Federally designated as a “wild and scenic river,” the Klamath flows 260 miles from south-central Oregon, cutting through the Cascade Mountain Range and emptying into the Pacific Ocean on California’s coast. The second largest river in California, the Klamath has served as a major artery not only for Natives, but also for trappers, gold miners, settlers, farmers and anglers.
Starting this year, freshmen at Humboldt State University will also learn to rely on the river as they embark on a program designed to help them get up close and personal with the Klamath. The program, called Klamath Connection, is a new, place-based curriculum that takes students out of the classroom and deposits them on the riverbanks, where they take water samples and learn from tribal experts about the river’s history and its current issues.
“The goal is for incoming freshman to make connections with the river as a sense of place,” said Amy Sprowles, assistant professor of biological sciences. “Then, by studying the river and the biological and chemical aspects of it, they will have a true connection to their classwork.”
Sprowles, along with wildlife professor Matt Johnson, developed the program with funding from a $4.6 million grant that was split among eight California State University campuses and earmarked for helping students complete degrees in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
“The Klamath Basin is the ultimate living classroom,” Johnson said. “The rivers, forests and people of the Klamath are the ultimate teachers.”
Sixty-four students majoring in biology, wildlife, environmental science or zoology are enrolled in this year’s Klamath Connection, a pilot program organizers hope grows in the coming years. Only a handful of the students are Native, but the program focuses on the Native connections to the river.
“We have in the program emphasized Native groups, their cultures and the science and ecological knowledge their scientists have been working on,” Sprowles said. “We are intentionally working with tribes to broaden the perspective of our students and how they think about the river.”
Called the “Everglades of the West,” the river’s watershed covers more than 12,600 miles, including the native lands of several tribes. In California, the Yurok, Hoopa Valley, Karuk, Quartz Valley and Resighini Rancheria reside near the river, while the Modoc and Klamath live along the river in Oregon.
But the river is in danger. Dams in the upper basin have led to water quality issues downstream, including a marked decrease in salmon, and The U.S. Environmental Protection Service has classified portions of the Klamath as “impaired” because of the presence of toxic algae.
In 2002 alone, as many as 70,000 adult Chinook salmon were killed by disease caused when farmers and ranchers diverted too much river water during a drought year. Klamath Connection students will study this disaster, believed to be the largest fish kill in the history of the American West.
“The river is in a pretty bad state right now,” said Chook-Chook Hillman, a water quality technician and member of the Karuk Tribe. “We’ve been narrowly dodging catastrophe since the fish kill. We’ve just been putting stopgap measures in place to keep it from getting really bad.”
Hillman worked with Humboldt students during a summer immersion session held ahead of the fall semester. The four-day session included camping along the river and visits with scientists from the Yurok and Karuk tribes. Students also took water samples they will analyze throughout the semester.
Hillman hopes students emerge from the program dedicated to careers in the STEM fields and specifically qualified to help the Klamath River recover.
“Our people have always lived close to the river, so we try to get people to understand what it means,” he said. “It’s our church. It’s our grocery store. It’s our school.”