The Klamath River is one of only three rivers to cut through the Cascade Mountains instead of rising from them. The river existed before the mountains, holding its ground for millennia as volcanic peaks thrust up around it and glaciers formed and receded. But in 1910, before boaters could explore or document it, the first of seven dams was built on the Upper Klamath, taming most of its turgid rapids into a series of stagnant, algae-choked reservoirs.
Today, besides a few grainy photos and notes from engineers, nobody knows what lies beneath those reservoirs. But boaters are about to find out. On February 2, California and Oregon struck a deal with energy giant PacifiCorp and the Department of the Interior to remove four deadbeat dams from the Klamath, starting in 2020. It’ll be the biggest dam removal in U.S. history, allowing 233 miles of river to flow freely for the first time in over a century.
But despite opening up a steep gradient and deep canyons that could be hiding some of the West Coast’s best whitewater, not all river runners are excited. The handful of rafting companies that operate on a 17-mile stretch of class IV+ rapids known as Hells Corner depend on dam releases to ensure consistent flows during their summer season.
“Right now, if someone calls me and says they want to book an Upper Klamath trip on July 15, I can say without hesitating that we’re going to run that trip,” says Will Volpert, owner of Indigo Creek Outfitters. After the dams are removed, though, that certainty will disappear. Volpert estimates flows will be too low during the busy summer months, and potentially too high during the spring. “It would essentially be the end of the style of trips we’re running now,” he says.
Some outfitters see the end of single-day class IV runs as the end of their business. But Volpert is more optimistic—he’s thinking of offering multi-day trips, like those on the nearby Rogue River, buying smaller boats to handle rocky stretches or pioneering new stretches of river.
Private boaters, on the other hand, are unequivocally excited. Bill Cross, a guidebook author and American Whitewater volunteer, says that any dam removal is a gift. Removing four of them at once is like having your birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa all rolled up into one.
By this metric, Cross has had a lot to celebrate lately. More than 850 dams have been torn down since 1994, according to the nonprofit American Rivers, opening thousands of river miles for fish, wildlife, fishing and boating. There’s still talk of building new dams—to mitigate drought in California and power Alaska’s growing population—but the era of American dam-building is largely over.
The era of taking down dams, though, is just beginning. As scientists measure the benefits of dam removal in places like Washington’s Elwha River, the pace of dam removals is accelerating. When the last of two Elwha dams was demolished in 2014, scientists were amazed by how quickly the ecosystem bounced back. Wild salmon blocked for decades immediately began fighting their way to historic spawning grounds upstream, songbird populations became more healthy, and clams, crabs and fish recolonized the river’s mouth.
The removal of the Klamath dams will likely bring similar ecological benefits. Today, the dams produce less than two percent of PacifiCorp’s output, but create toxic algae blooms and block more than a million salmon from reaching 420 miles of spawning grounds.
They also block kayaks, canoes, and rafts from accessing what could become a classic multi-day river trip. By analyzing gradient, flow, and depth-sounding results together with historical documents, Cross has put together a rough guide of what the submerged stretches of Klamath River will look like for paddlers. He calls it a “guide to a river that does not yet exist.”
Here’s what he’s gathered: From Keno Dam—which isn’t part of the dam-removal package—the river cuts for 45 miles through the Cascades before mellowing out into the Lower Klamath. Gradients in those 45 miles range from 16 feet per mile, a class II run, to more than 100 feet per mile—class IV or V terrain. The average comes out to 42 feet per mile. In places, canyon walls rise a thousand feet straight up; elsewhere, draining reservoirs would likely reveal sloping beaches and campsites. Cubic feet per second would likely range from 2,500 or more in the spring to around 750 in the summer.
Still, there are a lot of unknowns. Does Moonshine Falls, captured in an early photograph, still exist, or was it obliterated when the JC Boyle Dam was built? It’s one thing to say a run will have class V rapids; it’s another to uncover what those rapids might actually look like.
When the dams come down, the Upper Klamath will be one of the few places in the Lower 48 where a paddler like Cross, who’s 56, will be able to experience the sense of discovery of a first descent. “No one has ever boated this river before,” Cross says. “It’ll be a brand new exploration. I am extremely eager to be among the first to run this.”
Will Volpert, for his part, says he knew before starting his rafting company in 2013 that dam removal was a looming possibility. “It’s going to hurt our business, but sometimes that’s ok,” he says slowly. “I think it’s the right thing for those dams to come out.”