Return to Camp Polk
Last updated 12/21/2021 at Noon
As we walked the old road, we could see glimpses of Whychus Creek, though most was hidden by a living screen of old cottonwoods, pines, and willow. It had been at least 23 years since Martin and Carolyn Winch first visited Camp Polk. We asked permission from the Deschutes Land Trust to enter the Camp Polk Meadow Preserve on this cool and sunny December day, to take a walk and look at several decades worth of restoration efforts by the Land Trust and its many partners and volunteers.
Martin has the singular perspective of someone who spent a decade on this special piece of land, rich in old west and Native American history. In 1998, he was a retired lawyer in search of meaningful work that he would love doing. He was steered to Brad Chalfant and the Land Trust and decided to join many others in helping fulfill the dream of salmon and steelhead returning to the Deschutes Basin, an idea that continues to energize those who love Central Oregon, its rivers, and wild fish.
Martin volunteered for the Land Trust from 1998-2008, removing traces and trash from over a hundred years of ranching at Camp Polk Meadow. Years of pulling miles of old barbwire, removing exotic knapweed and other non-native plants, and cutting small juniper to prepare the meadow for a transformation, and the creek back to its historic serpentine nature.
Forest Service Fish Biologist Mike Riehle found and traced aerial photos of Camp Polk meadow and the creek from 1943, before Whychus Creek was confined to one channel with bulldozers and backhoes by the Army Corp of Engineers. The channelization was to prevent repeat of the severe damage caused by the 1964 floods. The Corps moved the creek channel to the meadow edge and dried the wet meadow to help contain the creek’s wild ways.
After years of negotiations and the relicensing of Pelton Round Butte Dam, there were mitigation funds that fueled the dream of bringing steelhead and salmon back to their spawning waters. Collaborative energy speeded the process and in 2009 restoration began, digging to find the old gravels and reconstruct a restored channel that followed its ancient meanders. In this 50-year experiment using best science and hope, bulldozers and backhoes were needed again.
Brad Chalfant at the Land Trust also asked Martin to look into the story of the land. “That got me into the research thing,” Martin said modestly, which led to the publishing of his 2006 book “Biography of a Place- Passages through a Central Oregon Meadow,” an expansive view of Camp Polk’s history, from wet meadows to seasonal use by Sahaptin tribes who called an upstream area “Why-chus” and Paiute tribes who named it after the abundant tall rye grass — or “Sesequa or Sic-se-qua.”
Camp Polk had a short life one winter in 1865 as a Civil War-era fort, to provide protection to settlers from hostilities with neighboring tribes.
Martin’s research found that 40 men, ranging in age from 16-38, built winter quarters of eight cabins and a parade ground.
Half of the men were 5 feet 8 or shorter.
Twenty-nine were farmers, three blacksmiths, two teachers, and an assortment of tailors, tinners, and miners.
Two men served as musicians.
The Polk County guys slightly outnumbered Benton County guys, so they named it Camp Polk and Benton Creek.
They didn’t meet any hostilities and soon went home.
It was the early town site of Sisters, the first post office and store, a dairy, the site of the water-powered Duckett and Spoo Sawmill, and had a pioneer-era cemetery on the high ground in the middle of it all.
Martin described Camp Polk in 1998, “When I first came it was past being ranched and farmed. Earth-moving machines had moved the creek off the main meadow, which was mostly dry, growing cheatgrass. Invasive species thrived where the historic habitat had been changed. It was at the tail end of an era; it hadn’t started on a new era. I got to be there for the transition time, when the Land Trust got the property and it was in that condition. And I left exactly before the yellow machines came in.”
“Karen Allen (restoration specialist) was busy getting native plants in the ground and I got to start with early plantings that were up where the springs are. Some people could imagine bringing back the main portion of the meadow — somehow, someway. So, today I’m enjoying seeing it. I like to think about it, and I got a lot of the knapweed out before they started.” On our recent walk, as we approached the valley bottom, Martin pointed to a roadside patch of dry knapweed with disappointment that his battles with this invasive plant did not completely succeed. But the big changes were real.
Martin summed it up, saying, “I had beautiful times down here, but to look at it now? All that dream that started a decade before the yellow machines? It has come alive out here, there is no trace of the earth moving, and all the things that were supposed to grow — the grasses, and hopefully the fish and the water, and the trees and the wildness of it, have taken over. In the upper meadow, with the walking trail, the revegetation of the old corrals around the old barn, and the interpretive signs amaze me!”
It’s peaceful sitting in the sun listening to Whychus Creek’s water music, with white snowberry and rose hips glowing nearby, evening grosbeaks singing along, but the long cast of winter sun makes it feel like the day is ending, and soon a red-tail hawk tells us to scram. Grateful to Martin and the many people that believed in this dream, we leave Camp Polk to its wild
To learn more about Camp Polk and how to help with its restoration see: https://www.deschuteslandtrust.org/protected-lands/camp-polk-meadow-preserve/cpm-restor
To learn more about Camp Polk History see: https://www.deschuteslandtrust.org/protected-lands/camp-polk-meadow-preserve/cpm-cultural-history.