Shifting Resonance: Klamath River

Ode to the Eddy Muffin: Eddy at the Gun Club 2, synthetic paper, applique pins, acrylic

2022 – In Progress


Four dams dividing the Klamath River into upper and lower basins are scheduled to be removed in early 2023. This is the largest U.S. dam removal project to date, creating a unique opportunity to observe rapid and dramatic changes within a river system that has been unhealthy for decades. 

I am observing the transformation of the Klamath River before the dams are removed and concluding when the ecosystem stabilizes and unifies, creating a body of visual artwork and a collection of writing that responds to and deepens my understanding and relationship with the river as it undergoes a series of changes throughout the upcoming years.

To understand the river from a scientific perspective I travel to research sites on the river with Drs. Jerri Bartholomew and Julie Alexander, and others from the science community who are studying the river’s ecology. I visit their labs and engage in conversations to better understand some of the scientific processes that influence, and are influenced by, questions asked by the scientists and their pursuits of answers and increased understanding. Visiting the river with scientists helps me remain open to observing what is present. It is imperative to the project that it does not venture into speculative territory. Science offers a lens for focus and clarity. It also provides an exciting opportunity to explore and play with the possibilities of art-science partnerships that increase the scope of traditional territories of both art and science.

My goal for this project is not to communicate the science, but to broaden my ways of knowing the river. The scientific perspective enables a more objective view of the river than my own perspective. It also provides the opportunity to experience the river at a scale that I am not able to perceive without a scientist’s knowledge, instruments, procedures, experiences, and perspectives.

To nurture my personal relationship with the Klamath River I venture beyond the parameters of the scientific method to incorporate my embodied experience into my artwork and writing. As a whitewater boater with several decades of experience, including boating on the Klamath River, I also experience the river physically and intimately in a way that is familiar to me.

Because the focus and intention of my project primarily follow the path of relationship building, the artwork and writing of the project are not predetermined. Both will be allowed to evolve naturally as my relationship with the river deepens and my understanding increases. 

Ode to the Eddy Muffin

Foam and duckweed in one of Julie’s research sites above the JC Boyle dam cover the surface of the water. Foam swirls and builds into pillows as it follows the many currents in the eddy. As a whitewater kayaker, we called the foam “eddy muffins.” I hadn’t known what the eddy muffins were or why they were found in some rivers but not others. The Klamath River is full of them, but the nearby Smith and Trinity Rivers do not have eddy muffins. It was a mystery.

Eddy muffins are a result of eutrophication which occurs in water with high nutrient levels. Scientists refer to the Klamath River as a productive river – a river that produces a large number of plants and algae. Eutrophication is naturally occurring, especially in productive rivers and warm shallow lakes like the Upper Klamath Lake, but it is also exacerbated by industrial wastewater and fertilizers and waste from farming and ranching practices. Eutrophication can severely decrease water oxygen levels, creating conditions that can kill fish and other aquatic animals.

This eddy, and all of its foam, is above all four dams that will be removed. The water will still be full of nutrients and fertilizers from the ranches and farms upstream but the eddy may retreat with the disappearance of the dam and reservoir below it. Nutrients will continue to affect the interconnected ecotones all the way to the ocean, but I am curious to see if the eddy water rejoins the downstream flow, will there be fewer places for the duckweed to grow thick and for the currents to churn large foam eddy muffins and to send them downstream?

Ode to the Eddy Muffin: Eddy at the Gun Club 1, synthetic paper, applique pins, acrylic

Ode to the Eddy Muffin: Eddy at the Gun Club 1, synthetic paper, applique pins, & acrylic, 8.5 x 8.5 in., 2023, Leah Wilson

Ode to the Eddy Muffin: Eddy at the Gun Club 2, synthetic paper, applique pins, acrylic

Ode to the Eddy Muffin: Eddy at the Gun Club 2, synthetic paper, applique pins, & acrylic, 8.5 x 17 in., 2023, Leah Wilson

Ghost of JC Boyle

JC Boyle is not a ghost yet, but it will be soon. It’s a large, complicated concrete and metal monument of human engineering and hubris. It divides, holds back, and diverts flow, and passage. This relic of 1958 will finally be coming down.

Dams like these are disorienting. They disrupt the river so it no longer acts as a river does. This one is almost obsolete.

Its removal will cause disruption for some individuals and communities. Places they know will no longer exist. Markers of memories will change shape. Rhythms and patterns will change. This is another form of disorientation. It can be traumatic when a place, naturally formed or engineered – it matters not, quickly shape shifts.

I am impatient to see the change.

Yet, I still feel some twinges of resistance because I too have memories here, held by this dam.

Ghost of JC Boyle 1, charcoal on paper

Ghost of JC Boyle, charcoal on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 in., 2023, Leah Wilson


It Just Might be Marvelous

It Just Might be Marvelous

The gun club and the eddy are two places I wouldn’t enter without good reason, and together, they have a darkly seductive draw. I have entered the gun club twice because that’s where the eddy is accessed. My first visit to the eddy was punctuated by the sound of gunshots. The second was snow-covered and silent.

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This beginning on a cold dusky evening was so near to the last place I floated the Klamath River years ago when I was teaching kayaking. This beginning met the previous end, picking up the dropped thread and beginning to weave a new pattern. That night we slept in our tents next to the river, listening to foxes screaming in the night.

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Art and Science on the Klamath River

Art and Science on the Klamath River

An introduction to my Klamath River Project: What interests me more than knowledge and answers that science provides are the questions we each ask, why we ask them, and the ways we go about trying to find answers. Within the questions, I have found many points of convergence between art and science, primarily in process. My goal with this project is not to explain or illustrate science with my art. Doing so would keep the science contained within the realm of the intellect. Rather my aspiration is to ask better questions so I can know the river, as well as I can, to see and experience it from different perspectives, and to create artwork alongside science that may provide a shift of perception or a doorway that opens to awe and wonder.

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Dams fascinate me. We build large walls to hold the water back. We try to tame the water so we can control how much and when it flows. This contradicts the nature of water which is to constantly flow. Dams make me uneasy.

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Thank you for your support!

Support for the ongoing research of this project is from Dr. Jerri Bartholomew, director of Oregon State University’s John L. Freyer Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory, and Assistant Professor) Senior Research) Julie Alexander.

Shifting Resonance: Klamath River is being created with the generous funding from the Oregon Arts Commission, the Ford Family Foundation, and Oregon Sea Grant.

Oregon Arts Commission Logo
Ford Family Foundation Logo
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