Report from the Lower Deschutes

Observations While Drifting from Macks Canyon to Heritage Landing

Written by David Moskowitz (July 26, 2018)

Photographs by David Moskowitz and Dorothy Brown

On Wednesday July 25, we floated from Macks Canyon to Heritage Landing to observe the immediate aftermath of the “Substation Fire” that is reported to have ignited from a roadside between the BPA Celilo Substation and the Auction arena northeast of Hwy 197 as you are leaving The Dalles.  Driving south towards Macks on Tuesday afternoon July 24, we could see occasional evidence of the burn across the rolling hills of wheat and sage from Highway 197.

Our first sign of the burn in the Deschutes Canyon came as we passed through Ferry Canyon and the last light of day illuminated the canyon beyond Macks Canyon itself.

Fire had reached both sides of the river within a half-mile of the empty BLM campground.

We pushed off the boat ramp at 7 AM on the 25th and before we rounded the first bend downstream of Macks we could see the intensity of the fire and its impacts on the riparian vegetation.

Talbots was torched, as well as the islands between it and Dike. While the grove of trees at Dike was mostly still there, all leaves were withered and the downriver trees had burned. The old pit toilet downstream of the Dike camp burned as well.

Sixteen mile on river-left did not lose as many trees but there is damage to the upside of most trees.  The one-hole toilet burned also.

The Homestead camp burned severely, as did Nookie Rock.  The fire got into parts of each of the islands between those camps as well.

Airport and upper Steely Flats were scorched black, especially on the upland side (as you might expect).  It was also shocking to see areas right on the river’s edge had also burned completely. Charred tufts of grass and light gray piles of ash where tree stumps and downed limbs had burned to dust were all that remained.

One of the harder hit areas was from Moth Camp all the way to Lockit (river-right), possibly a result of the vegetation loss from a fire on that flat just two years ago.  The back side of East Switch and all of Lockit took a hit. While the Lockit Phoenix 200 solar composting toilet seems to have survived, the stairway and “porch” are damaged and may not support your weight.  Thanks to Sam Sickles for reporting the hazard to BLM.

The fire got down to the river all through Lower Lockit and Lockit Box and scorched the backside of the bottom camp at Big Fish Corner.  The patterns of intense burning of the upland and some of the riparian area followed by a few untouched riparian alders repeats as you float further downstream.

I am not sure why some trees were burned and some spared but must be a combination of the winds and general moisture level of the individual trees or stands of trees. Most vegetation, even if only slightly removed from the riparian area, was seriously burned. The leaves, even if green, are extremely withered and will likely dry further and fall.

The Harris Canyon Phoenix (river-left) burned completely, but the Fall Canyon pit toilet as well as the Bed Springs pit toilet (both river-left) survived.  Ledges camp, badly damaged a few years ago by a fire, really burned down this time.  Upper Washout (just below Bed Springs river-left took a big hit, and the back-side of Hot Rocks burned and increased the dusty and sandy spot that is better suited to bocce ball than steelhead camp.

As for the Freebridge area, river right looked worse than river-left. The camps on river-right down below the old boxcar (now gone) were unrecognizable, and the dense vegetation at Power Line is gone as well.

The Sharps Bar pit toilet survived as did trees and grass right on the waterline.  In the Wagonblast area, again river-right seemed more burned than river-left, though in the upland, both sides burned almost completely, and most of the Russian Olive trees do not look likely to survive.

The Wagonblast Phoenix toilet is still standing as are both old one-hole pit toilets in the Blackberry patch below Rattlesnake (though the blackberry patches themselves burned up). The fire was stopped before it reached Heritage Landing on the west side and before it reached the campground on the east side.

The Past and the Present

I have been on the lower Deschutes regularly for 30 years.  Our first float trips were a few years after the second acquisition of land along the lower 14 miles came into public ownership in 1986. As grazing was phased out on much of riparian up to Harris Ranch, everyone marveled as the riparian areas made a major recovery from extensive cattle grazing.  Later, Oregon Trout launched their 100,000 trees project in 2006 which added many alders in some areas, though other areas remained tree-less.  Strong alder growth seemed to enhance the transition from single-handed fly-casting to the common-place two-handed spey-style casting, and the tree-growth even hid the old Freebridge Steel pilings for many years.

Our family floated through an active fire in the Steely Flats – Bull Run area in about 2005, and we watched in fear and fascination as winds sent the flames across the Steely Flat Canyon wall so fast that the flames passed right over large swaths of dry grass and sage in the little depressions, all while helicopters dipped water buckets right from the river all around us.

I have watched the ebb and flow of native grasses and invasive weeds as fire, floods, drought, weed suppression, boaters and anglers traffic and even some grazing have impacted and changed the soils and landscape.  The Deschutes Canyon is a resilient landscape, but it can be fragile as well.


Things to Think About if you Love the Deschutes

Learn to Love Your Toilet bucket. Fellow river enthusiasts and steelhead fanatics, please use it.

Be Your Own First Responder. We only found a single smoldering hot spot which we doused.  Having a shovel, a rake and something to carry water can help you take action if you need to.

BYOS. Bring Your Own Shade.  It is time to invest in some portable shade.  Even if you find a decent camp with a few lingering alders, these trees deserve a break from providing shade duty for our river camps. The soils almost  everywhere are dry and dusty so our use is going to naturally concentrate around the few remaining green and shaded areas.  The trees that did survive could be compromised very quickly from soil compaction in your favorite camps. Tread lightly.

