November 7, 2007 - Rejuvenating McKay Creek

November 7, 2007
November 7, 2007 - Rejuvenating McKay Creek

Rejuvenating McKay Creek
Native vegetation, steelhead are returning to Ochoco stream

By Jim Witty / The Bulletin

McKay Creek is being restored with the expectation that steelhead soon will swim there.

Aside from the built-in beauty of a little water in a dry country, McKay Creek doesn’t look like much. Especially this time of year.

And in fact, the small stream that drains 63,486 timbered acres is a shadow of its former self. But good things appear to be in store for this corner of the Ochoco Mountains.

Steelhead fingerlings are scheduled to be reintroduced into the watershed next spring, joining the redband trout and Columbia Spotted Frogs already in the system.

Steelhead historically spawned in the creek, made their way to the ocean and returned to spawn again. According to the Forest Service, the last year that steelhead spawned in the creek was 1952. And the trout population is down to 10 percent of historic levels.

Degradation began in the late 1800s, when the first European families settled in the McKay Creek valley and brought livestock and timber operations there. Later came off-road vehicles, stream-side campsites and a destructive flood in 1964. And, according to Lookout Mountain District Ranger Art Currier, the Bureau of Reclamation “straightened the stream out” in the late 1960s.

Over time, fine sediment increased in the creek and the stream slowed to a trickle in the fall. Pools were destroyed and stream-side shrubs were lost, creating a lack of cooling shade. Stream channels broke down.

But things are looking up.

Boulders and wood are being added to a four-mile reach to form pools, native riparian shrubs are being planted to increase shade, and user-created roads are being obliterated to reduce sedimentation. According to Forest Service officials, off-highway vehicle use is being limited to selected areas.

An exploration of the McKay Creek watershed reveals sections that must look much the way they did more than 100 years ago: lush and inviting. Then, there are the chunks of stream that look as if they’ve borne the brunt of a century of abuse. Tire tracks cut through stream-side meadows and the creek itself in these places is shallow and devoid of vegetation.

“The last two or three years, we’ve been getting as much stream restoration work done before the fish get there,” Currier said.

McKay (rhymes with “why”) Creek flows into the Crooked River, which flows into Lake Billy Chinook above the Lower Deschutes.

McKay Creek Road takes you northeast out of Prineville, through a bucolic tableau of old barns, fields and grazing horses before heading up into the pines. Typical of the Ochocos, imposing rock outcrops peak out from the forested hillsides around most every turn. Geologically, the Ochocos are much older than the newly volcanic Cascades to the west. The Ochocos have been uplifted and eroded throughout geologic time, which gives these mountains a different look and feel.

Before winter sets in for good, drivers can follow Forest Road 33 up and over Harvey Gap, back down to Wildcat Campground in the Mill Creek drainage on the cusp of the Mill Creek Wilderness, and on through to U.S. Highway 26 at Ochoco Reservoir east of Prineville. From the top of the hill at Harvey Gap (Jack Harvey was a Prineville deputy sheriff in 1916), you can look down on the wilderness and Hash Rock, where a wildfire blazed several summers ago. The headwaters of McKay Creek are near Harvey Gap.

Historian Steve Lent says the creek probably was named after one of two half brothers, Donald or William McKay. Donald was an Indian scout from Warm Springs. William led an expedition to the McKay Creek area, camping there for several weeks. Or it could be named after James Mackey, an early settler.

What’s certain is that steelhead and salmon are on their way back to parts of Central Oregon where they’ve been missing. That McKay Creek will soon be healthy enough to host a viable run of anadromous fish is a delicious prospect.

“The water’s there,” said Currier. “It’s cool.”

And the steelhead are coming.

So visit the Ochocos, but tread lightly. There’s something big and bold and historic going on there.

“It’s very close to Prineville, and there’s a paved road,” Currier said. “Our challenge is to keep it from being loved to death.”

Jim Witty can be reached at 617-7828 or

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