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Paddling through history ... and pelicans

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A watchful white pelican keeps track of kayakers as it stands on a cut-off log in the Topsy Reservoir. (Lee Juillerat photos)
Liane Venzke stays near the shore kayaking downstream from the Topsy Reservoir.
The Klamath River pauses as its waters reach the Topsy Dam.
A trip down the Klamath River near Topsy Reservoir can be a learning experience

It had been a pleasant morning kayaking in the calm waters of the Klamath River at the Topsy Reservoir.

Because of the still continuing surge of forest fires, plans to paddle at Spring Creek at Collier State Park or one of several kayaking trails near Rocky Point were scuttled in favor of the still waters of Topsy. Just east of Ashland off Highway 66, the put-in at Topsy’s Pioneer Park West is relatively close and convenient. And because it was a weekday, my friend Liane and I saw no other boaters.

It’s a historic area. Just off the highway are interpretive signs that tell about the Applegate Trail, one used in the mid-1800s by pioneer settlers traveling in wagon trains with hopes for a better life in the frontier west.

As the Klamath River Crossing historic sign tells:

“Large lakes, lush marshes, and verdant meadows of the Klamath Basin foretold the richness of the Oregon country. Watchful against cattle being stampeded by Indians, emigrants encountered mud, rain, a lack of grazing, and other unforeseen hardships. In contrast to other trails, once having passed the Great Basin desert, potable water was generally quite sufficient, and grazing was available near water. In 1850, with little food, John Mclashen wrote "We had saved a few handfuls of corn meal which we mixed in a little water and give each animal a mouthful. We recruited the inner man by a small drink of brandy. ..."

Another marker notes:

“We crossed the Klamath River this evening with our waggons and got over without difficulty except that one of our train['s] loose oxen got mired at the bank of the river and detained us some time. We proceeded to the mountain near by and had a succession of steep ascents, requiring double teams to accomplish the ascent. After driving 10 miles near dusk one of our waggons broke down, the fore wheel being smashed....a total loss to us.” William Hoffman October 24, 1853

In those times no bridges crossed the Klamath River. Emigrants, wagons, horses and livestock had to cross the river, it was easier. Dams that were later built upstream and downstream have created the Topsy Reservoir, which has made the river crossing wider and much deeper. A bridge allows motorists to make the crossing almost unnoticeable. But in the 1850s and for many years, the Klamath River was a hurdle for westward travelers. As the marker also notes:

“Applegate Trail emigrants crossed the Klamath River after months of weary travel. With Siskiyou Mountains looming ahead, emigrants forded the Klamath River near this site at what Tolbert Carter, an emigrant of 1846, call "one of the worst crossings that wagons ever made. The ford was rocky and deep, with swift current, and I, by the advice of someone, crawled on the back of Bill, my big near ox, and rode across the river. I did that for the reason that the current might catch the light wagon and turn it over.” George Riddle, Recollection of 1851.

Another sign tells that instead of crossing the Klamath eight miles upsteam, the second emigrant train of Applegate travelers “found a new Klamath River crossing one-half mile north of this sign Oct. 11, 1847. This remained the chief ford of the area until Brown’s Ferry was established here in 1866.”

History wasn’t on our minds as we paddled downstream past the Topsy Campground to barricades that block the entrance to the J.C. Boyle Dam.

From there we doubled back, following the very lazy river upstream past the Pioneer Park put-in and underneath the Highway 66 bridge. That’s when things got interesting.

Paddling upstream we spotted distant specks of white. As we worked our way along, we realized the specks were pelicans — American White Pelicans. As we paddled closer, some flew from trees bordering one side of the river. One circled overhead as if checking us out.

We crossed to the reservoir’s eastside, curiously cruising along and around a series of sawed-off logs firmly planted in the riverbed and lined in parallel rows from the shore. Are they part of former landing site for a lumber mill? Unlike the Applegate markers, there are no interpretive signs that answer the question.

Interpretive signs weren’t necessary to know what the observant pelicans, several of them perched on the sawed-off logs, were thinking. As we glided slowly closer, most of the pelicans appeared to be nonchalant and unperturbed, although they obviously kept careful watch as we came nearer. Pelicans are beautiful birds, but one literally stood out.

While the others stood on stumps with their necks extended and stretched high, one was crouched, its long, pointy orange beak extended along and across its plump, puffed-up chest, watching as we entered its domain. It never visibly moved but one eye was always focused on me as I slowly, gradually neared it. It gave no visible signs of fear while I gently glided my kayak around it, savoring the proximity.

Not wanting to overstay my visit, I began paddling downstream toward the put-in. And when I looked back, the wary pelican had straightened its neck, shook its head and flapped its wings, seemingly relaxed.

Learning more about the history of the Klamath River and the Applegate Trail was fascinating. But memories that will be part of my personal history are the bird’s-eye views of the gracious, regal white pelicans.

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