THE KLAMATH BASIN
Way up along the border with Oregon is the one of the greatest wildlife region in all of California — the Klamath Basin. Several rivers draining Crater Lake and the Cascades converge and gather in a giant depression centered on Klamath Falls, Oregon. It’s high country, 4100′, and part of the Great Basin biotic province, which covers most of Nevada, eastern Oregon and parts of Idaho and Utah. The summers can be hot and the winters brutal, sub-zero temperatures are common. Most of the precipitation comes in the wintertime, often in the form of snow. It’s a tough place to make a living. Cattle and farming is the mainstay of the economy; health food stores are rare.
A huge portion of the earth has dropped here, creating a very large basin and in this basin is a series of large lakes, which drain into each other like a slowly cascading wash tubs. The Upper Klamath, Lower Klamath Lake, Tule Lake, and Clear Lake all drain into the Klamath River which winds southwestward and dumps into the Pacific just south of Crescent City.
Like all bountiful regions in the United State this area has been greatly altered. Apparently native peoples were thriving here over 15,000 years ago. It was one of the last areas of California to be settled and the infamous Modoc Indian Wars were fought on the banks of Tule Lake. And like all encounters between the Europeans and the native peoples, the Indians lost.
The wetlands once covered 185,000 acres, that’s about three Pt. Reyes National Seashores. Early reports of the game and waterfowl found in the Basin defy the imagination. They conjure up images of Africa’s Serengeti Plain. But beginning in 1922 the Bureau of Reclamation began an aggressive program of dyking and draining the wetlands and converting it to agriculture. It is easy for us now to be critical of these efforts with our 20/20 hindsight. But you must put these actions into historical perspective. Marshes were viewed as wasted land. To improve the local economy and the general well being of local inhabitants it seemed necessary to alter the earth in significant ways. We now know the ecological importance of wetlands and the damage caused by reclamation projects but at the time it seemed the correct thing to do.
One reason the area is so rich in waterfowl is that it’s along the Pacific Flyway. This is basically an interstate highway for ducks, geese, swans, hawks, eagles and other birds migrating south to escape the harsh winters of the north. Many of them spend the entire winter in the Basin but quite a few continue south, flying west of Mt. Shasta and winter in the Great Central Valley. Fewer still fly on the east side of Shasta and winter at Honey Lake, Mono Lake, and the Salton Sea or all the way down into Mexico. In other words Klamath Basin is a major freeway junction. Even today the Basin in November and March is a staging ground for over a million birds.
But probably the biggest draw is the Bald Eagles. There are usually around 500 of them hanging out on the edges of the Lakes eating dead ducks. Not exactly a great PR image for our National Bird but the correct one. Klamath Basin has the greatest concentration of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states.
Every winter I do an outing to there called “Escape Super Bowl.” This year it was very cold, clear and beautiful. Shortly before sunrise we gathered at the base of Bear Valley Mountain and waited for the eagles to fly out. It was 8 degrees. Our discomfort was soon forgotten as eagle after eagle flew right over our heads.
There was a porcupine up in a willow tree eating bark right outside our lodge, we watched ten coyotes frolic in a field, a bobcat peered down at us from a distant ridge, two river otters were playing in a drainage ditch, and in the warmth of the afternoon we saw a yellow-bellied marmot gathering grass clumps for a later meal. It was our groundhog and he saw his shadow. We all headed south feeling uplifted and alive, grateful that given at least some protection the wild things still manage to thrive in the Klamath Basin.