On August the 2nd, after bidding a fond farewell to the Ancient Redwoods RV Park, we headed north along the coast to our next destination. We had reservations at the Golden Bear RV Park near Klamath, California. We were also hoping to see a whale which had been hanging out in the Klamath River!
Along the route north, we stopped to see some Elk in a pasture. Bryn has this thing about seeing a bull elk in the wild. And we saw one! I’m not sure Bryn will be pleased until we see one while we are out hiking, but at least this was fairly close.
As we approached Klamath we passed a portable electronic message board indicating that we would need to slow down at the river and watch out for traffic. This had to be due to the whale! We hoped we would be able to see it. When we got to the bridge, sure enough the traffic was slow and people were lining both sides of the bridge and looking down into the water. State troopers were patrolling to keep traffic moving. It was a bit of a circus! We decided to drop off the trailer and return.
As it turns out, the park was less than a mile from the bridge. We had the trailer unhitched and set up within an hour and drove back to the river. It was amazing! The grey whale was slowly swimming around on the north side of the bridge, spiraling and flapping her fins into the air. The kids thought she was waving. Secretly, so did the adults. Then the whale would slowly swim back to the other side of the bridge and begin long, slow circles while regularly blowing huge plumes of mist from her blowhole. She spent a lot of time near the bridge, as if she wanted to communicate.
Of course it isn’t natural for whales to be this far upriver. When she first arrived in late June she had a calf with her. After a month her calf swam back out to the Pacific to join the rest of the whales which feed off of the coast, but the mother stayed behind. Scientists monitored her, and she seemed generally healthy. They also tried to motivate her to go back to the ocean using underwater speakers to play killer whale noises, but it didn’t work. The whale did provide quite a bit of tourism for sleepy little Klamath, a town with a population of 800. It is also home to the Yurok Tribe, who saw some significance in the whale’s presence. One tribal member had this to say:
“She would just swim back and forth right in front of you and at one point go like this, like she was waving at us,” recalled Janet Wortman, a member of the tribe and a partner in the Requa Inn bed and breakfast overlooking the river. “Silly me, I waved back. It was like she was there to see people. She went back and forth. It was almost like she was going, `Here I am, you guys. Can you see me?”’
I found that quote today, August 19th, when I did a Google search to see if the whale had gone back out to sea yet. Unfortunately, that did not happen. The whale beached herself and died at 4:19AM last Tuesday, the 16th. She was pulled on to shore and buried in tall willows after the Turok Tribe sang a song and said a prayer to send her to the afterlife, and scientists did a basic autopsy.
Janet Wortman’s great-grandmother’s cousin, Fannie Flounder, used to tell a story about a whale in a river.
“She said when the whale is in the river, it means the world is out of balance … things aren’t the way they should be,” said Wortman. “Fannie said you all need to get together and pray and dance and beat your feet on the ground and that will tilt the earth back the way it is supposed to be.”
While she was here, she gained much attention. Federal, state and local agencies coordinated in ways not normally seen. People from all over came to see her. She was seranaded with violins and flutes, and kayakers swam with her. Boat tours stopped by on their way to the ocean. Maybe she was just a wayward whale looking for a place to die, but before she was gone she brought people together. How many of us can say the same?
You can read more about the whale and her death here in the Native American Times.