Driving up State Route 96 on a spring morning, it's hard not to let your worries melt away. The inviting curves of the roadway snake through the verdant hills, the Klamath River churns below. Glimpses of snow-capped mountains appear in the distance — a dusting from a late spring storm — but the air on the river valley floor is warm and alive with the sounds of birds and buzzing insects.
At a glance, it's paradise, a lush example of the best that Humboldt County has to offer. But come summer, the area's parched. Smoke from wildfires fills the sky, and the Klamath, the cultural and material lifeblood of the area, flows tepid and choked with algae.
Water quality indicators — like those "fire danger today" signs at rural fire stations throughout California — dot the highway, their dials warning of the dangers of getting into the river's once-pristine waters.
When you see it in April, it's difficult to imagine that the Klamath is a sick river. But perhaps no one knows it's true more than Crispen McAllister.
About 10 miles north of Somes Bar, where the Salmon River pours into the mighty Klamath, McAllister pulls his truck off State Route 96 onto a blink-and-you-miss-it turnout. He hops out, unchains a gate and eases down a rutted driveway to a clearing about 60 feet below the roadway. He parks at the bottom and out pours the family: wife Ashley, 29, and three daughters Jasmine, 7, Naomi, 6, and Anavi, 2. He releases his two wolf dogs from the truck bed and they bound into the woods.
The family moseys a few hundred feet down to a small flat, where a hunter's cabin stands along with a rustic semi-permanent camp. This, from spring to autumn, is home.
McAllister, his face young and friendly, has a connection with the Klamath River — it's driven his activism, motivating him to join a community run first conceived by Hoopa High School students in 2003 as a response to the previous year's devastating fish kill. The run, which spans much of the length of the river, draws attention to its ill health and the encroaching effects of that sickness on the people who rely on it.
The 31-year-old has been organizing the upper river portion of run for several years, and has helped to recruit hundreds of people to join the symbolic and intensely physical gesture. On May 29, runners from the four Klamath tribes — Yurok, Hoopa, Karuk and Klamath — will start from Requa at the river's mouth and run upstream, relaying segments of the path, more than 200 miles to Chiloquin, Oregon. Along the way they will pass the four dams that the Klamath's stakeholders have identified as roots of the river's problems — dams that most agree must come down, a rare accord that Congress has so far refused to acknowledge.
Craig Tucker, the Karuk Tribe's Klamath coordinator, says the run makes a powerful statement — the physical suffering of the runners comparable to the struggle of the salmon to swim upstream.
While students and community members have been doing the run every year since 2003, it has garnered more and more attention since 2012, when McAllister first "took off upriver," deciding almost on a whim with some pressure from his fellow council members, he suggests, to run more 230 miles from Orleans to Yreka and back.
Local youth and other runners have joined him, catching the attention of Michelle Obama, and breaking the overall run into shorter distances. That's been nice, McAllister says with a smile. But he adds that he'd do whatever it took to move Congress. "If it got their attention, I'd run all the way from the mouth to the headwaters."
McAllister wasn't always a runner. He grew up moving all over California with his father, who served in the military, but he and his five siblings would get out to the Orleans area as often as they could, especially during the summer. "We always loved being in the woods," fishing and exploring, he says.
Crescent City was the last place he lived before joining the Navy, graduating at the top of his class and becoming a corpsman. He got EMT and paramedic training, earning qualifications that would parallel those of a physician's assistant on the civilian side: minor surgeries, prescriptions, etc. He was assigned to a Naval hospital on a Marine base in 29 Palms in Southern California where he delivered babies. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, he was approached by the Marines, who decided, he says, "This guy will be perfect to go with the grunts over to Iraq."
He chose a battalion and went overseas, where he was the solo medic for a 30-man platoon, going on patrol for 19 hours a day. It was exhausting work, walking 20 to 30 miles with a heavy pack.
They came under fire at times. "A massive group of [Iraqi] troops left Fallujah and ended up where I was," he says. "It was basically all-out war for two to three weeks after Fallujah."
But gun battles didn't account for much of his platoon's time and, anyway, he was a noncombatant, carrying only a sidearm on patrol. "I kept mine holstered most of the time," he says. "Most of my work was as the medic. That was fine with me. I never wanted to have to point down range."
Gun battles also didn't account for much of the American casualties. Pointing to scars on his arms and legs, McAllister says it was homemade bombs — improvised explosive devices — that were the most chilling. "It was like fighting a ghost," he says. The platoon would be out patrolling, "mingling with the people — and then a bomb goes off. ... All my marines — what got them was IEDs."
