Oregon’s Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and its surrounding areas are extraordinary places to view breathtaking scenery and wildlife. I just returned from a field trip to the area with 7 other members of the Obsidians. We enjoyed lodging on the refuge, daily outings, and hikes through the ever-changing landscape. One focus of our trip was gaining a better understanding of the many complicated water rights and wetland restoration issues affecting this important wildlife area.
The Klamath Basin is at the center of the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds and a refuge and breeding ground for hundreds of wildlife species. Our guide was Wendell Wood, a wildlands advocate and interpreter for Oregon Wild. Oregon Wild pursues conservation efforts to protect and restore the area – Oregon’s largest wetland ecosystem. Wendell and his wife Kathy have a cabin in Klamath Marsh and they visit the area often.
The NWR is in both California and Oregon and encompasses more than 15,000 square miles. In Oregon the watershed is east of the Cascade Mountains and consists of Klamath County and parts of Lake and Jackson Counties. In California it includes parts of Del Norte, Humboldt, Modoc, Siskiyou, and Trinity Counties.
On the drive to the NWR we stopped for a few hours of kayaking and canoeing on the Williamson River at Randolph Collier State Park near Chiloquin. The Williamson flows into the Klamath River. It was a beautiful clear autumn day and a great opportunity to glide along the river while viewing birds, wetland vegetation, and a distant Mt. Scott. We floated past bald eagles and egrets, saw fish swimming in the river, and inspected a beaver dam.
The next morning we hiked along the Link River to see more birds and the remnants of the now non-existent Klamath waterfalls. There are boulders and small rapids downstream, but a dam built to back up the Link River (flows out of Upper Klamath Lake) covers the old falls. As we hiked along the river we saw a mink fishing and spotted many interesting birds, including elegant grebes, white pelicans, rarely seen hooded mergansers, and a young black-crowned night heron.
Later we headed up Williamson River Canyon to tour the Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuges around Upper Klamath, Lower Klamath, and Tule Lakes. These areas support millions of migrating birds. We saw abundant species including cormorants, pelicans, hawks, grebes, egrets, gulls, bald eagles, finches, blackbirds, sandpipers, magpies, herons, snow geese, coots, and ducks – the area is truly birders’ heaven!
On the way to Sheep Ridge – between Lower Klamath and Tule NWRs – we met a coyote intently hunting along the tall marsh grasses. We were able to drive up right next to the coyote and take some fantastic close-up photos! Later we saw a herd of mule deer grazing along the same route. After a short hike up Sheep Ridge we lingered at the stone lookout on top enjoying a panoramic view of the surrounding wetlands.
Another landmark was Captain Jack’s Stronghold – Lava Beds National Monument. Captain Jack was a proud Modoc Indian Chief. The Modoc tribe lived among the Tule Lake lava beds until the US Government herded them to a reservation north of Tule Lake, forcing them to coexist with their enemies, the Klamaths.
A defiant Captain Jack moved his people away from the reservation. He peacefully returned them to Tule Lake where they stayed for several years before being pressured by local settlers to move back to the Klamath Reservation. Again, Captain Jack led his tribe away from confining reservation life and tried to settle them on their old grounds.
In 1873, after skirmishes among the Modocs, civilians, and government soldiers ending in deaths on both sides, the Modocs retaliated by killing 14 white people in strikes on ranch houses. Retreating Modoc warriors held up at Tule Lake in the sharp lava beds and boulders. Several US army commanders led attacks on the Modoc stronghold at Tule Lake. After a series of fierce battles, the soldiers defeated and hanged Captain Jack. The remaining Modocs returned to the Quapaw Reservation in Indian Territory.
On Saturday evening, after a full day of exploring, we drove into Klamath Falls and enjoyed dinner at a local Vietnamese restaurant recommended by Wendell and Kathy. The next day we toured the Wood River Wetlands area along the north end of Agency Lake at the mouth of Wood River.
This area is part of 3,200 acres of natural wetlands purchased in 1993 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Before the BLM’s purchase, the area was pasture land. During years of trial and error the BLM successfully restored the wetland area and adjacent Wood River channel to its natural state. BLM endeavors resulted in improved water quality and serve as a model habitat where fish, birds, and other wildlife can thrive.
“The Wood River watershed drains 220 square miles of forest land in the Cascade Mountains southeast of Crater Lake and the Wood River Valley. The drainage around its headwaters is forest country dominated by ponderosa and lodgepole pine with some quaking aspen in the meadow lands. Anne Creek, a well-known feature within Crater Lake National Park, drains steep alpine forest country. From near its headwaters to the border of the park, the creek cuts a deep canyon through the forest and feeds several irrigation canals with excess flow returning to Wood River. Lower Wood River flows through pasture land and ultimately opens into a large marsh before draining into Agency Lake.”
The field trip to Klamath Basin was an opportunity to enjoy wildlife and learn more about this important wildlife area and the significant challenges it faces. Many of the same challenges are occurring throughout our country in other wetland areas.