Thomas Doty – Storyteller

Klamath River Fish Dams

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A "Deal" with the Salmon People

Before the arrival of Europeans along the Klamath River, native people built fish dams by placing large boulders across the width of the river. This allowed for both a resting place for salmon on their upriver spawning journeys as well as a good place to fish. The fish dams arose out of an Old Time "deal" with the Salmon People: we will help perpetuate your species in exchange for you providing us with food.

This bargain of reciprocity was also dramatized at the yearly Sacred Salmon Ceremony. No salmon were taken at the height of the spring run while the first salmon dried on a rack. This might take several days and allowed thousands of salmon to swim past the fishermen, upriver to spawn.

This above photo shows one of the Klamath River fish dams, though it is lower than it was in the old days. Many of the traditional dams were broken down as log rafts were floated downriver to the mills in the 1800s. A few years ago, fish and wildlife agencies built small fish dams along creeks that flowed into the Klamath to help restore the salmon runs ... and it worked!

Dams With a Different Purpose

In the 20th century a series of hydroelectric dams were built on the river. The Copco 1 Dam has blocked salmon runs on the Klamath since the 1920s. In what is being hailed as the "biggest dam-removal project in history" four dams will be removed. Under an agreement between Pacific Corp, several tribes, ranchers, environmental organizations and government agencies, the dams will be gone by 2020. Removal of the dams will open up 420 miles of connected habitat for fish and potentially boost numbers of some species by 80%!

Here's a map of what the course of the Klamath River looked like prior to Copco 1 Dam: Old River Channel (PDF).


A Glimpse into the Old Days

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The top photo is of native people drying salmon in 1904.

The bottom photo shows fishing platforms at Moonshine Falls (also called Fishing Falls) in 1910. The man on the lower platform is watching a salmon leap the falls. Look closely! However, it's not clear if this man is fishing, or if he is a native Salmon Caller ... one who keeps track of the journeys of the Salmon People and reports back to the people. A second man is watching from the top of the falls. There are several traditional salmon calling sites along the Klamath River -- including one below the village of Coyote's Paw -- that date back hundreds if not thousands of years.

View Larger Photos (PDF)

A Related Story from Upriver....

The River That Flows Two Ways

The Link River is a mile and a half long. It flows out of the south end of Upper Klamath Lake to Lake Ewauna. Along this stretch is the "falls" -- more like a rapids -- where Klamath Falls gets its name. After its founding in 1867, Klamath Falls was originally named Linkville. The name was changed to Klamath Falls in 1892-93. Before white folks settled in the area, there was a Klamath Indian village along the river called Yulalona. The native name means "the river that flows two ways."

John T. Whistler, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation, wrote this description in 1903: "In the late summer, it was not uncommon for the river to go dry or have its water blown north into Upper Klamath Lake by wind."

In 1885, William J. Clarke wrote: "There is another very peculiar feature about Link River, and that is that it is occasionally blown dry. This must seem astounding to our readers, but such is the fact. It is caused by a steady wind blowing from the south and up the river -- this through a seemingly canyon -- and the waters of Big Klamath Lake roll up towards the north, and the water is literally all blown down toward the northern end of the lake, and there being but a shallow outlet into Link river, and the water being blown up the lake, leaves no water, and so the river runs dry."

Clarke also described the ruins of an ancient dam on the Link River, built by "a race of people, of whom the present Indians at Klamath know nothing, who inhabited the Klamath Lake country many years ago."

Downriver, the water that flows out of Lake Ewauna becomes the Klamath River, winding its way 250 miles to the Pacific Ocean.

William J. Clarke: Rock Walls and Ancient Dams in the Klamath Valley, 1885 (PDF)


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Fishing on the Link River in 1891 (top), and the dry riverbed in 1900 (bottom).

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