by Maret Pajutee
The story goes that Sisters had a river once, then we lost it, but then we found it again. This is a tale distilled from science but fueled by community passion. It reminds us that we can overcome huge challenges with the work of a village of willing souls.
As the Sisters Ranger District ecologist for 25 years, I had a front-row seat as the Forest Service began to look at landscapes in new and different ways. Beginning in the 1990s, this shift started moving our National Forests beyond producing goods and services and started considering their history, natural processes, and how the parts of a watershed work together to maintain ecosystem stability. The radical part was we started looking closely at human history and social trends. I loved the insights that can be illuminated by history. We reached out to those who had been here to witness the changes in a small logging and ranching town that became a popular mountain escape.
An older gentleman started coming to our community working group to talk about the creek. Jess was one of the Edgingtons. Besides taking care of the ranch, Jess had served in World War II and as a postmaster of Sisters. His father, Ellis, was an early settler who raised his children near the creek and wrestled with its wild ways. Mr. Edgington was hired to put the creek back into a main channel during floods with heavy equipment. The creek would spill over its banks and spread across its historic floodplain in a pattern like the veins on a leaf. The bridge to their place would wash out and Jess and his sister, Georgia, had to cross to school on horses, tethered by ropes.
Jess and I became friends and he began showing me the secrets of the creek. He would pick me up in his old truck and drive down sketchy dirt roads. At the forgotten site of the first water-powered log mill deep in the forest, we saw old wood wheels and broken teacups. He said the operation was so slow that people would put a log into place and then go home to Sisters for lunch.
He took me to a rock shelter on the creek with a sandy beach. It had been a favorite picnic spot for early settlers, but in later years had been defaced with graffiti and garbage from partying. He asked me if we could clean that up.
One day we bounced up a dusty road on the top of Peterson Ridge and he showed me his special spot. His family had run cattle there for years until it just didn’t make any economic sense. They called it Shell Rock Point because they imagined they saw the shape of sea shells in the rock. The cliffs high above the creek had a huge view across the forest to the Three Sisters. You could hear Whychus roaring below.
Jess had been going there for over 60 years and one day found an ad-hoc trail had been cleared, leading to a park bench on the edge of the cliff. There were old car seats on the top of rock spires. The place was often littered with beer cans and he was worried someone would fall off the edge.
I later learned that Paul Dewey, who led the effort to protect Whychus as a Wild and Scenic River, had taken a governor’s representative to this exact spot in 1988. A dam had been proposed upstream of Jess’s picnic spot. The representative had warned Paul the whole way up that Wild and Scenic River status was reserved for only the most special of wild rivers and it was very unlikely to qualify. Then they reached that cliff edge, and wide eyed, she said yes, of course.
With help from Central Oregon Community College, we held a history festival in 1998, and collected stories from other old-timers that Jess helped us find. We recorded tales of fishing trips, snowstorms, bears, lonely sheepherders, and a wedding lunch next to roaring waterfalls. The thing that really stuck with me was something Jess said:
“The town people never used to care much about what went on with extra things around here. Their interest was in logging and their jobs. They liked to fish and hunt, I know that. But as far as taking care of the creek or anything like that, that was just somebody else’s concern. I think there is a vast amount of caring now. People that are here and see the potential of a stream going through town, a steady stream, not an off-and-on one.”
Our first analysis in 1998 showed that the most urgent problem was that the creek didn’t have enough water in its midsections, where 100 percent of the flow had been allocated for irrigation use since 1914. We assessed that this would be very difficult to address because it would require extensive cooperation and funding. We also found the interface between town and forest was a critical social nexus. Some people who worked in town couldn’t afford to live here and other homeless folks were living along the creek. It was also a favorite hotspot for dumping trash, old appliances, graffiti, driving in the creek, shooting trees, and had many human-caused wildfire starts. But others wanted to go there for calmer fun and were building their own secret trail systems for mountain bikes and hiking.
As the interest to restore salmon and steelhead in the Deschutes Basin increased, momentum grew to restore the important habitat on Whychus. New groups like the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, the Deschutes River Conservancy, and the Deschutes Land Trust banded together to bring millions of dollars to the Deschutes Basin. Diverse coalitions worked on fish passage at Pelton Round Butte Dam. People started asking, “What’s all this buzz about Whychus?” By the time we took another look at the watershed in 2009 we were amazed to report how much progress had been made. And it just kept on coming.
Soon we were working on a long-delayed Wild and Scenic River plan to finally address that we had a beautiful wild river in our backyard and people wanted to go there. More illegal trails and roads were appearing. Our strategy for the creek involved creating recreational opportunities near town at some of the beautiful spots that Jess had shown me, while buttoning up some motorized access and removing unauthorized trails.
A huge part of our strategy was building community stewardship. With Forest Service recreation budgets in decline and growth in Central Oregon skyrocketing, we knew we couldn’t do it alone.
In 2009, we hit the jackpot with a capital campaign with the National Forest Foundation, who loved the story of this lost river that was being rediscovered. While they could provide substantial funding, the catch was it could only go to nonprofit groups and private businesses. They were particularly interested in capacity building to help young groups that would help us take care of the creek for years to come. A committee of Sisters Parks & Recreation District was interested in trails. They were willing to take on some technical aspects of trail construction and manage grants. They soon got their nonprofit status and emerged as the Sisters Trails Alliance (STA) that we know today.
It’s impossible to recount how much work STA put into helping build the Whychus Overlook and river trails. They helped the Forest Service conduct endless tests with combinations of clay and fine gravel to develop a good surface for one of the few accessible trails on the district. They managed contracts to build a path through treacherous rockfalls near the creek. They worked with Boy Scouts and Sisters High School to plant trees and clean up garbage.
Most thrilling for me was their creation of a cadre of river trail stewards, volunteers who agreed to periodically walk the trails, do minor trail maintenance, and trash pickup. These folks provided more eyes on the ground to report big issues back to the Forest Service. With STA’s help and commitment to funding a temporary toilet for four years, the District even secured funding to build an accessible toilet at the overlook, which had been needed for years.
In 2016, my husband and I held our retirement party the day the Whychus Overlook was dedicated.
I continue to work with STA as a volunteer, helping restore native plants and keeping an eye out. This year, more than ever, the trails have provided a popular and welcome refuge to families and friends looking for the solace of nature and wild places. To help with monitoring, STA stepped up again and is providing data that helps the Forest Service understand how and when people use the area.
I wish Jess was still around so we could walk the smooth trail to his Shell Rock Point, stopping to rest at the log benches on the way. Then I could hear more stories of cattle drives in snowstorms and fishing trips with his girlfriend, Ali. I could report to him we cleaned up the picnic spot, scrubbed off graffiti, and hauled away the refrigerators. When we reached the overlook, I’d pull out a thermos of coffee and two cups and we could sit in the sun, letting the peace of the mountains flavor the day.
As we move into the challenges of the coming year, the creek still needs the community that has cared for it and helped fuel this remarkable comeback. The goal is to keep our wild river safe for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Maybe you can help? To volunteer and support STA visit their website at www.sisterstrails.org.