Make the McKenzie Connection!


McKenzie River Guides have cooperated for 85 years

3 Guides

EUGENE: At the turn of the last century a handful of hearty oarsmen began offering a new service  - fishing from a boat. Anglers attracted to the McKenzie River soon discovered that was a good idea. Not only could they avoid getting their lines caught in stream bank brush but a boat could maneuver closer to pools and eddies previously out of reach.

Since those early days the boats, access points to the water and equipment all have changed, but not the attitude of the people manning the oars. Three of them gave some insights into how professional guiding developed when they spoke as part of the McKenzie Memories program.

Some changes came about when the roads themselves began to improve beyond a muddy path. That allowed guides to trailer their boats further upstream and fish longer stretches of the river, according to Dana Burwell. That in itself would still be quite a chore since the early board and batten board boats the guides built themselves weighed between 500 to 600 pounds. Moving them involved hitching up a horse and wagon with a trailer behind.

A big change happened in 1931 when a bill in the Oregon legislature would have outlawed all fishing above Blue River. Reacting to that proposal, nine men decided to join together and form the McKenzie River Guides Association. The goals they chose - promoting sportsmanship and conservation of natural resources - remain in effect today, Burwell said. Over the decades the group has also been successful in opposing new dams while also promoting the preservation of the riparian zone, he added.

Don Wouda talked about some of the changes in fish populations over the years. In the earliest days limits on the amount of fish an angler could keep were really high at 120 per day. By 1920 the take had been cut back to 75. In the 50’s the number was down to 15, while today the number of “keepers” is five - and all are hatchery fish.

Over 60 years ago efforts to control spruce budworms had a huge impact on fish and the bugs they depended on for food. The U.S. Forest Service had implemented a DDT spray program that covered a million acres in 1952 but two years later it became apparent the insecticide had leached into McKenzie area waterways.

“The bug life disappeared for the most part and so did the big fish,” Wouda remembered. In res-

ponse, the guides association supported a plan to turn loose all fish caught that were over 14 inches. In hand with that, they created a “Rainbow Card” that was given to customers who participated.

“Everybody knew that fish was there for somebody else to catch,” he said. “The cards became collector’s items.”

At times, of course, there were bragging rights. The area drew a good collection of luminaries - from the film and music industry as well as politics. Among the best known was president Herbert Hoover. Schaefers said he primarily went fishing with Fred Harris on the oars but sometimes fished with Prince Helfrich. After his death, a story goes, all the guides claimed to be his guide.

As tourism developed, a number of resorts and lodges came into existence. Among the first were the Thomson Lodge in Vida, Sparks Ranch near Blue River, and the Nimrod Inn, as well as hotels at Belknap and Foley Springs. Checking over records, Schaefer counted some 30 different lodges and resorts that existed between 1930 and today.

To make sure fishing trips went smoothly members of the guides and their wives organized a boat parade that was an annual event from 1938 to 1968. Scheduled before the start of trout season every April, the outing allowed them to scout the river for potential water hazards as well as checking on areas to launch or take out boats.

The event drew other people who’d decided to tag along. By 1963 an estimated 300 “craft” were out on the water. Too often they weren’t much more than a bunch of inner tubes roped together by college fraternities interesting in making something outrageous that could float. Spec-tators, looking to watch potential spills, clogged the shoulders of the roadway - creating a 20-mile long traffic jam. Alcohol abuse, people not wearing life jackets and the amount of litter left behind, combined with potential liability issues, caused the guides to cancel their participation. Other than a few fender benders on the highway, there were no real problems during the 30 years of the original Boat Parade.

The next year another group decided to start it up again. Sadly, two people drowned that year. After another relaunch the following year, another person lost their life.

During the years they sponsored the parade, the guides positioned safety boats at different problem sites. Prior to 1980, when the McKenzie Fire Dept. took over, they were also called out to do river water rescues. However, the guides still respond after accidents to recover boats and vehicles from the water after an accident.

After an accident in 2000 when a father and son drowned, the guides and the fire dept. joined together to sponsor a free life jacket program. It now lends out from 300 to 400 jackets per year, available at stores and businesses throughout the Valley. In addition, it became a national model with other fire depts., lodges and marinas throughout the country adopted it for their own areas.

Other cooperative ventures include working with the Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife to plant hatchery raised fish in the river since 1950. Originally members of the association  designed and built special planter boats that allowed fish to be released through their bottoms as they backed them downstream. Today, planter boats are pontoons purchased by the guides that are used to release about 100,000 fish per year.

Schaefers said the guides outreach efforts involve supporting the Candlelighters Program at Portland’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and Wounded Warriors by hosting them for a day on the river.  Started a scholarship program for McKenzie Springfield and Thurston high schools in memory of Kent Robertson, a member who lost his life on the Rogue River.

In his windup for the night, Burwell encouraged people to thank the McKenzie River trust for acquiring the former Rosboro property in Finn Rock. He said they had, “Taken a huge step to protect miles of river, prime river where we all fish.”

McKenzie River Guides Steve Schaefers, Don Wouda, and Dana Burwell were on center stage for last Friday’s McKenzie Memories event, sponsored by the McKenzie River Trust.


McKenzie River Reflections


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