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Ancestral spirits and a whitewater dream

Once upon a time, “The People of the River” (aka, the Takelma) resided on sloping banks along the Rogue River at Ti’lomihk Falls near Gold Hill.

Each spring, as salmon began migrating upstream, a designated elder would make his way to an outcropping of basalt in the middle of the rapids to net the first fish of the season. Only after the People had sacramentally consumed this fish were they allowed to begin catching their own salmon. In this manner, the Takelma lived in harmony with nature for centuries.

Then, other people arrived and saw different potential to Ti’lomihk Falls.

In the 1850s, gold was discovered in the river. Miners rudely escorted the Takelma off to the Siletz and Grande Ronde reservations, and began clawing away at the land where the People’s homes had once stood. When there was no more gold to be found, the miners moved on, having reduced gentle slopes to jagged cliffsides, and they littered the river banks with unsightly piles of rock.

In the 1880s, locals dammed the falls to run a grist mill. Beaver Portland Cement Company took over the site in 1914, constructing a hydroelectric dam (upgraded in 1944) to power their local factory (the city of Gold Hill received its electricity from the Gold Ray Dam, further upstream). Once the cement company closed in 1968, the abandoned dam and powerhouse served as open canvasses for taggers.

Steve Kiesling, a former Yale and Olympic rower, had a significantly different vision for the place. He began kayaking the falls after moving to Ashland in 1991. Each time he ran the river, he noted a “For Sale” sign posted on the shore just above the dam. Realizing this site could be shaped into an Olympic-class whitewater course, Steve purchased the land in 2000. He brought in consultants, among them Rick McLaughlin, the whitewater designer for the 1996 Summer Olympic games in Atlanta. Rick declared that Ti’lomihk Falls could potentially become “the best whitewater course in the whole world!”

Steve and his team initiated the lengthy process of obtaining official approval for his Gold Hill Whitewater Center. Plans include careful consideration of the impact that his park will have upon fish migration. Several intrusive rocks will be excavated from mid-stream, easing negotiation of the waters for both kayaks and salmon (see https://www.goldhillwhitewater.org/)

An early step was to take out the dam. Fortunately for Steve, this task did not fall on his shoulders. The Gold Hill Dam was one of three dams across the Rogue that government agencies had targeted for elimination. As Waterwatch’s Bob Hunter put it, “ these dams caused tremendous harm to the Rogue River’s renowned salmon and steelhead fisheries and were either obsolete, or had a function that could be better served with pumps. Gold Ray Dam was a defunct hydropower dam owned by Jackson County and was a liability to the county.”

Using federal and local funds, all three dams were removed between 2008 and 2010 (to see images of Ti’lomihk Falls before and after, as well as during the removal process, go to http://waterwatch.org/gold-hill-diversion-dam-removal/).

In the last installment of Act Locally, I discussed the pros and cons of hydroelectric dam removal. Who better than first-hand observer, Steve, to ask about any ecological impacts that resulted from the elimination of the Gold Hill and Gold Ray dams?

To begin with, Steve’s property has been much improved. He and his wife, Mary, have reclaimed the significant portion of their backyard that had been covered by the dam’s reservoir. He did point out, “The Gold Hill dam was small and didn’t have much silt behind it.”

By contrast, silt unleashed from behind the Gold Ray Dam upstream presented minor issues. During the removal process, the dam broke open unexpectedly. Steve said he could tell something had gone awry when, all of a sudden, the volume of river water increased, and the stream turned murky brown. However, the silt-release calmed down within a matter of hours and merely added healthy deposits of sediment throughout the riverbed.

As we toured the river’s banks, I noted piles of rough tree trunks scattered over nearby islands. Apparently, one unintended consequence of the Gold Ray Dam removal has been the loosening of soil along portions of the riverbank. The roots of a number of mature trees — mostly alders — became destabilized. In time, the trees fell into the river and were swept downstream. Steve added, “ We lost a lot of alders because the water level dropped. My sense is that the river is still finding itself after those dam removals. That’s why so many trees have been coming down.”

Other than that problem, from what I could see, river waters were rushing by clear and fast. Steve said “the salmons runs have gotten larger since the dams were removed, and right now salmon are happily moving upstream.”

As for his whitewater center, Steve’s greater vision is for a complex of facilities hosting multiple sports activities along both sides of the Rogue. He is working to expand Gold Hill’s municipally-owned recreational area, which currently includes baseball diamonds, tennis courts, boat ramps and a skate park. With Steve’s help, the city plans to develop mountain-biking trails on the adjacent hillside, and to turn the nearby powerhouse into a café, with a climbing wall on the exterior of the building.

On his own property, Steve has already created a viewpoint along Upper River Road on the cliff where the Takelma village once stood. There, one can sit, take in spectacular views of the falls and commune with the spirits of the ancestors. Steve recommends this as the best spot to watch the 7th annual King of the Rogue whitewater race on Saturday, July 13 (https://www.goldhillwhitewater.org/king-of-the-rogue).

Ashland resident, author and anthropologist Nina Egert has been a lay environmentalist since the early 1970s.

Steve Kiesling