Whychus Stories

Pine Meadow Ranch, Hammond House, Leah Wilson

Pine Meadow Ranch

This place is defined by water.

I came to Pine Meadow Ranch to listen to stories of the creek on this ranch in Sisters, Oregon. The ranch is idyllic with its unobstructed views of the mountains and Whychus Creek, its milky glacial melt waters originating from Broken Top and all Three Sisters, running through the ranch.

Little, if any land on the ranch is untouched. It is a fully constructed landscape dating back to the 1800s when settlers cleared fields for cattle and began diverting streams to irrigate their ranches. Some of the coveted water rights for this ranch date back to 1895, superseding the water rights of Three Sisters Irrigation District (TSID).

Morning on the Peterson Ridge Trail

Morning on the Peterson Ridge Trail, Leah Wilson

Sisters is only a two hour drive from Eugene in the wet Willamette Valley where I live with its verdant forest understory carpeting the towering Douglas-fir, western hemlock, western cedars and pacific yew. In Central Oregon, butterscotch-sweet ponderosa pine, manzanita, and sage dominate the dusty landscape. Remnants of open canals still stretch across the land as furrowed reminders of water diverted from one small creek to support the local community and agriculture.​

Horses at the Ranch

Horse Refugees at the Ranch, Leah Wilson

A rotating system of sprinklers run constantly through the fields of the ranch to grow grass for the cattle that follow in the wake of the greening patches. The first Sunday after my arrival the Grandview fire near Black Butte ignited, spreading quickly through the dry grassland and brush as it was propelled by the intense winds blowing across the land every afternoon and evening almost without fail. Ashes floated through the air and a blanket of smoke blocked the view of the nearby mountains.

The ranch soon became populated with horses and more cattle from other ranches in or near the evacuation zones. Even in the unlikely event the fire reached the ranch, it would have a hard time spreading with the open spaces of fields and pastures and the ubiquitous sprinklers. It was a protected refuge and I was grateful for those sprinklers in the early days of the fire.

Tent Cabin Studio

Tent Cabin Studio, Leah Wilson

I began my two week artist residency settling into my unpretentious tent cabin studio located on the bank of Whychus Creek thinking my time there would serve as an easy entry point and testing ground for a much bigger project I have planned on the Klamath River in Southern Oregon and Northern California. I was aware of a small scale successful dam removal project initiated by the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and supported and facilitated by Cris Converse whose mother, Dorro Sokol, bought the ranch in the 1970s. Cris moved back to the ranch after the death of her brother Doug in 2008 to help Dorro manage the land.

The dam removal story seemed like a manageable little story with a happy ending, in contrast to the quagmire of the Klamath basin embroiled in contentious politics pitting ranchers against the Indigenous tribes. There is not enough water to go around to meet the existing needs of everyone in the Upper Klamath basin, and the problem is greatly exacerbated by the current historic drought and the massive Bootleg Fire.

Water Pump

Water Pump, Leah Wilson

Much of my time at the ranch was spent talking with people and listening to their stories about Whychus Creek. Some of those people include: Cris Converse who had previously lived at the ranch and whose brother Doug built a diversion dam to send water to a large pond in the center of the ranch’s fields; Louie Cooper, a heavy equipment operator with Three Sisters Irrigation District; Roy and Carolyn Runco, ranchers who have lived in Sisters since 1959; Maret Pajutee who is now retired from the USFS where she was instrumental in the process of obtaining Wild and Scenic status for the creek; Joe Reber, an analyst with Farmers Conservations Alliance; Brad Chalfant who has recently retired from the Deschutes Land Trust; and many other community members. Each person I spoke with told rich and fascinating stories about the creek, and there are many more people I hope to speak with soon but I didn’t have the opportunity to meet during my brief stay at the ranch.

I am no longer just dipping my toes into the cold water to become acclimated. My little Whychus Creek project has quickly bloomed into a full-sized endeavor that will exist in parallel with the Klamath River project. The stories from the two watersheds will be told alongside the stories from the McKenzie watershed where I live. Up until now, I consider the work I have been doing with Stories Told by Water to be preludes. Now it is time to dive in fully.


A Start – Whychus, Leah Wilson


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