Reflections: Visiting the Klamath River

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I’ve been meaning to write about my visit down to Humboldt State University for the opening of Fix the Earth: NOW for a while. Yet, I’ve been rather at a loss as to what exactly to say. The trip was amazing and a lot of fun. It was also a very personal experience that left me longing to go back and spend more time there. In general, I loved driving down the coast between Crescent City and Arcata, seeing the redwoods, staying in Arcata, the show opening at HSU, meeting folks in-person that I only knew via online interactions, and meeting new people as well.

I had been really excited to be in a show that included Rick Bartow’s work, as he’s one of my favorite Native artists. He was there and I was able to spend some time chatting with him which was great! I got the down and dirty about a sculpture he made titled “Fox Spirit” that I know I’ve posted images of before. There were also new artists to me (Frank Tuttle, Cheryl Tuttle, Brittany Britton) that I was able to meet and view their work, and seeing work in-person from other artists I was familiar with already (Julian Lang, Lyn Risling, Brian Tripp) was so much different than looking at an image online or in a book. I really loved that all of our takes on the tradition of fixing the earth varied widely, and yet also had a common thread at the core. Some of us made new work, some of us showed previously created work, but all of it was really meaningful.

There is also a show currently on view at the Morris Graves Museum of Art that focused on Native artists from the Klamath River and surrounding river systems. In fact, there was a great deal of crossover with many artists having work in both shows (Julian Lang, Lyn Risling, Brian Tripp, Bob Benson, Frank Tuttle, Cheryl Tuttle, Brittany Britton, and Louisa McCovey at the very least). That show was nearby in Eureka so I was able to stop there and see so many wonderful pieces. There were also items by Nisha Supahan (From the River Collective founder) and others who are part of the FTRC family. Photography wasn’t allowed at the museum and there isn’t (yet?!) a catalog available, but I treasure the memory of spending time with all of those objects. So many of them resonated for me and there was a wide variety from traditional ceremonial items to paintings to sculpture to conceptual pieces like Brittany Britton’s work that collected elements from the river in jars and vials.

But the river. That was really the most meaningful part of my visit. I had driven down to California in two legs, spending a night in Eugene, Oregon, which made the drive easier. Coming home on Saturday, I drove straight through from Arcata back to Seattle, which was reaaaallly long. I had thought of driving back through Karuk country on Highway 96 up to I-5, but this would have added a few hours onto the trip. Yet, I knew that I had to visit the Klamath farther upriver while I was nearby.

On the way down, I had made a small detour to visit the mouth of the Klamath River at Requa. It seemed like it is probably popular in the summer months at least, but was fairly deserted in late February. The expanse of the river is quite wide at the mouth and there are sand bars as it meets the ocean. I spent a little time soaking it all in as this was my first real moment experiencing the Klamath River beyond driving over it on I-5 years ago. I noticed a pair of what I think were eagles circling above. They were fairly high up, but I could tell they were large! Eventually, another one joined them. By the time I left, I could see a group of six eagles that were flying high up over the river and then another two that were above a hill on the opposite side of the river bank.

The art opening was on Thursday evening and then Friday morning I went back to HSU to do a video interview with Julian Lang. Frank and Cheryl Tuttle joined us partway through and we had a great conversation about the show and Fixing the Earth. After that I stopped at Samoa Beach on my way to the Morris Graves Museum. When I left the museum, it was about 3:30 in the afternoon and I had no concrete plans to be anywhere. I was in the car driving back to the hotel when I suddenly decided to start driving toward the Klamath River. It would have been at least three hours to get to the current Karuk Tribe headquarters at Happy Camp, but I figured maybe I would go part of the way into the mountains and at least try to get to the river. Julian and Lyn had warned me that there are a lot of falling rocks on that highway and it certainly does twist and wind its way through the mountains!

I worried about driving back to the hotel on the narrow mountain roads in the dark, as well as whether the sporadic rain might turn to snow in the high passes as night fell and temperatures dropped. The farther I got towards my goal, the more anxious I became. Yet, I found that I couldn’t turn back without touching the river. As I drove, I asked the mountains for safe passage. I followed the Trinity Highway for what seemed like forever and then turned off onto Highway 96 to follow the Trinity River to Hoopa. I could tell that I would definitely be driving home in the dark now, but still pressed onward as I was so close!