Watch Out for those Burned Trees: Beware of the trees that burned but are still standing. When the winds come up, it is possible these blackened sentinels of the past will crash in your camps at all of the wrong times.  This could also happen when you are fishing your favorite run so be aware.

An upside for birds, bugs and fish. There will be increasing amounts of larger wood in the river as the burnt trees fall or are blown over on the banks or in the river. Downside. They will be hell to wade around at times and we will all lose more flies (so keep tying or buying everyone!).

Burnt Stream Banks: Chances are that the charred black hummocks could become the first places for vegetative recovery.  Treat them nicely and tread lightly.

Afternoon water temps. Until PGE begins releasing bottom-draw water from Round Butte Dam, the afternoon water temperatures in the Deschutes below Sherars Falls will be too warm to fish after about Noon to 1 PM. The morning temperatures are barely dropping below 66f.  The evening water temperatures are topping out at 71f. If you hook a steelhead, it will be fighting for its life in water that does not have enough oxygen to let that fish recover once you release it. Voluntarily STOP fishing at Noon or 1 PM until you can confirm that the water is cooler than 66f.

Minimum flows: The minimum water releases from the Pelton Re-Regulating Dam are supposed to be no less than 3800 cubic feet per second (CFS).  Pelton is releasing 3860. The flow at the USGS gauge just above Moody Rapids shows stream flow at 4130.  That means that there is barely any added streamflow is being added through streams like Trout Creek, Warm Springs River, White River or groundwater springs, while irrigation and municipal uses along the river are withdrawing their share of the natural flow. When the streamflow is low, it invariably affects the water table which in turn affects the soil moisture and moisture level in roots, trunks and leaves, especially with the season’s hot dry air.

USGS water gauge: This crucial monitoring tool was damaged by the fire and five 24-hour periods over 6 days were lost.  USGS had already sent a crew to repair it when they received inquiries –  quick action!

Funding. We are all paying $10 per boater-pass that does not go to the Deschutes, and we can be sure agency budgets are being eaten up by fire control and suppression efforts. We need every Deschutes dollar we can get to stay in the watershed and fund facility repair and natural resource restoration!

So What is Next?

  1. Native grasses. Can we get a jump on encouraging native grass rehabilitation and also figure how to inhibit weeds we do not want or need in the canyon?  It would be great to encourage ODFW to team up with BLM, Oregon Parks, Oregon Wildlife Foundation and the local weed control districts work together to develop a plan and encourage volunteers to contribute to a coordinated effort.
  2. Angling and Water Temperatures. It is hot out there folks! Hopefully PGE will turn some knobs and send more water and colder water downstream.  Seems like everything would benefit from that. As for angling, the afternoon temperatures are reaching dangerous levels. Do you have it in you to stop angling when the water hits 68f?  The studies show the effects of warm water on steelhead and salmon in terms of mortality upon release.  We know that the wild fish are the best biters on the Deschutes, so trying to catch a hatchery keeper on these hot afternoons and evenings will invariably set you up for an encounter with a wild steelhead. When the water hits 68f, just say No.  If you must fish (for religious reasons of course), cut the points off your flies or your lures and fish for the grab – that is actually the very best part, right?
  3. Wild steelhead returns 2017-2018. ODFW recently released their re-construction of the wild steelhead return to the Deschutes for the 2017-2018 run-year.  Last year, ODFW estimates that just under 1,500 wild steelhead passed over Sherars Falls. During 2016-2017, the estimate was just under 1,200 wild steelhead.  Just about 3,500 hatchery steelhead passed Sherars in the 2017-18 run-year, and just under 4,000 in 2016-17. The wild spawning escapement goal for Deschutes steelhead is over 6,000 fish and has been exceeded only once in (2010) the past fifteen years.
  4. Funding. Oregon Wildlife Heritage has a Deschutes-focused fund. Oregon Parks and BLM should ask to donate 90% of each reservation fee to OWF. Oregon’s congressional delegation should seek to earmark several million dollars (decimal dust in the Federal budget) to the Prineville BLM and local NRCS district offices for riparian and grassland restoration. The Oregon Legislature should provide emergency funding through their “E-Board.”  ODFW should tap in the Columbia River Fisheries Reform Endorsement Fee fund that every Columbia basin angler pays annually.  Freshwater Trust (formerly Oregon Trout), the Deschutes River Alliance, Flyfishers Foundation, Deschutes Land Trust (DLT), Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC) and fishing clubs and organizations should jointly fund a new 100,000 Trees for the Deschutes campaign.
  5. Show some Love. When you think about how many angler days you log on the Deschutes, and the likelihood of having more encounters with wild chrome than hatchery chrome, you have to wonder how much pressure those of us who LOVE these wild fish should be putting on these fish that we LOVE. We ALL HAVE TO GIVE BACK if we want our kids or grandkids to learn to love this river and its fish and wildlife.

Postscript: I wasn’t even finished writing this when word came of a new fire burning from Dufur and down into the canyon between Sherar Falls and Ferry Canyon.

References for More Info:

ODFW Wildlife Management Plan for the Lower Deschutes

ODFW Wild Steelhead Escapement over Sherar Falls – Counts from 1977-2018

Oregon Wildlife Foundation – Deschutes River

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