Shrapnel gave McAllister a severe foot injury. He returned to 29 Palms, stepping off the bus at midnight on his 21st birthday. That's when he met Ashley, who had come with friends to greet the returning soldiers, though he says it took them a little while to become romantic. Ashley had come from her native Arizona to Palm Springs to study physical therapy. She had also graduated at the top of her class and when McAllister returned from Iraq, their work in hospitals overlapped.
He was still recovering from his injuries, though. "I had trouble walking for a while — I was even using a cane for a year after I got back."
He was gaining weight and feeling restless by the time he and Ashley decided to start a family. "I was tired. I didn't want my kids to see me like that."
So he put down his cane and took up jogging. "I didn't like the idea of being told I couldn't walk right, so I started running," he says. "The soreness is there all the time anyway. I might as well do something useful."
McAllister isn't built like a typical boney marathon runner. Standing in the dappled sunlight on the riverfront parcel that hosted his great grandfather's village, he's stocky, with a broad chest and long black hair gathered into a ponytail.
Tucker calls McAllister a warrior — as a combat veteran, a long-distance runner and an advocate for the Klamath River and the communities that depend on it. He says McAllister's still dealing with the mental scars that followed him home from the war, in addition to his ongoing physical therapy.
If he's suffering from the trauma of war, McAllister doesn't bring it up. He says he was conflicted about being an invading force, "Because what would you do if the tables were turned? We all felt that way."
But, out on the banks of the Klamath, McAllister can focus on the health of his family and community, and the wellbeing of the river.
He walks deliberately among the trees of the land, a slight limp apparent at times, discussing the history of the property. When his great-grandfather returned form fighting in World War II, he chased a squatter off the land. Some disputes stemmed from that, but it's all worked out now. The property belongs to his whole family, but McAllister says he has their blessing to live there and restore the village.
"I never have to wake up and say, 'What am I doing today?'" McCallister says. He considers himself lucky to have a military pension that allows him to spend much of his time on the property. Ashley works mostly in elder care, practicing physical therapy and massage with grateful community members.
When McAllister moved back to Orleans, he was quickly elected to the Karuk Tribal council. He enjoyed his term, but the responsibilities of the council proved time-consuming for a father of three young daughters, and he chose not to seek a second term in 2014 — though he says he's mulling the idea of running again sometime in the future. "It's a taxing thing on a young family," he says. "Taxing on anybody, really."
Tucker calls him energetic, saying McAllister was a pleasure to work for. "Having a young person on the council helped," he says.
McAllister and his family are building a small cabin so they can live on the land, out of Orleans tribal housing, year-round. "It's not hard, but it's not easy living here," he says. They've been tearing out non-native vines and clearing brush-choked flats that would go up in flames if a wildfire sparked. There are elk — "It just takes one to flip out" and destroy their camp, he says — a neighbor bear that toppled their beehive last year, floods in winter and fires in summer. "It's constant. You've always got to keep doing things."
Above the flat where they spend most of their day is a short white picket fence, enclosing a small rectangle with flowers laid at the feet of grave markers. It's the cemetery where his great grandfather, great uncles and great aunts lie. "It was so overgrown it looked like somebody was trying to hide it," he says. So he cleared it out and built the fence, making it just barely visible from the road. That's helped keep people from trespassing down onto the river bar. "I've ran off people looking to gold mine, people who were poaching — physically chased them."
He also has to worry about graverobbers — his family was buried with valuable cultural items — but it's been 14 months since he had to kick someone off, the longest stretch in the five years he's been back tending the village.
Stepping around little sprigs of fresh, green poison oak, McAllister walks to the south edge of the property bordered by Sandy Bar Creek. At the base of the creek, where it flows into the Klamath, is an important rearing pool for juvenile coho salmon.
Standing on mossy stones, he gestures to a cool, shady plunge pool underneath a small cascade. That's where he'll cool off between sauna sessions in the sweat lodge he's planning to build.
He talks about the benefits of a sauna, about his and Ashley's commitment to health and natural medicine. He says he wouldn't be surprised if his daughters, given their parents' inclinations, go into health care when they grow up.
For now, they play quietly around the clearing. McAllister says Naomi, their middle daughter, was injured during birth. He thinks she didn't get enough oxygen during delivery, and she's behind her sisters, developmentally.
