As Thomas Willson recounts, in September 2002, a vanguard of the fall salmon migration passed the coastal sandbar at Requa, California, and entered the mouth of the Klamath. The fish swam as far upstream as Blue Creek, a popular deep-pool gathering ground for their run up the river. Then, perhaps because the water in the slack river was so warm, they retreated back to the estuary. Rain in the Siskiyou Mountains cooled the river enough to encourage the fish to head back upstream, but when the weather turned sunny and hot, the fish, wearied by the false start and weakened by infections, didn't get far: At least 30,000 chinook salmon died in the lower 40 miles. Their carcasses carpeted the Klamath's banks in one of the largest adult fish die-offs in U.S. history.
The root causes of the massive fish kill remain disputed—there had been warmer temperatures and lower water levels, without disaster—but it certainly seemed to fulfill the dire prophesy of those who had opposed the opening of the floodgates and the constriction of river flows. Indian tribes and farmers and commercial ocean fishermen (who can have their seasons curtailed when salmon are scarce) confronted each other over flow rates and toxic algae, environmentalists insisted that farmers be evicted from leased land on Klamath wildlife refuges, and almost everyone squared off against Pacific Power, the company that owned the hydroelectric dams controlling the flow of the water. An epic American free-for-all erupted.
In the annals of father-to-son enterprises, the three-generation Kandra franchise may not boast the longevity of Willson & Co., but it can still be expressed in epic terms: Kandras have cultivated Klamath land ever since it became land. The two stretches of open field and farmyard homesteaded by Steve Kandra's grandfather and father look as solid as slab granite, but they bear liquid names: Lower Klamath Lake to the west, and Tule Lake to the east. A little over a century ago, they were just that: expansive lakes.
Beginning in the early 1900s, in a mammoth engineering endeavor christened the Klamath Reclamation Project, much of the lake water was drained by the U.S. Reclamation Service to create new farms, more than 100,000 acres of them, and the new land was irrigated to make it arable. Hundreds of miles of canals and tunnels were built, and massive pumps installed to sluice water in and out. The "reclaimed" land in Tule Lake Basin was homesteaded, much of it by returning veterans of both World Wars whose names were drawn from a pickle jar; the farmers planted alfalfa, grain, potatoes, and onions on some of the most fertile soil in the West. Fertile because, as Kandra noted, shouting over the roar of his baler as he traced windrows of alfalfa in the headlights of his John Deere, "down below us is a thousand feet of goose poop. It's old lake bottom. We're farming the top of a custard—you know how custard has a skin on it? We're on top of the skin."