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The lake that never was

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TRAIL — Anne Hethorn loves to let her dogs run a bit off-leash — even the spirited black Lab Hailey — along the old Elk Creek Road, which was once planned to be 150 feet under water of what was supposed to be Elk Creek Lake.

But the lake was not to be, the thought of it jettisoned when half-built Elk Creek Dam was dynamited 12 years ago, leaving behind an old county road along a creek, neither of which were expected to see light in the 21st century.

“We come up here to walk the dogs three or four times a week,” says Hethorn, who lives in Trail along the upper Rogue River. “I’m so glad it’s not under water. I don’t have water recreation toys, but I do have dogs that need to be walked. This, to me, is perfect just the way it is.”

And chances are, it’s going to stay that way.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is close to completing a master plan for its three Rogue Valley holdings — the other two are Lost Creek and Applegate reservoirs — and to date its focus remains low-intensity for Elk Creek, a recreation site that was never meant to be.

Elk Creek Dam was supposed to have been completed more than 30 years ago as the third dam in the Corps’ three-pronged approach to flood control and fisheries enhancement in the mainstem Rogue, but environmental lawsuits scuttled the project in 1988.

Since 2014, the 6-mile stretch of the former Elk Creek Road has seen a smattering of recreational use from hikers, cyclists, equestrians and even sport-hunters under the Corps’ supervision.

The current draft master plan, which has been years in the making, has stressed an effort to maintain and enhance the land’s natural resources, especially threatened wild coho salmon, without developing the area for more intense recreation beyond day-trippers looking for some out-of-the-way fun.

“People have said they like it the way it is — a place for low-impact recreation,” says Joya Szalwinski, the Corps’ interpretive ranger for the Rogue Basin Project.

The current offerings are access to the paved road and foot bridges between two trailheads off Elk Creek Road. The downstream one is Yellow Rock and the upstream one is at Homesteaders Trailhead, each sporting a bathroom and parking facilities.

In between is an easy hiking and biking trail with access to popular summer Elk Creek swimming holes and views of old foundations from houses razed when the Corps began buying up private property in the 1970s to build the dam and a planned 1,300-acre lake.

“They really don’t want any more improvements down there, so that’s how it’s going to be,” Szalwinski says.

That’s a striking about-face from the Corps’ original marching orders in 1962, when Congress tapped these lands as part of a massive and somewhat visionary view to harness the Rogue Basin’s waters, provide protection to sprawling development within the basin’s floodplains, and help wild salmon.

Lost Creek and Applegate dams were completed, but Elk Creek Dam’s construction was halted in 1988 because of environmental lawsuits over impacts to wild spring chinook salmon in the mainstem Rogue.

The Corps could not legally complete the half-built dam, because it couldn’t create mitigation to offset the warmer waters that would flow out of the reservoir and alter Rogue salmon habitat. So the dam was notched in 2008 to allow fish passage into the upper basin, which is considered important spawning and rearing habitat for federally protected wild steelhead and coho salmon.

Most of the land has remained open to the public, except areas immediately upstream and downstream of the dam’s remnants.

But visitors can still hike past the pyramids of gravel meant for dam construction that remain on site. Also accessible is a wooden Stonehenge-like reconstruction of a portion of the Elk Creek stream bed immediately upstream of the former dam site.

Shortly after the dam was notched, the Corps spent about $2 million to turn the creek channel upstream of the dam from a moonscape to a thriving complex habitat for wild coho and steelhead.

The Corps is in the flood-control business and is not in the practice of managing lands solely for recreation. So the agency is in the midst of divesting itself of its Elk Creek holdings, which likely will fall to the Bureau of Land Management, whose marching orders are more akin to the future of this lake bed that never came to be.

Until then, Hethorn and her dogs will have the run of the joint, along with horseback riders and cyclists who have discovered the old county road once tapped to be 150 feet under water.

“It’s a fabulous trail for mountain bike riding or street riding because it’s paved,” Szalwinski says. “It’s great for kids. There’s no traffic to worry about.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Interpretive park ranger Joya Szalwinski walks near the rements of the Elk Creek Dam that is now part of the Elk Creek Trail hiking area. Photo by Denise Baratta
Park Ranger Joya Szalwinski talks with a dog walker on the Elk Creek Trail. Photo by Denies Baratta