Twigs, stumps and logs that could become summer prop-busters for Applegate Lake anglers are being rounded up and corralled by a bearded water cowboy on a rusty old steed.
The Forest Service's John McKelligott is spending much of his spring aboard his Pond Bronc, collecting and hauling away woody debris at the high-mountain reservoir to make room for this year's crop of bass and trout anglers.
He maneuvers the tiny tugboat around the lake, using long strings of logs fastened together into large booms to surround the junk he then tugs methodically across the lake to a holding place in the lake's French Gulch Arm.
There, the large swath of driftwood will wait for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to draw down the reservoir and leave the mass high and dry.
Eventually, the logs will be stacked and burned with the help of Jackson County Community Justice crews next winter and spring — before McKelligott remounts the steel beast to do it all again.
The same equipment and style of work once common in large sawmill ponds allows McKelligott, a former Forest Service timber cruise, to act like a giant skimmer collecting junk off the Siskiyou Mountains' greatest reservoir.
"You can't get any more low-tech than this," says McKelligott, 54, a recreation technician for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which manages the lake's recreation.
But it's the perfect solution to the problem that debris can cause high-tech trout and bass anglers. More than 11,300 angler visits are recorded annually at Applegate Lake, making it Southern Oregon's second-most-popular lake behind Lost Creek Lake.
If left alone, the wood has a tendency to converge regularly at the base of the Hart-Tish Park boat ramp, the most popular ramp on the lake.
"Bass fishermen have to come in and start tossing wood aside before they can get their boats in," he says.
The rest of the wood floats around the lake like land mines, bending propellers. Luckily, McKelligott says, the lake's 10-mph speed limit does not make the wood a health hazard to waterskiers.
Regardless, it can't be left there during the summer fishing season.
"There's ungodly amounts of wood that end up in this lake every year and it's an ungodly amount of work to collect it," he says. "Until I get a handle on it and contain it, it's a negative impact to boaters. We'd give a lot of business to The Prop Doc."
Dealing with unwanted driftwood has been a problem at Applegate Lake before it was even a lake.
As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1970s began carving the 17-square-mile lake for flood-control and fisheries, random rafts of wood became a daily obstacle to construction crews.
Large firs and Ponderosa pines sloughed and fell into the area. During winter, the upper Applegate River Basin's notorious flash floods brought swaths of the forest into what was becoming the reservoir.
So the Corps brought in the ol' Pond Bronc, using it to collect and haul logs just like at mill sites.
When the agency finished the dam in 1980 and turned over management to the Forest Service, they also turned over the Pond Bronc, McKelligott says.
It sat unused on the back lot of the forest's Star Ranger Station until the New Year's Day flood of 1997.
The enormous flushing of water through the upstream mountains caused the lake to rise a foot an hour. When it was over, McKelligott says, two-thirds of the lake's surface was covered with logs and limbs.
"I just looked out at it and wept," he says.
Remembering the Pond Bronc and knowing how they can work log booms, he decided to give it a shot.
He spent half a year corralling, towing and stashing debris from that flood, and he's continued ever since.
For about four weeks a year, he finds the old booms along the exposed bank and starts collecting wood. McKelligott tows the rafts into the French Gulch arm, which now has a boom gate across it.
There, it's stacked in the arm's far eastern corner, and it should be out of the way of the French Gulch boat ramp by May 15, the start of the lake's recreation season.
"I have every expectation to open it again to the public by May 15," he says.
Until then, the Copper Boat Ramp is the only ramp available to anglers.
To ensure the wood doesn't return next winter, criminal justice crews spend weeks stacking the wood for burning in the winter and spring.
"I couldn't do this without them," he says.
And he couldn't do it without the Pond Bronc.
"It's been a love-hate relationship with this thing," McKelligott says. "I've almost sunk it. I've almost capsized it. But I don't know what will happen if this goes away."