We have fallen in love. For Holly and me both this is the second time around.
We see with more mature hearts our reverence for—a river, the McKenzie River, which flows from the Cascade Mountains to join with the Willamette just north of Eugene, Oregon.
Holly camped near the McKenzie with her family when she was a kid, and the family all remember the magic of this waterway. I stayed several times at a women writers’ retreat right on the river during the 80s and 90s. I stood on the deck of the lodge watching the McKenzie flow by and even rafted the river. But neither of us fully appreciated the idiosyncrasies of this river until our most recent visit.
We learned that the McKenzie flows out of an underground ice cave! That’s why its flow doesn’t diminish in the summer, and why it’s always so cold. It’s part of an extensive underground system of natural canals flowing under volcanic rock in the Northwest. The McKenzie itself disappears underground at one point before bubbling back out of the rocks. Locals admonished us to look but not dive into the lake at the river’s headwaters. It’s really cold, and we enjoyed stories of swimmers desperate to jump back out. The lake formed 3,000 years ago when Sand Mountain erupted and dammed the river behind a wall of lava.
We fell in love with the part of the McKenzie that is being restored for the enjoyment of tourists before learning that most of the river has been channeled, dammed and generally exploited for generations. Six dams have been built on the river and one section was diverted into a tunnel decades ago. Many of its tributaries have also been dammed. We visited Terwilliger Hot Springs on one of them, the Middle Fork of the Willamette. The river flows into a gigantic reservoir there that’s looking mighty low these days. Next to it the famous Blue Lagoon—whose color is legendary—had been completely drained. We learned that the temperature of the Willamette rose to 74 degrees this season, far too high for fish who live there, forcing authorities to let more water out of reservoirs.
We only walked a couple of miles on the path to two waterfalls, Koosah and Sahalie, but we hope to return to the McKenzie to walk more of the 26.5-mile trail along the river.
By Molly Martin