River Time

Celebrate the McKenzie

Tim Giraudier/Headwaters Photographic. Lupine on green island.

Summertime! When clear skies and warm sun lure us to the edge of the river for a float, a swim, a picnic or maybe just a nap on a shady bank. In the old days it was not uncommon to find that the river’s edge had changed from the high waters of winter, with trees and banks shifted, gravel bars moved from one place to the next. But our rivers have been increasingly narrowed by the convenience and stability of roads and other hard surfaces. Still, there are home waters nearby where the river’s shifting compass still holds sway, and somewhere it is getting a chance to meander again.

On Saturday, June 29, the McKenzie River Trust welcomes everyone to a daylong exploration of just such a place — where the McKenzie and Willamette Rivers combine and make a big turn to the north. We’re celebrating 10 years of work at Green Island, a conservation property we hold and manage just west of Coburg. This special place is a 1,100-acre land and water restoration project in process, helped along by hundreds of volunteers, a bevy of acronym agencies and the vision of a living river.

Just what makes a river alive?

It begins with the bones of water, gravity and a mountain slope; fills out its form with leaves and trees, bugs, birds and fishes; and then develops a soul as it begins to meander in gentler valleys, changing its course year to year and spreading out in search of new routes to the sea. For more than a century in the Willamette Basin now we’ve harnessed that life for the betterment of ours, converting rivers into what historian Richard White describes as an “organic machine.” But in doing so, we’ve taken some life out of the river, ultimately affecting our own health and welfare. We’ve narrowed channels and removed woody debris. We’ve dammed and diked and redirected flows. And we’ve poured the byproducts of modern America into the river, sending it downstream to neighbors doing the same.

The work of river restoration and our goal at Green Island is to revive some of that original life, to give back some frequently flooded land to the river on its own terms, and then make the space where we can all revel in the meandering paths that it takes from year to year, and how its form again flourishes in bird song and flashes of fishes and clean water and shade. And so with the generous support of our donors, we’ve made some dramatic changes to the landscape in the last decade: planting 80,000 native trees and shrubs, recontouring the banks of side channels and even removing some of the berms and levees that held back the river’s seasonal swelling across its floodplain.

This degree of river restoration is not work that can be done everywhere, given the investments we’ve made in our built environments. But where it can be done, it comes full circle and gives those investments that much greater a return. A meandering river finding its own way across the land creates habitats, tempers the impacts of flooding and cools and cleans the water it carries. How much better is the booming brewing scene here because of the clean water of the McKenzie River? How much more valuable will that same clean water be 50 years from now, when there will be twice as many people here to enjoy it? There is good reason to give as much life and leeway to the rivers as our communities will allow.

In years past we’ve taken an annual break from the digging and planting, weeding and watering, and asked writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers and philosophers to help us understand, appreciate and immerse ourselves in living rivers. For this year’s Living River Celebration, we’re letting the land and water speak for itself. You’ll encounter naturalist guides to help with translation and interpretation as we ramble across the land or gather for picnics. You’ll meet other conservation groups from the region, offering their takes on rivers, restoration and community. And you’ll even find two bands, The Blue McKenzie and The Whiskey Chasers, to provide celebratory melodies and foot stomping grassytonk rhythms respectively. So come join us to celebrate the life of the river and the river in your life. And the restorative power of nature. And the pleasure of a shade tree on a summer’s day.

The McKenzie River Trust’s Living River Celebration: Ten Years on Green Island goes from 7 am to 5 pm Saturday, June 29. For directions to the event and more information about the celebration, the Green Island Project and the McKenzie River Trust, go to mckenzieriver.org or call 345-2799. — Joe Moll