Parasitic worms in Klamath Falls
“THE LIFECYCLE OF A LAB”
Words and photos by Jeffrey Basinger
Julie Alexander and Luciano Chiaramonte fight currents and gripged boulders under the turbid waters of southern Oregon’s upper Klamath River. They swim separately but within sight of one another. Alexander wears a thick wetsuit, but “Luc,” as Alexander calls Chiaramonte, sports only trunks, despite the cool air shaded by clouds. Even in summer, at this elevation it is cold.
Snorkels extend from the researchers’ mouths as they bob upstream between rocks and reeds. Behind her mask, Alexander’s eyes scan the underwater landscape as she moves.
Chiaramonte and Alexander, a postdoctoral scholar and a master’s student, respectively, are working at the bottom of a steeply sloping valley flanked by tall alder trees. One side rises to a long cement wall, which splits the river a few miles behind them, sending most of the flow along a higher elevation, toward one of the many power-generating dams in the Klamath basin. Not long ago the area was well used by a fishing community, and shortly before that, it was sparsely inhabited by Native American tribes.
No longer. The native communities have dwindled, and the fishing industry along the Klamath River was shut down after salmon populations decreased to unsustainable levels. Where once ran the third-largest salmon population in the world, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department now estimates the population at 1/16th its former size.
Essayist Elizabeth Woody wrote that the number of salmon in the Northwest had once been so plentiful that their splashing during upstream migration would spook horses. The fish now move much more quietly. Klamath River levels rise to a fraction of their historic height. Like low blood pressure, the veins of the landscape pulse slower, with dizzying effects on adjacent communities that rely on jobs and food from these ancient waterways.
The Klamath River is notoriously odd. “Normal” rivers begin clean and clear at their start and then flow downstream, picking up sedimentation from river development or pollution from city corridors, becoming progressively dirtier. By contrast, the upper stretches of the Klamath are murkier than the lower, due to numerous dams and old log-transport practices that scraped and deformed the upper river’s beds, while the lower stretches are fed sporadically by cold, clean tributaries.