Difficulty II-IV
Length 15 Miles
Gauge N/A
Flow Range
Reach Info Last Updated 05/02/2020 5:03 pm

River Description

American Whitewater volunteer Bill Cross, co-author of Western Whitewater, assisted us in writing A River Runner’s Guide to a Free-Flowing Upper Klamath for the recreational opportunties we might find with a restored Klamath River.
Copco Valley
Copco (2,605’) to Wards Canyon entrance (2,500’ est.)
Length: 6 mi.; Gradient: 18 ft/mi; Difficulty: Probable II to II+
The six-mile Copco Valley run would be the gentlest on a restored Upper Klamath – thanks, ironically, to a dam. Not Copco 1 Dam, the 126-foot-high concrete plug that currently floods this stretch. No, the dam that produces this easygoing reach is far older. Six miles below the settlement of Copco a lava flow once blocked the river, backing up a five-mile lake. The Klamath gradually filled the lake with sediment, then carved a deep outlet notch through the lava dam, creating the landscape that Native Americans once knew: the Klamath winding gently through a broad valley before knifing into a deep volcanic canyon.
The lava narrows, known to settlers as Wards Canyon, was the Klamath’s most obvious damsite, and in 1918 Copco 1 Dam was built, flooding the valley. The reservoir’s straight channel masks the serpentine meanderings of the original river, and motorboats now skim over what was once the Upper Klamath’s most fertile stretch: pre-dam maps show the river winding past ranches, pastures and orchards.
Today Copco Reservoir’s stagnant waters produce a decidedly less appealing crop: toxic algae. When the Klamath’s warm waters stagnate, trouble brews, and almost every summer blooms of toxic blue-green algae coat Copco and Irongate Reservoirs, emitting a potent toxin that has forced swimming closures at the reservoirs and along the Lower Klamath. At times the State of California has posted warnings for over 80 miles downstream, deterring some boaters – including commercial outfitters’ customers – from visiting the Klamath. The river simply can’t flush the reservoirs quickly enough to keep the algae at bay, but dam removal will dramatically improve water quality by letting the Klamath flow swiftly through these sections.
Pre-dam surveys show a modest gradient, implying good current but easy whitewater -- ideal for less experienced boaters or anyone who prefers scenery to thrills. Historic photos show a lush riverside forest, and once vegetation returns, wildlife should thrive. Draining Copco will expose 1,000 acres of riverfront land, much of it gently sloping benches ideal for camping and hiking. Outfitters and private boaters could use this run several ways: for gentle one-day trips; as an extension of the final five easy miles of Hells Corner; for camping after running Hells Corner; or as a prelude to the dramatic whitewater of Wards Canyon. The key to making this a workable run is to develop accesses just above Wards Canyon, so less experienced boaters can take out before the big rapids downstream.
Wards Canyon
Wards Canyon Entrance (2,500’est.) to Copco 2 Powerhouse (2,330’)
Length: 2.0 miles; Gradient: 85 ft/mi; Difficulty: IV; possible V
Wards Canyon is a whitewater brawl. Bookended by the peaceful Copco Valley upriver and the moderate Irongate run downstream, Wards Canyon is an intense clash between the irresistible force of the Upper Klamath and the immovable object of a lava dam. The Klamath wins this geologic fracas by slashing a deep cleft through the dam, but the lava gets enough licks in to churn the river to foam in the turbulent passage. It’s a natural collision guaranteed to quicken the pulse of advanced boaters. But Wards Canyon is more than just big whitewater: it is a scenic and geologic wonder, a 300-foot-deep defile bounded by sheer colonnades of columnar basalt.
Wards Canyon is an engineer’s dream: easy damsites, a steep descent and abundant flow. Small wonder that every inch is tapped for hydro production. Copco 1 Dam blocks the river a quarter-mile below the canyon entrance. Then 500 yards downstream, Copco 2 Dam diverts the entire river (except at rare high water) into pipes that bypass the channel for 1.5 miles down to Copco 2 Powerhouse. The dam releases a paltry 10 cfs to the bypass reach, which as a result is heavily overgrown with brush. All of which means that Wards Canyon has never been available for boating. The only documented runs were during the 2002 Flow Study, and even those only reconnoitered the bypass reach. No boater has ever seen the upper half-mile that is buried by dams.
Wards Canyon has tremendous potential, especially given its proximity to I-5. To predict what the rapids will be like, our best modern source is the 2002 Flow Study, when paddlers tested releases from Copco 2 Dam into the bypass reach. At 1,200 cfs – barely higher than median projected summer flows under KBRA -- they found numerous exciting Class IV rapids. Historical sources offer clues to what lies in the uppermost half-mile, buried beneath the Copco dams. Engineer John Boyle’s 1911 description of Copco 1 damsite speaks volumes: “The width of the canyon … was 70 feet, all of which was taken up by the water of the river. For 150 feet above the dam and 350 feet below, the river channel had a grade of 2 feet per hundred, producing a velocity … of about 20 feet per second.” Boyle’s description tells us the river was narrow, very swift, and had a gradient near 100 feet per mile. Clearly Wards Canyon started with a serious bang -- certainly Class IV, possibly higher. We simply won’t know until the dams come out.
Wards Canyon has a lot going for it: big rapids, spectacular scenery, summer-long flows, short shuttle and location 20 miles from I-5. Outfitters could offer half-days, or full-days in combination with adjoining reaches. Private boaters could do “laps” of this short stretch, while overnight boaters could continue downriver. The key elements needed are new accesses at the upstream and downstream ends of the canyon, along with brush removal -- after 90 years of diversions the canyon is so overgrown that it could take decades to clear on its own.
Copco 2 Powerhouse (2,330’) to Irongate Dam (2,170’)
Length: 7 mi; Gradient: 24 ft/mi; Difficulty: probable II+ to III+
In Irongate the river finds a happy medium between the mellow meanderings of Copco Valley and the hell-for-leather sprints of Big Bend and Wards Canyon. In this final stretch the Upper Klamath flows through a semi-arid canyon dotted with oak, juniper and pinyon pine. The run ends below Iron Gate, a scenic narrows for which the dam is named.
Since 1962 this reach has been flooded by 173-foot-high Irongate Dam.
This reach has great potential, combining strong summer flows with enough gradient for good whitewater – most likely intermediate, though stronger drops are possible. It is long enough for a day trip, or could be combined with adjacent sections for longer runs. The first four miles descend at a brisk 30 feet per mile as the river courses through a narrower canyon. Three miles above Irongate the canyon broadens and the gradient eases to 16 feet per mile, suggesting good current but milder rapids in the final stretch.
Irongate could prove quite popular for both private and commercial trips. For outfitters, the run’s proximity to I-5 makes it potentially fertile territory: take-out is just nine miles off the interstate. This stretch may hold the most accessible intermediate whitewater on the entire Klamath, along with good camping and solitude. As at Copco Reservoir, draining Irongate will expose 1,000 acres of previously flooded land, but unlike Copco there are almost no homes along the shore. With proper stewardship, Irongate could offer excellent scenery and seclusion just miles from I-5.

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Thomas O'Keefe


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