Eforts by conservation groups are underway to reverse damage from unmanaged gold mining in the 1940s, which turned part of the river into a rocky channel without the river bends and pools necessary for trout and salmon to spawn. Soil erosion in the meadows and along the riverbanks, also a result of mining, removed habitat and many of the nutrients and habitat necessary to support trees, shrubs, and fish.
First of all, you have to get the right river—there are two John Day Rivers in Oregon. And then you have to locate the proper fork, since the big John Day has four major tributaries: the mainstem John Day, the North Fork John Day, the South Fork John Day, and the Middle Fork John Day. They’re all named after John Day, an early-19th-century explorer who wandered around this arid part of Oregon between the Blue Mountains and the Cascade range in the winter of 1811 to 1812. It’s kind of a strange choice, naming so many rivers after a guy who got lost.
Maybe Oregon has a lack of imagination when it comes to naming rivers, but they got everything else right. The John Day is the second-longest dam-free river in the United States, and it’s never had fish hatcheries—which means it’s like a paradise for Chinook salmon and steelhead. Unlike John Day, these magnificent fish don’t need maps; they simply wrestle upstream for 484 miles (779km) from the Pacific to get to the gravel shallows of the Middle Fork John Day River, where they spend their summers getting ready to spawn. It isn’t easy—they have to get around three major Columbia River dams en route—but they persist, faithful to some age-old instinct.
Named for the homesteading family who owned the land, the Dunstan refuge is run by a collaboration of conservationists who’ve taken over 4 1 / 2 miles (7.2km) of the river, on former ranch land. This stretch of the Middle Fork is a major breeding ground for redband trout, bull trout, and Pacific lamprey as well as the steelhead and salmon. The first challenge is to get the river back to its original meandering course, altered by gold miners in the early 1940s. The straightened river just doesn’t have the shallows and pools in which fish spawn best, and it’s not as good for growing the alders, cottonwoods, and willows that shade the river waters to keep them cool. Along with that rechanneling, ecologists are clearing the loose rock detritus that the miners left, which ruined several riverside meadows. They’re also thinning the tangled upland forests of ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, where you may be able to spot Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, grouse, sandhill cranes, Canada geese, and Columbia spotted frogs. Park your car anywhere along the highway and venture on foot into the woods, or find your way to the river’s banks and peer into the teeming shallows.
There have been setbacks—a 1996 wildfire, a court fight over plans to allow cattle grazing in nearby national forests, and record-high summer temperatures in 2007, which killed many salmon. But encouraged by increasing numbers of redds (salmon spawning nests) every year, the conservationists fight on—it’s the least they can do for the salmon and steelhead.