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Native youths train with Aspen-based nonprofit to be the first to kayak the Klamath River after dam removal

Paul Robert Wolf Wilson
Ríos to Rivers
Klamath Tribal member Taeliah Eggsman, center, shows her younger siblings what she learned during the Paddle Tribal Waters program. Eggsman hopes to be one of the first to paddle the Klamath River along the California-Oregon border after a series of hydroelectric dams are removed in 2024.

The largest dam-removal and river-restoration project in history was approved last month for the Klamath River along the California-Oregon border.

U.S. regulators approved the plan to demolish four of the six hydroelectric dams on the river by 2024 in order to open up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat and sacred lands.

Environmentalists and local tribes who rely on the Klamath and its salmon have been working for years to have the dams removed — and a group of native youths are training with Aspen-based nonprofit Ríos to Rivers to be the first to kayak down the free-flowing river.

Weston Boyles
Ríos to Rivers
Youths representing tribal nations from throughout the Klamath River basin partake in the first Paddle Tribal Waters program with Ríos to Rivers and other partners on the California Salmon River on Karuk Territory in July. Ríos to Rivers is an Aspen-based environmental justice nonprofit that works with Indigenous youths to protect river basins around the world.

The Ríos to Rivers’ youth expedition is called Paddle Tribal Waters.

Weston Boyles, who was born and raised in Aspen, founded the environmental justice organization, which works with Indigenous youths to protect river basins around the world.

“Dams have a tremendous impact on our climate, our ecosystems and the displacement of Indigenous people,” Weston said in a recent interview at COP27 in Egypt. “So, keeping rivers free flowing, allowing the qualities that rivers have — which are carbon sinks that support our climate having less carbon and less methane in it — is critically important.”

Matt Baker
River Roots
The Paddle Tribal Waters team forms an “eddy flower” while learning to kayak on the soon-to-be-undammed Klamath River. Removal of the dam is expected to be completed in 2024 and will be the largest project of its kind in history.

Boyles is launching the Paddle Tribal Waters project with Ríos to Rivers Chief Storyteller Paul Robert Wolf Wilson, as well as filmmaker and professional whitewater kayaker Rush Sturges.

Wilson, a Klamath and Modoc tribal member from the headwaters of the Klamath River, said the project was born out of the idea that there weren’t enough Indigenous whitewater paddlers on local rivers.

“This program offers a developed curriculum specialized for beginning paddlers while also getting them access to advocacy training and storytelling roles,” he said in a recent news release announcing the project.

Paul Robert Wolf Wilson
Ríos to Rivers
Hoopa Valley Tribe member Cade Maxwell-Rogers works on his whitewater kayak skills on a section of the Klamath River in California. The group of native youths participating in the Paddle Tribal Waters program come from several different tribes along the river.

Wilson and Sturges last week released a short film documenting the launch of Paddle Tribal Waters.

They will also be co-directing a longer documentary about the first descent on the Klamath River after the dams come down.

Sturges also grew up near the Klamath River.

“In some ways, the story of the Klamath dam removal is a look into the future,” he said in the news release. “These dams have a finite existence and are not a long-term solution. I wanted to explore my home river and the depth of its history, its stewards, its challenges and its healing.”

Sturges, Wilson and Boyles talked with Aspen Public Radio about the film and the Paddle Tribal Waters project on Monday.

You can listen to the conversation in the audio story above.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and "Morning Edition" anchor. Eleanor has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, the Valley’s COVID-19 eviction and housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.
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