Dearest McKenzie River

2021-2022 Winter Writer Series

Our 2021-2022 Winter Writers Series asked you, our friends, neighbors, and supporters, to share their stories of gratitude for the lands and rivers of western Oregon. This earth month, we’ll be sharing with you these stories, poems, and love letters that connect people to place from the cascades to the coast.

Interested in having your story or poem shared? Submit your work through the link below. 

Dearest McKenzie River: A Love Letter to Land and Water

By Susanne Twight-Alexander

I’ve been meaning to write for some time to express my deep love for you that I’ve had over the years.

In my 20s, 30s, and 40s my most beloved river was the Trinity and its tributaries in Northern California. But in 1989 I moved to the Willamette Valley in Oregon and you moved into my heart.

In the beginning, I just had a brief glimpse of you as we drove past on a typical rainy day—a drenched view of Sahalie Falls from near the parking lot, a tease of some white rapids as we drove the highway. A few months later I decided I wanted to get to know you better and hesitantly drove up that winding highway on my own to park at a trailhead with the goal of reaching Tamolitch Pond. A short distance up the trail I encountered snow. Being new to the area, this possibility hadn’t occurred to me. But I found footprints so knew others had ventured up the trail within that week and kept hiking.

Beautiful Oregon - Tim Giraudier

The further I went, the deeper was the snow and now and then I sank thigh deep. I didn’t learn until later that there were holes down into the lava created from when hot lava had surrounded a tree and burned it, leaving the columnar hole of the former tree trunk. Fortunately I didn’t step into any of these.

There was no one else on the trail that day during the time I was hiking. I had only footprints for company.

When I finally reached Tamolitch, I was enchanted –by the color, the reflective stillness, and the isolation. Best of all there was a brightly colored duck floating on your water. At the time I thought it a wood duck but later decided it must have been a Harlequin. It was magical. And I was in love.

Later there would be hikes along that special trail, sometimes alone but often with my husband. I didn’t tell him how I felt about you. Sometimes he would be running and I would walk, and eventually he participated in the long-distance runs along the trail. I would take advantage of that time to hike, sometimes just sitting to admire the cast of light on ripples or leaf shadows reflecting on a still pool. Often I would hike around Clear Lake while he participated in the competition.

Clear Lake is one of your striking attributes. This was usually in the fall and the vine maples would be bursting with oranges and reds. If we were up there in the spring the glory would be in the sweet- smelling bear grass along the Clear Lake Trail. Once I saw an antlered buck swim across an arm of the lake, shedding water as it emerged; water that remained on the trail when I hiked by where it had come out and the air smelled like wet fur. Another time, near where the water from Big Springs joins the lake, I found a dipper (water ouzel) nest in a tree—unheard of in my experience. They nest on rocks, often near waterfalls, or underneath logs, but the tree branch hung over the water and perhaps received a little spray from rapids beneath, helping the moss nest stay green. And I’ve seen pikas/conies in some of the rockslides and near Tamolitch Pond. Elk frequented your banks and left footprints and scat. You offer so many delightful surprises.

I must admit that I’ve been tempted along the way. The Rogue River has much to offer and I have to confess that I had one wild fling with the Deschutes on a raft (near Maupin) that was both scary and exciting.

As the years passed, I found that I had to share you with more and more people. First, the mountain bike people, who in the beginning, were always courteous and warned me well ahead of time that they, too, were seeking your attention. Later, I wondered, as they sped along, whether they had any concept of how special it was to have a relationship with you.

And one of the biggest mistakes made with any attempt to nurture your well-being was to advertise Tamolitch and to encourage more and more access to what became known as Blue Pool. It wasn’t your fault that you became famous and overly publicized but it’s hard to share someone so special with so many. Some could see your depth but many saw only the superficial and it broke my heart.

I’ve not visited you for several years and I’m sorry about that, particularly since now the forest fires have changed much of your appearance. I’m hesitant to visit. But, just as the aging process has changed other friends of mine, and changed my own appearance, I know that some things will stay the same. Friends still have their quirky sense of humor, the memory of a shared event, the warmth of an old friend that cannot be replicated. And, unlike with people, eventually much of what you’ve lost in appearance will be replaced in some manner.

Just as a snag in an old-growth forest continues to serve forest dwellers so will you continue to support those that depend upon you; the salmon, the elk, and others. Love doesn’t disappear with appearance.

And, who knows? Perhaps a grandchild or great grandchild will seek companionship along your banks. They may appreciate things about you of which I was not aware.

My love for you will remain in my heart.