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Sights and sounds of Hanks Marsh

It had been a great day. I joined 13 other kayakers and a standup paddleboarder for a watery tour of Hanks Marsh, a nearly 1,200-acre section of the Upper Klamath Lake National Wildlife Refuge that borders Highway 97 and Hagelstein Park north of Klamath Falls.

Leading the way was Karl Wenner, a recently retired orthopedic doctor whose passions involve anything related to the environment. After a mile or so paddle from the private boat dock at Cove Point — we had permission through the Klamath Lake Land Trust — to a wide channel in the marsh, he explained some of Hanks Marsh history.

According to “Oregon Geographic Names,” the marsh was named for James L. Hanks, a second cousin of Abraham Lincoln. Hanks was born in Illinois in 1820 and moved west in 1853. He settled along Upper Klamath Lake in 1873 and was a successful rancher and stockman.

In 1964, following passage of the Kuchel Act, legislation significant in establishing how the several refuges that are part of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge are managed, 1,069 acres of Bureau of Reclamation marshes were transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Another nearly 142 acres was added in a 1968 land exchange.

Our flotilla listened as Wenner discussed how the marsh supports a variety of birds and plants and explained the impacts of fluctuating lake levels on the marsh and Upper Klamath Lake.

“It’s a pretty amazing place,” he said, getting nods of agreement as yellow-headed blackbirds, mallards, grebes and other birds and waterfowl cruised overhead. A day earlier, he and his wife, Anne, had previewed the marsh paddle and, without making a concentrated effort, had counted 22 bird species. “It has lots of varieties of birds and wildlife. It’s a healthy marsh.”

Healthy it is, bursting with life and colored with vibrant yellow wocus, purple nightshades, water lilies and, on its expansive shorelines, green hardstem bulrush, an important food source for waterfowl. Hanks Marsh provides habitat for nesting birds and serves as a resting and feeding place for spring and fall bird migrations.

Wenner led us along some of the wide channels that bisect the marsh. “It’s such a beautiful marsh. It’s one of the last marshes that is still open,” he explained. Because of a wet winter and spring, there’s still enough water to keep channels open. But, if the usual lake level water fluctuations occur, he expects many passages will become impassable by sometime in July.

Before turning back to retrieve a paddler who had peeled off and disappeared into a hidden channel, Wenner gave us free rein to do some exploring on our own, although he cautioned that some passages can quickly become confusing labyrinths.

For those of us perpetually confused, paddling into uncertainty was fun, a sense of exploration. Some channels abruptly ended in a confusion of impassible plants, but other times narrow squeezes reopened. Some passages looped around while others were quick in-and-outs. Birds occasionally raised from unseen resting places, while a few cautiously swam alongside, ready to leap skyward. Terns and shovelers flew overhead. A great blue heron lazily lifted off, flexing and oh so slowly flapping its wings. Red-tailed hawks flew more focused and intent. A lone white pelican glided above, seemingly effortlessly.

On the paddle back to the boat dock, instead of beelining across the lake, we followed the shoreline, which offered another perspective. Where the refuge ends and private farmlands begin, dikes exist. All sorts of items were used to create the walls, but the most curious were the battered and tattered remains of a long ago discarded car.

But the best surprise was the distant sight of a seemingly endless string of something or others. Curious, I paddled over, staying far away to not disturb but close enough to realize I was taking a gander of a single-file parade of nearly 100 Canada geese, the mothers dispersed, some ahead, some in between and some behind their goslings and headed who knows where.

Some of Wenner’s earlier comments have proved prescient. As he’d told us, “There’s something for everybody.” And for everybody who visits, Hanks Marsh is a truly amazing place.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Kayakers paddle along the wocus in Hanks Marsh. Photo by Lee Juillerat