Sunday, August 5, 2012

old man river

There's lore of a living legend out West, floating down the rapids of America's great rivers. Those who have seen him say he's got gills. He protects the life-giving canyons and inspires those who paddle with him to do the same.

Meet Dave Payne, the Forest Service River Ranger on the Klamath River in Northern California. All the above is true, save the gills, about this well-known river rat. Dave, originally from D.C., has patrolled the pools and banks of the Klamath for over thirty years with an unmatched devotion to watershed stewardship. Anyone who has paddled this treasure or gazed down at its pristine beaches from Highway 96 would agree.

Dave Payne at home on the Klamath River

I met Dave two years ago when I worked in Happy Camp. We were administering recreational surveys to paddlers on the Klamath to garner usage numbers and other statistics for the recreation arm of the Forest Service. During that summer, I was able to raft and paddle the Klamath with Dave and a flotilla of friends many times as a volunteer, helping to clean up river trash and eradicate invasive species of weeds on its banks. I had never whitewater rafted prior to heading West. Being from West Virginia, this came as a surprise to some, considering we have the Cheat, New and Gauley rivers - some of the most well-known and paddled rivers back East. Dave gladly accepted my greenhorn status and welcomed me to R2 with him for my first trip, meaning only two paddlers on an entire raft - Dave as a guide in back, and myself paddling ferociously in the front. Since then I've gone down the Klamath many times, each time fulfilling a different volunteer goal. We've done everything from pulling bent bridge steel from the 1964 flood to rigging cables and pulleys to removing a driftboat and a sunken dredge from the river's gold mining days. Dave's biggest battle is eradicating an invasive weed called Scotch Broom from the Klamath watershed. Dave is so dedicated that he maintains his own Klamath Broomslayers Facebook page, keeping current and past volunteers up to date on his never-ending project. I couldn't find specific numbers as of press time, but I do know he has pulled tens of thousands of Scotch Broom seedlings, whips and queens.

I once saw a bumper sticker that read "We all live downstream." I always thought it was interesting, but it took on a whole new meaning after learning about river conservation from Dave. From the downfalls of dams to the damage from gold mining, from fishery habitats to the importance of tributary health, Dave has a lot to teach. Fortunately, his knowledge is being passed down to dedicated and passionate young people. Every summer, Dave hires two seasonal interns from the Student Conservation Association (SCA) to learn about watershed stewardship and assist him in his endless effort to save the Klamath. And every student of his leaves with the same passion and knowledge of river systems that he instilled upon me in my brief time spent on his raft - one of my best friends from my summer in Happy Camp, Lisa Byers, had just began kayaking when she headed West to intern with Dave. In just two summers, Lisa has become a badass kayaker, has paddled the Grand Canyon (not many people do this due to a lottery permit system for the Colorado River), and works in the permit office for the wild section of the Rogue River in Oregon.

Dave is the manifestation of the Klamath; the embodiment of the river system. He is always calm and collected and goes with the flow in any situation. When his seasonal schedule ends each year, he goes on vacation to paddle other rivers. Many who paddle out West know his name, and I feel honored to know him personally. Having floated the river three summers in a row, I look forward to future trips running through Dragon's Tooth and Rattlesnake rapids with Dave. Some question if he will ever retire, pending the Forest Service doesn't force him to. When he does, the Klamath will lose its biggest proponent, and hopefully we throw him one hell of a retirement party. But in uniform or not, he will continue fighting his battles, pulling broom and keeping his beaches clean. Like the song lyrically claims, he just keeps rolling along.


  1. Thanks for showing Dave an great recognition! All true and noteworthy. We will hate to see him go....when ever that happens! Becca of River Country Rafting.

  2. looking forward to meeting Dave.

  3. For sure Becca! Although we've met many interesting characters during our travels, Dave is certainly one of the most prolific and deserving figures of a tribute. May we all be fortunate enough to paddle with him and have a shot at the croquet title!

  4. Plus he is just a nice guy. The easiest person I have ever worked with while commercial rafting.