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Koi People

People who keep koi ponds acknowledge it's expensive and somewhat addicting, but more than worth it for the serenity and peace of mind these colorful, meandering creatures create in their little backyard paradise.

"The beauty, the tranquility — and watching them thrive, knowing they're happy and healthy. I can't imagine my yard without them," says Sandi Whittle, who started with a dozen koi when she bought her home on the slopes of Roxy Ann Peak a decade ago.

Now, their numbers have tripled and their care has become a "huge responsibility," but one that Whittle and other members of the Siskiyou Koi and Pond Club willingly embrace.

"It's not like a swimming pool — throw in chemicals and leave. I had no idea what I was getting into. It's way higher maintenance than a pool," she says. "But it's so peaceful. I recommend it, but you have to be committed."

While the expense of making a pond and supplying it with pump, filters, skimmer, rocks and plants is generally estimated at around $5,000, that just gets you to square one. The rest carries a very steep learning curve about water quality, fish diseases, pH factors, predators — and how to stop them, says koi fancier Vicki Dudley, who's been at it two years.

"I bought books and tapes. There was nothing out there telling me what to do," says Dudley, noting that after one year of the group's existence, club members — with the help of koi expert Norman Call in Roseburg — have come a long way and now assist newer members in avoiding most mistakes.

Many people start out innocently by following the popular trend of getting a gurgling water feature in their yard, then they put in a couple goldfish — then, why not? — get a six-inch koi or two. After all, they are so much prettier with their filmy fins and radical reds, oranges, blacks and whites.

"It's about so much more than watching fish swim around," says club president Lois Rosmarin, who says at the heart of it koi are actually pets, creatures with smarts and personalities, some shy, some playful, one outgoing, one a bully. They eat out of your hands. They recognize your voice and follow you around the pool and you love them enough to give them names, she says.

The chubby, docile koi are sitting ducks for raccoons, herons and other predators, but keeping koi safe isn't that hard, says Whittle. You fence your property, keep the pond four to five feet deep with steep sides, and drape netting around the edges. Predators won't walk on netting or step off into deep water.

The Koi and Pond Club, started a year ago with five members, has expanded to dozens now and offers instruction — or directs members to Internet courses — on pond health, fish physiology, nutrition and other science. Much of the learning is aimed at freeing pond water from ammonia and nitrates produced by fish and keeping water near the ideal pH of 7.4, says Rosmarin.

Koi originated as catfish living in the rice paddies of Asia, where farmers, only a few centuries ago, started selecting and breeding the more colorful ones.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Sandi Whittle feeds her koi Wednesday at her house on the slopes of Roxy Ann Peak. - Jamie Lusch