McKenzie River Trust?

Personally, I’ve enjoyed time on Green Island with my children. They learned how to cast flies without snapping lines, and they dipped into the watershed and then examined everything that was in the water. It was just teeming with life in comparison to what you see on the surface.

The McKenzie Memories event was really moving and helped me understand a little more deeply what McKenzie River Trust is doing. We saw how things used to be when Finn Rock was a giant lumber camp, when it was once a community. It has a tremendous history.

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

MRT has a unique model—they forge partnerships with private landowners and understand the area really well. They’re looking for opportunities a year from now, five years from now, 20 years from now and beyond to the next generation. I think it’s a very big picture and holistic view.

I really feel it’s our obligation to be involved—whether it’s through donating, volunteering or even evangelizing. Get involved. Because this is something that really is unique to the world.

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:

 

We need your comments

McKenzie River Trust Land Trust Accreditation Renewal

Open for Public Comment until November 21, 2014

Did you know that land trusts can become accredited, just like colleges and universities? Accreditation recognizes land conservation organizations that meet national standards for excellence, uphold the public trust, and ensure that conservation efforts are permanent. Accredited land trusts meet national quality standards for protecting important natural places and working lands forever.

The Land Trust Accreditation Commission, an independent program of the Land Trust Alliance, is the organization that certifies accredited land trusts. The McKenzie River Trust first earned accreditation in March, 2010, and we are now applying for renewal of accreditation. A public comment period is now open on our renewal application. As part of this process, the Commission is conducting an extensive review of our policies and programs.

We need your comments!

The Commission invites public input and accepts signed, written comments on pending applications. Comments must relate to how McKenzie River Trust complies with national quality standards. These standards address the ethical and technical operation of a land trust. Click here to learn more about these standards.

To learn more about the accreditation program, click here. You can submit your comment online, or email it to info@landtrustaccreditation.org.

Comments may also be faxed or mailed to:

Land Trust Accreditation Commission, Attn: Public Comments
36 Phila Street, Suite 2
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866.
(fax) 518-587-3183

Comments on McKenzie River Trust’s application will be most useful by November 21, 2014

Celebrate Someone You Love This Season

Volunteers on Green Island help protect newly planted native trees and shrubs. Photo by Brandi Ferguson.

Are you looking for a gift for someone who has everything?

This holiday season, you can make a tribute gift in honor of a friend or family member, or make a memorial gift in remembrance of a loved one.

A tribute gift is a special way to honor someone’s love for the lands and rivers that make western Oregon such a great place to work, live, and play.

What your gift will do

Your gift supports the protection and care of special places in these watersheds:
McKenzie, Siuslaw, Umpqua, Coast and Middle Forks of the Willamette, Upper Willamette River, and the coastal streams and lakes from Reedsport to Yachats, including the stunning Tenmile Creek drainage.

If you know someone who loves our rivers and lands, then make a tribute gift today.

Donate Now!