The Beautiful Undammed

“That’s still the water that runs through my veins.”—Mike Polmateer, Karuk 

One of the many regenerative stories that has captivated me and feels like a bright ray of hope is the undamming of Rivers. 

The undamming of the Klamath River is one that deserves a wide telling. The Klamath is a ~260 mile mighty & beautiful river. It’s also a mightily dammed & diverted river, like many western rivers, with devastating ecological consequences, from water quality to fish runs.
The hydroelectric dams have blocked fish passage and altered river flows for over 100 years. 

Now, after decades of indigenous advocacy, 4 downstream dams are being taken out. The first removal is complete, the remaining 3 next year. It is being hailed as the largest river restoration project in history. Prior to this, the Elwa river dam in the Olympic Peninsula was the largest such project.

“We believe wholeheartedly that once the dams come down, the fish will return,” —Mike Polmateer, Karuk

One of my odd habits is following rivers. I love mouths of rivers, love learning & listening to their meandering paths, love visiting the headwaters of rivers. I’ve walked down the American River from small mountain seeps to the first dam. When I moved to so-called Humboldt, the first thing I did was walk Baduwat River 15 miles inland to the mouth as it undulates into the Pacific.

The Klamath returns to the sea just north of there in Del Norte County. I’ve visited parts of the flow from the coast to interior mountains. With the saga of the dams I wanted to better know this river, to experience the dams firsthand. So I went to the headwaters in Oregon, followed wild meandering mountain roads overlooking deep rugged canyons from juniper and ponderosa pine perched, tracing my way down to the dams back over the CA border.

In some ways, reservoirs created by dams can be beautiful; yet for me there’s always something a little off, even apart from accumulated algae, warmer waters, disturbed shoreline and development. The difference between domesticated and wild rivers seems to register in my body. 

I turns out I couldn’t get close to dam removals (Copco #1 & #2), as there were significant project security perimeters. But I did spend time with Iron Gate, the furthers down river. My somatic experience, like with other damns, is one of constriction. Of incompleteness. A wounding and yearning for flow. 

The restoration of this magnificent Being is difficult to convey in words. I can only imagine the impact on those who are its ancestral river people, the Yurok, Karuk and others.

This is a story I believe goes even beyond releasing of water and the return of salmon. Perhaps it is archetypal, releasing flows of energy, stories, and healing that we may not fully fathom yet. 

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