Eco-friendly camping

Can individual choices help save the planet? Or is the system too rigged?

Jacob Montgomery fishes with his dog at a campground near Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River.

Jacob Montgomery fishes with his dog at a campground near Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River.

Photo by Tess Townsend

Fishing isn’t supposed to be as easy as dipping a hook into water and pulling out a fish. I’m told it’s an exercise in patience, and that you’ll often come home empty-handed.

But those insights do not describe my experience on a recent camping trip near the Oregon border. There, in a reservoir on the Klamath River, yellow perch—a species not native to California—thrives in water made artificially still by Iron Gate Dam. And the fish are all too eager to snap at silicone lures on the ends of fishing line.

The trip is an annual pilgrimage by my partner and his friends, an outdoorsy group, many of them research biologists. The friend who started the trip collects a large proportion of the fish he’ll eat at home for the next year when he goes. He and others who attend try to only eat meat they’ve hunted themselves.

The trip to Iron Gate was presumably as green a vacation as one could take. We slept in tents, gave up showers, fished a sustainable food source and did it all a few hours by carpool from home. Compared with flying to a hotel or resort with electricity and running water, we spent this long weekend of camping consuming a fraction of the energy and resources.

But I had this nagging feeling that it would be irresponsible to hold up the trip as an eco-friendly model.

Many parts of the trip reflected the eco-unfriendly system in which we live. We stored our fish fillets in plastic bags, a petroleum product. We brought food packaged in plastic. We used plastic coolers. We cooked with portable kerosene stoves. Some of us threw down fishing lines weighted with lead sinkers. We drove to the campsite in fossil-fuel-powered cars.

And we camped on a man-made reservoir that dramatically altered the ecosystem from its natural state.

A common sight at our tent compound was campers filleting dead fish, a process that left the wooden picnic table strewn with fish guts as a container of carcasses steadily filled at each sitting.

What made that image so frequent was the abundance of yellow perch, a fish native to the Northeast and Midwest that has thrived in the man-made reservoir. Iron Gate Dam interrupts the flow of the Klamath River, creating a 944-acre reservoir that is “lake-like” and warmer than if the river were allowed to flow unimpeded, says fisheries biologist Peter Moyle, a distinguished former UC Davis professor.

How exactly yellow perch got into the Klamath River isn’t clear. Moyle said the now-defunct U.S. Fish Commission introduced the species to the Central Valley near the turn of the 20th century.

PacifiCorp owns seven dams on the Klamath, which the company website says provide “enough power to supply the energy needs of approximately 70,000 households.” That’s about 15 percent of all the hydropower produced by the company, according to spokesman Bob Gravely. PacifiCorp also generates energy from coal, natural gas and wind.

Dams are often controversial. On the one hand, reservoirs help irrigate land and store water for human needs. On the other, dams harm river ecosystems and aging dam infrastructure poses a flood risk. Dams on the Klamath River interrupt the migration of native coho and chinook salmon. Coho are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act on the Klamath River in California, and there is a petition to list spring-run chinook as threatened or endangered in a portion of the river. The relatively still and warm water in the reservoir makes the river more prone to toxic algae that Moyle says can kill small fish as well as invertebrates that fish eat.

“The dams are ruining the river and they are basically making the river sick. And because the river’s sick, everything that’s dependent upon the river is also sick,” said Amy Cordalis, general counsel for the Yurok tribe.

Four dams on the Klamath, including Iron Gate, are scheduled for removal in 2021 after extensive efforts by the Yurok and Karuk tribes, environmental nonprofits and government agencies, and the cooperation of PacifiCorp. Plans for removal still require federal approval, and the Board of Supervisors in Siskiyou County, where three of the four dams are located, opposes removal. In letters to the California Water Resources Control Board, the county says removal could negatively impact the environment and cause flooding, “in addition to socioeconomic impacts on the local community.”

Compared with typical supermarket options—food produced with intensive energy and often transported over long distances—yellow perch are more sustainable.

“As a matter of fact, it’s great to harvest them,” and makes little difference for the overall yellow perch population in the reservoir, Moyle says.

Teejay O’Rear, who started the camping tradition, says that when he goes to Iron Gate, he usually brings back between 150 and 200 fish. “That’s at least six months of dinner meat,” he said. He wasn’t able to make it to the river this year.

But Moyle also says, “You’re just taking advantage of an unnatural situation.” The fish are able to thrive at Iron Gate only because a dam creates an artificially favorable environment. Remove the dam and the yellow perch will disappear from Iron Gate Reservoir, though they’ll still remain in some other portions of the river.

The last morning of the camping trip, my partner and I took his canoe out on the reservoir to fish.

Later I told Moyle how surprised I had been at how easy it was to hook yellow perch. According to historical records, he said, it was once just as easy to catch native salmon.