A careful return to public lands, waters


It was my first trip up into the fire recovery zone on the McKenzie River and what I saw was heartbreaking. (Looking upriver toward Blue River.)

Over the last year, while adhering to the prescribed health and social distancing recommendations related to COVID-19, fishing, cycling, hiking and generally most other non-team outdoor activities have been considered safe for families and individuals. Unfortunately, last season there were dozens of federal, state, and county closures that limited everyone’s access to some very popular day and multiple-day use recreation sites. Roadside overlooks and rest stops were often also closed to prevent crowding and further limited many recreational opportunities.

That was last spring, but thanks to the diligence of so many Oregonians, this spring looks to be different. Undoubtedly, mask-wearing in crowds and some configuration of social distancing will be encouraged for some time at most public recreation sites. Volunteer guides who handle a number of popular attractions across the state will also return this summer, though in smaller numbers. 

Another sign that things are normalizing, last week the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife returned their “trout stocking schedule” to the ODFW’s weekly recreation report on their website: 

Though the department kept stocking trout across the state last summer, in order to prevent crowding, the locations and qualities of trout planted had not been made public since March 2020.

FRANK ARMENDARIZ/PHOTO The McKenzie River Trust’s Finn Rock Landing was battered by the Holiday Farm Fire. Volunteers cleared the debris earlier this year and the very popular and historic landing is now open to the public.

Last week’s schedule showed that all the regular places in the southern Willamette Valley got a fresh delivery of trout, on top of other very recent deliveries. JC Pond, Alton Baker and Row River Park have been regularly planted with hatchery trout since early February. Added to the local inventory of seeded waters this week, right in our backyard or not far from the southern Willamette Valley, include the Coast Fork of the Willamette River, Fall Creek Reservoir, Dorena Reservoirs, Loon Lake in Douglas County and Cleawax Lake near Florence. All got several hundred trophy-size trout too. A little to the north, Foster, Green Peter and Detroit reservoirs were also stocked with hatchery trout just last week. The McKenzie River is also on the stocking schedule, I’ll have more about the McKenzie a little further down the column. … 

This is just the beginning of the summer trout stocking and fishing season. By May 1 the number of stocked water bodies grows by 30% and takes another leap in mid-May, when rivers on the west slope of the coastal mountains and the balance of the high Cascade Lake also open to trout fishing. If you plan to travel out of Lane County, be aware that some counties have struggled to maintain lower COVID-19 infection rates and still have limitations on dining and other services.

Earlier this month spring chinook salmon started to show up in decent numbers in the upper estuaries and lower river runs of the Columbia, Umpqua and Rogue rivers. On the Columbia, the river is now closed from Bouy 10 up to Bonneville Dam (still open above Bonneville) and more of the spring chinook run should start to reach lower Columbia tributaries like the Willamette River. As of April 4 several dozen spring chinook and a couple of hundred early summer steelhead had found their way through the fish passage and past the counting windows at the Oregon City Falls. And are now working their way upriver to the McKenzie, Middle Fork of the Willamette and the Willamette’s Coast Fork. This is just the beginning of the spring migration of salmon and steelhead and if ODFW predictions hold, we can expect about 36,000 chinook and about 10,000 steelhead to reach our southern Willamette Valley rivers.

Last fall a terrible fire burned through what was once the heart of the McKenzie River’s recreation corridor. The Holiday Farm Fire has become infamous and daily the news tells us that many people in Lane County are still struggling in the aftermath. I have many close friends and colleagues among those working to rebuild their lives and know that many upriver families are still stinging from a loss they may never recover from.

So as we transition into recreation and fishing season I wondered if people in the McKenzie Valley were ready to have visitors and I asked my good friend Ken Engelman for advice. A longtime McKenzie Valley resident, Ken publishes a small community newspaper, “The McKenzie River Reflections,” and has a solid handle of the sentiments of the upriver communities. 

Ken explained to me that “some people were still deeply hurt and resentful but that many others were ready to move forward” and realize that without visitors to the McKenzie River, that would be an even more difficult path. Ken asked that I tell my readers from the Willamette Valley who might choose to visit the McKenzie to be “respectful of private property boundaries.” Without the trees and homes people will be able to see and reach the river where they haven’t been able to for a hundred years. But that could be “someone’s ancestral, pioneer homestead, a place where generations of their families lived and made memories.”

Ken asked me to remind people that COVID-19 had already had a substantial impact on the economy in the McKenzie Valley and that the Holiday Farm Fire turned any hope of recovering into ash for many. And finally Ken asked that In light of the distress, if possible “that visitors stop and spend a little money at the businesses that have survived …”

The ODFW will begin stocking the McKenzie River in the last week in April. Please be aware that many popular boat landings and recreation sites in the fire zone were badly damaged and are still closed. Forest Glen Park and landing, Eagle Rock Park, which was a very popular lunch stop for river users. Ben & Kay Doris Park, which is just upriver from the notorious Martin Rapids and was a last chance takeout before the rapid is a dangerous jumble of fallen, burnt trees and is also closed. All are in the Lane County park system and no plans to reopen the parks and landings have been announced by the County.

Finn Rock landing was burned over too, but the property owned by the McKenzie River Trust has already been cleared and the landing is now open for public use. Downriver from Finn Rock is Silver Creek Landing. A Bureau of Land Management facility is also open, making the run from Finn Rock to Silver Creek the only currently available river segment to float without running class three Marten Rapids. If you have the skill to run Marten Rapids, Helfrich Landing is cleared and open. 

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