Then I made it to Weitchpec where the Trinity River joins up with the Klamath. This was originally the site of a Yurok village, the Yurok being the “downriver” people to the “upriver” Karuk. I said hello to the river as I drove over the bridge and just felt a flood of happiness. A ways past that I got to a spot called Big Bar where there was a huge turnout beside a small road that led down to the river. It was clearly getting darker now and the high mountains on each side of the river canyon made it even more dim. I thought about pressing on toward Orleans (Panamnik) which wasn’t too far away and is officially within aboriginal Karuk territory as well as being one of three Karuk tribal board meeting places. But I also recognized that I could keep going and going and that daylight was fading. I pulled over in the turnout and got out of the car. The river was so close!

I got back in the car and drove the short distance down the tiny road that led to the river bank. I parked where it was still grassy and literally bounded down the sand bar to the rocky portion along the river’s edge. I was home in a sense completely separate from the apartment I call home in my everyday life. The road was higher up and occasionally I would see the headlights of a car passing up above. Otherwise, it was calm and silent except for the sound of the river and the noise of the rocks underneath my feet. The mountains rose up sharply on either side of the river and I couldn’t tell where they ended in the clouds and fog. I could see the red algae growing on the rocks at the river’s edge, which reminded me of the toxic blue-green algae blooms that I read about which have been taking place during the summer months more frequently in recent years.

I always love looking at wet rocks along beaches and river banks. The water brings out their colors and patterns so vividly. They all seemed to be calling to me and I gathered a few that were most insistent and washed them off in the cold water. It started to rain lightly and the sky got darker. I didn’t want to leave, but eventually made my way back to the car. Exhilarated, I started the drive back to Arcata, saying goodbye to the river as I drove across the bridge at Weitchpec.

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The drive back through the mountains was, at times, terrifying! It was so, so dark and then it began to rain heavily. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, but every time I passed a vehicle going the opposite direction, I gripped the steering wheel tighter. I encountered fog in the higher elevations. At one point in a higher pass, it was so thick that I could barely see the road a couple of feet in front of me. I inched forward and came across a car that had apparently pulled over and given up trying to drive for the moment. Pushing forward, I soon after emerged from the cloud bank in that pass and was so relieved to have even limited visibility back.

There was an Indian casino I had passed close to the start of my journey and I kept telling myself that if I made it safely back, I would stop there for dinner and play some slots as a reward. Well, I obviously made it there eventually and was so happy to get out of the car! I had some great sushi and played the slot machines for a while. If I hadn’t had a drink with dinner I would have left with double my gambling money, as I hit a lucky streak rather quickly. But, I didn’t feel ready to drive yet and ended up losing everything after a couple of hours. Which was fine really, and a good lesson about recognizing that an easy win is not a guarantee of continued success.

Besides sharing these stories about my visit, I think the biggest thing to note is the impact that participating in this show and going down there has had on me. I came back changed. Even before I went, the whole process of making the four pieces that I submitted was similar, but different for me. I usually do have a pretty regimented way that I approach these geometric pieces, but there was an unknown feeling inside correcting me when I thought about jumping around in the process. The pieces all had to be made methodically, in a certain order. I don’t know why, but I just knew it was important.

There were similar and stronger moments like that when I was down there on my visit. That unknown feeling became stronger, almost like an interior voice at times. It compelled me to stop at certain places on my drive, to collect certain rocks or shells. Even to detour on my way home up the side of a mountain toward the Oregon Caves only to turn back a mile away from my destination when the snow started to cover the narrow winding road. It also told me to stop at a spot on the way down, and then to leave quickly all of a sudden. There had been no traffic on my way up, but I passed several trucks heading up the mountain on my way down. I have no idea what would have happened if I ignored those instincts, but when I got home I discovered that even if I had made it up to the caves, they were closed for the season anyhow. I think it was more about gathering something up there in the high country. The strongest moment was when I was down there, alone, by the river. Whatever needs to be done, I will know what to do when the time comes.

Of course, the more time that passes, the more all of this seems like a distant memory. As I slipped back into my daily life, my more analytical self says it is all a product of my subconscious. It is harder to reconnect with those moments where I felt so whole and sure of my path. But I won’t forget, not completely.

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