Sierra Magazine

Good Going

Klamath Reverie

Visions of abundant life along the Pacific Flyway

by William Kittredge

Pintail and mallard and teal in their quick, undulating V-shaped flights are everywhere, wheeling and calling, setting their wings, settling. Only a week or so before, the head biologist at Klamath National Wildlife Refuges had flown over these wetlands and estimated 3.7 million waterbirds, including 772,000 pintail ducks, 525,000 mallard, and slightly over 700,000 green-winged teal. Those numbers were way up from the fall count in recent years. Maybe the seemingly irreversible decline in waterfowl at the refuges had stopped. Maybe the Pacific Flyway was coming back.

Photographer Tupper Blake and I park at the foot of Otey Butte and climb to the top. In homestead days, there was an orchard up here. We step over the remains of rockwork fences, laid up when Otey Butte was an island in a sea of tule marshes and reachable only by boat.

The story of the Klamath basin is one of watershed politics—federal reclamation projects and farmers, ranchers and refuges, endangered suckers and bull trout and salmon, Native American tribespeople and dams and a small city, all wanting the same resource. A system of flowing water holds the basin’s people together, while disputes over its uses drive them apart.

"It’s like looking out over the ocean," Tupper says. Thousands of birds are flying; seeing them is like confronting a sight of infinity. My great-grandfather saw millions of passenger pigeons over the forests of Kentucky. Salmon once thronged in rivers like the Klamath. That was ordinary. We’re evolved to revere these sights, a hunting species. Such proliferation lights up our minds with visions of luck and success. The scene convinces me that I participate in a flow of meaningful energies. It’s solacing, derived from witnessing life.

Adapted from Balancing Water: Restoring the Klamath Basin, with photos by Tupper Ansel Blake and Madeleine Graham Blake (University of California Press, 2000).

Though more than 75 percent of its wetlands have been filled, the Klamath basin, on the Oregon/California border, remains the largest interior freshwater wetlands system west of the Mississippi River. The Sierra Club has designated the six-unit Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges complex one of 33 special places to be protected as part of the Club’s campaign commemorating the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

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