"When we first brought her up here she livened up so much," he says. She struggles at their home in Tribal housing in Orleans. "She can't communicate with us," she gets frustrated, cries, gets angry. "What can we do?" they want to ask her. "She can't tell us."
"Out here she's able to progress," he says. She walks around on uneven ground. "She has to develop out here."
It's also a playland for Mah' Chishii — "Wolf Dog" — and Vunih — the newest canine member of the McAllister family. Vunih means "came crawling" in Karuk, a name he earned by his eager timidity when the family first adopted him. They run wide swaths around the land, stopping only at one point to eat long eels that Ashley barbecued for them.
The second year McAllister decided to do the salmon run, he thought he'd be alone doing more than 100 miles again. But he was joined by a young man who's now a friend, Richard Myers Jr.
"He said 'I'm gonna go with you this time,'" McAllister says. They split the distance — 50 miles each.
This year, hundreds of school kids will join the run. "Like I say, I'd run the whole thing if I had to," McAllister says, continuing with a wry smile, "but a mile's good for me."
A couple years ago, the run caught the attention of Michelle Obama, who invited McAllister (and Jasmine) to the White House as an advocate for exercise and health, "another huge problem in the tribal community," Tucker says.
McAllister is proud of that recognition, but says the root of a healthy tribal community in Northern California is a healthy Klamath River.
"Since when is it OK to have a sign saying it's not safe to get into fresh water?" he asks. "The river's so toxic we can't get in it. How is it to the fish that we eat?"
In 2010, eight years after thousands of salmon died from disease in the lower Klamath following a particularly warm, dry year, Klamath stakeholders reached a remarkable accord. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, signed by tribes, irrigators, fishing and conservation groups, recommended the removal of the four dams on the lower Klamath River. The plan would restore the health of the river without impacting the upper Klamath farms that rely on water from Klamath Lake, supporters say, and even the dams' owner, PacifiCorp, wants them taken down.
Hopes were high when the agreement was given to Congress for approval. But the bill was never taken up and, to this day, remains "stymied by House representatives," Tucker says.
It's been a great frustration to the Karuk and other Klamath tribes.
"Water quality is really bad. Horrifically bad, in the late summer and into the early fall," says Tucker. "That overlaps with fishing and ceremonial season. And so it's a really bad problem."
McAllister considers the dams a sort of forced assimilation. Producing a worn copy of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from his back pocket, McAllister quotes, "Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture."
That includes any action "dispossessing them of their ... resources," McAllister says.
The federal government recognizes the Karuk Tribe, but doesn't recognize any resources for the tribe, McAllister says; no established fishing rights, no established hunting rights. "We're not able to fully self-govern if we don't have control of our food."
When McAllister sat on the tribal council, year after year, Congress ignored the KBRA, but he says he got active relatively late. He says he doesn't particularly care for the agreement, but supports the quickest way to dam removal. In the current political climate, that's the KBRA, and he respects the people who have been working on it for years. "They look a little burnt out," he says, and he understands why. It's an urgent matter, and if Congress continues to put it off, he says, it's "provoking hostilities."
Still, Tucker expresses some guarded optimism. "Conservatives and Republicans — they as a platform issue have supported dams because in many cases dams allow for farming in the arid west," he says. "It's really difficult to explain that the dams we're talking about removing aren't going to affect irrigators."
Pushing the message, he says, is the responsibility of congressmen Doug LaMalfa and Greg Walden, who represent upper Klamath districts.
But recent support from traditionally conservative strongholds — Modoc County, as well as its cattlemen association and farm bureau — and grass-roots support being brought by upper Klamath irrigators bodes well. Tucker thinks that Congress will at least take up the KBRA in its current term.
"If you really want to solve the water crisis there's no other option on the table," he says.
This year, the section of the salmon run McAllister is organizing covers 150 miles, from Orleans To Chiloquin in Oregon, the heart of opposition to the KBRA. His daughters are scheduled to run a mile apiece. He and others will stop for photo ops, including on top of the Copco dams, where a PacifiCorp employee will let them in.
Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District Indian Education Director Margo Robbins carts vanloads of students to segments of the relay every year, and organizing the trek is so time consuming that no one has had much of a chance to promote the run outside of the community. But she's hopeful that's changing, that the message that a small group of Hoopa High School kids set out to spread 12 years ago is getting louder. With the help of Robbins, McAllister and others, a new generation of the Klamath community is learning how to fight — or run — for its river.